WHAT QUITTING TAUGHT ME ABOUT RUNNING A LOCAL PUBLISHING BUSINESS
While earning her master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, Andaiye Taylor discovered that she had a passion for reporting stories about her hometown, Newark, N.J. In 2013, she launched Brick City Live, an online news startup that quickly won awards and community acclaim. The experience took such a toll on its founder that she nearly shut it down. Here is what she discovered and why she is still in business.
“Guess I have to quit.”
In the summer of 2016, I decided to walk away from BrickCityLive.com, the local news site I founded to cover my hometown of Newark, N.J. By that time, I had been running it for three years.
It was a heart-rending decision. I had worked doggedly to create and run the site. I had built a sizable local following and learned a lot along the way. But the venture had not achieved the economic sustainability I had hoped for. It had left me overworked, overextended and exhausted.
Time to pack it in.
I knew lots of people would be shocked when I announced my decision. By the numbers, the site had done well and was an important information source for many local readers. We published consistently, commanded tens of thousands of unique visitors monthly and had a substantial social media following — impressive for an independent, bootstrapped website aspiring to serve a city of more than a quarter-million people.
In terms of quality, we were headed in the right direction as well. Our readers gave us high marks in our annual surveys. Peers and mentors had flattering things to say about the site. One foundation granted us money to experiment with business and publishing models for news. Another offered me a job.
So what if I hadn’t put all the puzzle pieces together? I had unearthed an immense amount of insight into how to do effective local publishing in my community — and how not to. And yet, in the spring and summer of 2016, I could not shake my persistent fantasies of quitting. After months of trying to talk myself down, I finally confronted the question: What if I cut my losses and move on?
It all began with good intentions
It’s worth pausing here and going back to the origins of the site to explain what I got right and what I got wrong.
There was plenty to pick from on the “right” side of the ledger. I entered Columbia University’s School of Journalism in the summer of 2010 as a part-time student and knew I wanted to be a journalism entrepreneur. By the time I graduated two years later, I had written dozens of pieces about Newark. The city was rich with untold stories and was a microcosm for many issues and trends I found fascinating and consequential.
I asked myself the crucial question: Does the fact that I want to tell stories about Newark mean there’s a viable business model that will support doing it? I decided there just might be. One purpose of BrickCityLive.com would be to try to discover that model. I also committed myself to continuous learning about and engagement with critical issues in publishing experienced by other news organizations, both locally and around the country.
Right mindset, wrong choices
I had the intent, I had the energy, and I had a fairly healthy appreciation for how tough my mission was. But, boy, did I make some mistakes. In retrospect, they made my decision to quit almost inevitable.
I made a fateful decision a year after starting Brick City Live to also go back into the workforce and get a paying job. It was a challenge, but a net positive for the site because it provided me the income I needed. It would have worked even better if going back to work had been my plan from the beginning.
When I initially stopped working full-time to start Brick City, I lined up enough freelance writing and content strategy contracts to cover my costs — or so I thought. I didn’t foresee how much staff turnover there would be, or how much time I would spend chasing paychecks as a freelancer. And I couldn’t afford to run the site without an income.
If I had to do it again, I would have planned to limit my full-time work on Brick City to six months and focused on using that time to build the technology and editorial infrastructure to enable me to go back to work while continuing to run the site. Instead, I spent too much of my own time on reporting and story production and not enough on “executive work.” Work like revenue building, process creation and recruiting. That made it harder for me to leverage outside help when I had to divide my time between my day job and Brick City.
Too quick to dismiss banner ads
Before launching the site, I had spent the better part of my career working in digital advertising. I had a front-row seat to cratering ad prices that threatened the financial prospects of large publishers. For that reason, I decided I would not make banner ad, or ads embedded on a website, a cornerstone of the Brick City business model.
Instead, I attempted to create a citywide loyalty program. I theorized it would deliver value to our audience by offering incentives and savings and to businesses by encouraging repeat customers. We experimented with several iterations of this program, including a physical loyalty card and a stand-alone loyalty mobile app. In all of its forms, the businesses would pay to participate in the program. Customers could participate for free.
