This article is part of an LMA series on solutions and innovations at and for local media organizations, in which we explore the products, best practices, and strategy behind sustainable and thriving local journalism businesses.
By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
The recent proliferation of news startups sometimes overshadows the online journalism operations that launched earlier this decade. These earlier innovators, including the Charlotte Agenda, which earned $1 million in revenue only two years after launching, provide a blueprint for the latest sites to follow.
“Tomorrow’s publications were being born at that time,” said publisher Ted Williams, who founded Charlotte Agenda in 2015. “Our goal is to build an institution here in Charlotte that lasts 50 to 100 years.”
Charlotte Agenda is a digital news website that provides Charlotte-area readers useful content that better connects them to their community. Williams aspired to create a publication that helps readers solve problems and helps advertisers reach a local, active audience.
“Over the past year or so, we’ve started to layer on more deeply reported journalism,” Williams said.
The newsroom has doubled from three to six people in an effort to expand beyond lifestyle content. Williams said the decision to increase the editorial staff has paid for itself because of the quality work produced.
“Continuing to invest in journalists is the way to invest in journalism,” he said.
Those added positions come thanks to more than two dozen advertising partnerships between the Charlotte Agenda and major brands that are often based in North Carolina, such as Bojangles and Bank of America. Instead of traditional impression-based ad models, many of these partners are category exclusive and advertise in specific verticals. Bank of America, for example, is the only banking company that will have its ads posted across all banking and finance content.
Partnering clients also appear across newsletters and social media channels as part of sponsored content packages. The reach on Instagram is so large — 219,000 followers and counting — that it has provided a “halo effect” of sorts by attracting additional business.
“It’s not an add-on. A lot of clients would want Instagram first, because they’re really smart and they know that’s where a lot of the Charlotte audience is located,” Williams said.
Those partnerships make up about 65 percent of all revenue, Williams said. That booked revenue has helped the operation remain stable amid declining revenue because of coronavirus. He said his role as a local owner-operator also helps the private enterprise.
“We can run with a mindset of five to ten years rather than quarter-by-quarter financial performance,” Williams said.
Those partners benefit from a lack of “nickel and dime” programmatic advertising on the website. In fact, if there’s excess inventory, it goes to existing clients, he said.
Here is a breakdown of the four other revenue streams for the Charlotte Agenda:
While the idea of a jobs board may “seem really unsexy” and harken back to the glory days of print classifieds, Williams said the product is an expansion of an earlier offering. When Charlotte Agenda first started its newsletters, a “job of the day” would often be included, and the job board is simply an unplanned revenue stream based on reader reaction to that daily job posting.
The content has become especially popular during the pandemic-related economic downturn, which has caused an increase in job-seekers.
Event listings and campaigns
COVID-19 has depleted this usually reliable source of revenue, Williams said. But the Charlotte Agenda still has its foundation as a lifestyle resource for Charlotte-area readers, so the event listings are expected to make a comeback post-quarantine.
Similar to the jobs board, the events calendar may not be new but is overlooked too often as a reliable revenue source, Williams said.
Charlotte Agenda also hosts short-term, high-impact ad campaigns for client events that are typically seasonal or annual in nature. For example, the online publication worked with Bud Light at the start of the football season and with WeWork when the company opened a Charlotte location.
Annual City Guide
The fourth edition of the Annual City Guide, a once-per-year print publication for Charlotte newcomers, has already been distributed this year.
The print guide wasn’t part of Charlotte Agenda’s earliest offerings, yet it has become a big revenue driver that has been profitable since its first year, Williams said.
The otherwise digital-only operation decided to dive into print, he said, because the newcomers guide benefits from its extended shelf life.
“I always think, ‘What is the best medium for the information you’re trying to get people?’” Williams said.
Started only nine months ago, Agenda membership makes up the smallest but most-promising revenue stream for the Charlotte-based online operation. The membership model was established to ensure the publication’s sustainability for the next five years, Williams said.
Members are currently offered exclusive newsletters and events as well as the honor of supporting the operation.
“We’re still trying to figure out the right bundle,” he said. “We haven’t invested a lot in member programming yet.”
The member-only content will be driven by reader demand, Williams said. He anticipates events to be the primary driver of new memberships, but he doesn’t want the events to be small in scale — think South by Southwest as their inspiration.
“It’s easy to do mediocre events,” Williams said. “Rather than boutique events, we want to do live and in-person programming that really moves the needle.”