Local Media Association is profiling some of the first Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge winners in North America and how they’re putting funding to work developing sustainable business models, diversifying revenue streams, and increasing audience engagement. Watch the webinar from Sept. 29, which explores lessons from hyperlocal news expansions, including Wick Communications, Torstar Local, and Crosstown — all leveraging new technology to connect with untapped audiences.
By Emilie Lutostanski • Local News Resource Center
Torstar’s nimble but effective hyperlocal expansion strategy connects local community members to a new local news brand, and also to one another.
With funding from the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge, the Torstar Corp. division Torstar Local has launched 10 community engagement hubs — as an app and accompanying web platform — with more slated for 2021.
“Local news is very challenged and it keeps disappearing,” said Pam Laycock, senior vice president of transformation and strategy at Torstar. “Our objective is to find a new way that we can create a wonderful local experience in communities that is highly relevant and maybe slightly different than what we do today.”
Torstar Local aims its new local platform to deliver a robust local news and community engagement experience that is scalable and sustainable. With an app-first approach, this model for producing hyperlocal community content helps the company reach audiences beyond its print footprint, showcase the diverse interests in each community, and connect local businesses with relevant audiences, Laycock said.
With a test-and-learn approach, Torstar Local started with an operational launch about a year ago, replicating and building sites throughout the pandemic, and is now focused on audience and revenue development. The model was engineered for speed to demonstrate its potential for sustainability and scalability — functioning distinctly separate from other parts of the organization, which are also tasked with important transformation initiatives.
“We have actually constructed this as a journey. We started with just a few Locals on purpose so that we could learn with them and then expand more next year and the year after,” Laycock said.
One full-time staff member oversees the 10 local news brands. Part-time, contracted local community coordinators manage the local platforms, including user-generated content and timely freelanced journalism. Additionally, local sales professionals, paid on commission, offer local businesses some standard and unique digital marketing opportunities, and there are plans for branded content.
With this distributed workforce, Laycock said one challenge of launching the sites has been the logistics of getting to scale: bootstrapping common operations that can be replicated in each market.
“The independent community coordinator becomes sort of the cheerleader in the market, and they find a network of independent freelance journalists in the market who contribute,” Laycock said. “We knew this from the get-go, but we have found that we need to create — as much as possible for scalability and sustainability — a common way to do things.”
The linchpin for success in any of the new markets has been securing the right talent, Laycock said.
“To do this perfectly, you actually need a unicorn. You need somebody who gets content, somebody who is really comfortable going out there and talking to community groups and getting them signed on, and somebody to knock on the doors of all the local businesses and make some money,” Laycock said. “We’re getting better at the characteristics of a coordinator to look for in the recruiting process, and we’re also learning that you can see pretty quickly afterward if they fit or they don’t.”
Partnering for technology and marketing was also essential to launch the markets quickly and efficiently. Teams use Monday.com to organize the content calendar across 50 independent journalists and eight community coordinators. For audience acquisition and marketing planning, Torstar Local hired the digital marketing and services agency it uses for its own clients, Marketing 360, out of Denver. For the app and publishing platform, Torstar Local brought in Norway-based Innocode, which has a suite of technology that enables community groups and members to post content including events and articles.
“The momentum that we have been able to build with them, we would not have been able to do so without partnering,” Laycock said.
Organizationally, data is important to benchmark growth, and so far app downloads and website traffic has been growing steadily, Laycock said. Torstar is planning more brand launches in 2021 as it continues to learn from its initial 10 markets. The revenue model is a combination of advertising and, with time, subscription.
“We can start relatively quickly in each market, learning as we go, but the whole idea is to make it lightweight to stand up and fairly cost-effective to operate,” Laycock said. “We want to make sure that we can do this really well across a wide number of communities and meet our objective of sustaining local journalism.”