I’ve since learned that I was too quick to eschew banner ads and much too hasty to assume that loyalty should be the cornerstone of our revenue model.
Here’s what I overlooked: Even publishers exploring other business models use banner ads as part of their marketing mix. They do seek out ways to rely less on banner ad revenue, but, by and large, they aren’t forgoing them altogether.
I also didn’t consider that, if executed well, banner ads for local businesses could feel highly relevant to our readers. They visit BrickCityLive.com for local news and information, after all.
By the time 2016 arrived, I regretted not launching banner ads two or three years prior. That was time we missed forging relationships with small businesses and improving the ad experience. I also think that starting with banners would have made it easier to test and validate newer ideas like the loyalty program. It also would have helped the bottom line.
As for the loyalty program, we could barely give it away. I made the classic business mistake of falling in love with my own idea without finding out whether my target customers wanted what we were offering. I learned that businesses perceived our program as a burden: It would require more day-to-day management than they were willing to invest for a return that wasn’t obvious to them. The program never took off.
Failing to plan
In my day job, I’m responsible for creating content, but I have a large paid team of writers and designers who produce that content. This gives me the time to focus on defining what we’ll say, and how, before the creative work begins. The experience has taught me how much a well-considered and well-communicated strategy can inform everything that gets produced, even when I don’t personally produce it.
This strategic work includes defining our audience in terms of their information needs and the key questions they might ask. We want to understand how they like to consume information, when they want it and through what channels. All of this work should happen before a single story idea is defined.
When I started Brick City, I did some of this work but not nearly enough. Once I was out of the gate, it was hard to pull back from day-to-day publishing to get this strategic work done. Investing that time on the front end would have helped me pace myself properly and make more focused editorial decisions from the beginning. Instead, we consistently found ourselves on the back foot.
My lack of a documented strategy and process was compounded by another problem: my ambition.
When I conceived BrickCityLive.com, I saw a gold-star, small-but-mighty publication, delivering everything from incisive explainers and commentary to eye-opening profiles of local people and trends. I imagined a guide to local opportunities for fun and for personal development. I saw my team partnering to do occasional investigations that unpacked critical issues and made our community smarter.
In the beginning, try as I might, I had trouble putting these ideas in their proper place.
One of the most insidious habits I developed — insidious because it made me feel proud of the site when I indulged the habit — was to grasp at those types of ideas too early. There were a number of editorial projects I took on over the years that turned out great but required more resources than I could afford at that time. I should have had the foresight and discipline to defer those ideas and invest more time in the fundamentals instead.
These types of ambitious projects were emblematic of a vicious boom-and-bust cycle that characterized much of my time working on Brick City. By the time I decided to quit, I realized I was in the midst of the deepest, and most extended, bust of them all.
What quitting revealed
Even though Brick City had achieved a lot in three years, these mistakes added up to a situation that felt unsustainable. So I faced the music and decided to quit. Only then did the possibilities for a way forward reveal themselves.
I knew I couldn’t simply shut down the site without warning. I felt immense responsibility to my audience, to the people who had supported us and to my own personal and financial sacrifices over the previous few years.
I saw three options for moving on.
The first was to cease publishing new stories but to preserve the aspects of what had already been published that were evergreen. I considered creating a limited-edition print publication composed of profiles, photographs and other material that could work in that format. On the digital side, I thought about converting the site into a searchable archive of stories and images about Newark during the time period I had been publishing Brick City. Perhaps it could even find a home with trained digital archivists at the Newark Public Library. I estimated either of these projects could easily take six to nine months to complete.
Then I considered that instead of ending, Brick City could continue to produce new journalism without me.
The decision to quit gave me the distance to more fully appreciate the infrastructure I had created. There were the assets themselves: the site, social media accounts, email accounts and templates, video formats, an array of plug-ins and technologies comprising the digital experience. There was the automation — processes that pushed stories to social media and created our email digests without human intervention.
