By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
While other media operations shrank in 2020, LOCAL Community News successfully executed expansion plans, launching the company’s fifth hyperlocal market in March just before the pandemic forced many businesses to shut down.
“It was never really a question of whether we still send this paper to press,” Publisher/CEO Jaselle Luna said, noting that South San Antonio has long been underserved and overlooked in news coverage despite the city’s overall growth. “Fortunately, it’s been really well-received by the community. I’m glad we did it even though I kind of held my breath there for a minute.”
The South San Antonio edition marks five markets total for LOCAL, which employs eight people, including a reporter and sales rep hired during recent expansion efforts. Luna leads the sales side, and Executive Editor Thomas Edwards, a veteran San Antonio journalist, leads editorial efforts.
The print editions are distributed for free each month to a combined 120,000 mailboxes, and the news website is updated regularly. The physical newspaper remains a vital way for LOCAL to reach the communities the company serves, said Luna, who aims to reach readers in the “most engaging way possible.”
“For some, it is still very much print and for others, they have moved a digital format,” she said. “We want to be progressive and still stay true to who we are.”
At the same time other independent operations are closing newsrooms and going 100% virtual, Luna chose to maintain a centralized space for LOCAL, relocating offices late last year. The operation didn’t move too far, only a few minutes from where it was based for the past eight years and within an easy drive of the new South San Antonio market.
“We felt it was really important to have a home base for everyone,” Luna said. “It would’ve been easy to cut expenses and just work from home or stay at our existing office and keep the same environment, but I really felt it was time to change it up.”
Luna has been with the company since 2012 when it first launched, buying out her co-founders in 2017 to assume full control of the operation. She hopes the new location “reinspires” staff amid big plans for 2021. That includes more hiring, new technology investments and at least one additional launch market — and possibly two market launches.
Her company’s momentum comes at the same time the legacy daily in town, the San Antonio Express-News, outsourced printing to Houston and relocated offices after decades in the same shop. The city’s alternative weekly, the San Antonio Current, also hit hard times during the pandemic, laying off staff in March.
LOCAL wasn’t immune from hardship, however, as revenues decreased by half when quarantine measures first kicked in. That’s when Luna penned a rare publisher note in each print edition reminding readers that LOCAL is also a small business suffering during COVID-19. Several clients have since returned as economic conditions improved.
“No one likes to feel alone in the struggles, and a lot of our clients know we’re truly a small and locally owned operation, so they truly feel for us,” she said. “It helps we’ve been in the market going on nine years now, so we’re a little bit more of a household name than when we first started.”
The operation still hasn’t fully recouped its advertisement losses from the pandemic, yet Luna has never asked for reader contributions — keeping the product 100% free to consume, she said. Instead, she hopes to build on the business’s digital product, which currently brings in about 10% of all company revenue.
“We’ll focus on our core audience by figuring out who is regularly visiting our site so we can keep them engaged,” Luna said. “It’s one thing to inform, it’s another to engage. That will really be my focus.”
But it is LOCAL’s combined print and digital reach that still stands out, she said.
“An impression is an impression,” Luna said. “We know the people we’re reaching from a print standpoint are loyal, local readers. Then the trick is how do we get print readers and online readers engaged in the same way.”