Maybe one of Newark’s universities could take over the Brick City infrastructure and use the site as a journalism learning laboratory. Before handing it over, I would need to clean it up and document everything so that others could step in and take the controls. That was easily three months of work on my part.
Or what if I went in the opposite direction? In addition to infrastructure, my years of reporting in Newark resulted in a huge list of contacts and sources — people with expertise and institutional knowledge who were almost always willing to share what they knew with the community.
What if, instead of institutional stewardship, I gave the site to everyone? It would be a way to use that same publishing infrastructure and to also consider and empower disparate and decentralized knowledge sources in the community. If I wanted to do that, I would need to build tools for fact-checking, filtering, community editing and moderation. Six months of work.
That's when I had the realization. By the time I finished doing the connecting, convincing, cleaning, streamlining and documentation necessary to make any one of the ideas launch-ready, it would be the type of project that I would not only be proud to be a part of, but that also would be a lot easier to operate.
This is how confronting my inclination to quit helped me understand how to re-create Brick City Live into a site that could do better for its community and be a sustainable venture for me and those who were yet to become a part of it.
Relaunching the concept
So Brick City and I were back on. Once I affirmed this, one of the first and most consequential set of questions I asked myself was how to define what excellence looked like at various levels of effort in terms of storytelling formats for the site.
What does an excellent 200-word post about an upcoming event look like? How about an excellent photo slideshow of a recent event? What about an excellent email Q&A with a fascinating person? When is it appropriate to use those formats, and for what types of stories is deeper reporting a must-have? Given our lean resources, how often can we reasonably publish more in-depth stories?
Thinking about quality storytelling in sustainable story formats was one of the most useful exercises I have ever undertaken for Brick City. It gave me a tool kit for planning our stories in a way that serves and respects our audience. It showed me what was sustainable and allowed me the time to contemplate how we would grow.
As for our audience, they didn’t seem to mind at all — or for that matter, to even notice. I credit that to our insistence on quality, plus the fact that more mindful story production enabled us to ramp up the frequency of publishing and actually provide more information. Our new pace gave our deeply reported stories more time to be absorbed by our audience. We also learned the art of re-circulating stories from our archives.
Happily, we’re cracking the code on the business model as well. Our considerable time creating a “calendar of record” for Newark has sparked an organic demand for featured listings. There’s so much information on the calendar that some event producers have asked to pay in order to stand out.
We’re working with Broadstreet Ads, an ad-serving technology built with small publishers in mind. It has enabled us to offer an attractive and meaningful banner ad experience to readers and advertisers, including options for self-service ad creation that will enable us to scale sustainably. And we’ve begun to experiment with sponsored content campaigns. We’ve noticed larger institutions are the most promising prospects here.
Perhaps most critically, I’m working with a smart and committed partner, Matthew Ling, to contemplate, create and manage our advertising products. His fresh perspective has made a significant difference already. Matt was the mind behind Brick City Live Tickets, a local ticketing service that enables event promoters to set up events and sell tickets through Brick City Live with lower service fees than they would pay through other online ticketing platforms. I’m not sure I would have ever thought of such a utility, but based on our projections, it has great potential to scale within our locale.
In this mix of revenue and product experiments, we see a pathway to sustainability.
My brief time contemplating the “life after” for Brick City Live — and for context, that lasted hours, not days — helped me to understand what our publication really is. I moved away from defining us solely by the stories we produced. I began defining us in terms of the sum total of what we do — much of it subterranean from our audience perspective.
Yes, we publish stories. But we also convene a community, cultivate sources, build commercial relationships with businesses and maintain an infrastructure that not only helps us to publish, but also gives us incredible access to the breadth of stories worth telling every day. Commandeering all those resources to benefit our audience and doing it in a sustainable way – that’s my job. And when I’m doing that well, once in a while I just may be able to go back to taking my sweet time writing carefully crafted stories.
Watch: BrickCityLive.com founder and editor Andaiye Taylor appears on ‘One-on-One with Steve Adubato’
4 Lessons in Local News Innovation from Brick City Live