How Businesses Can Work With LIONS – Local, Independent Online News Publishers
Tom has covered news in Bucks County for nearly 10 years for both newspapers and online publications. He previously wrote for the Journal Register’s Philadelphia area newspapers, for AOL’s Patch.com and launched the local news publication, Levittown Now.com in 2013. In the years since, the news organization has grown into one of the most widely read properties in the region.
This episode was recorded on May 21, 2020 during U.S. stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sarah and Tom were working from home.
How did you get started in the news business?
I always had an interest in current events and what was happening, and I grew an interest in journalism, TV, radio and online. Once I graduated high school, that was something I started to look into. I was working almost full time at an out-of-high-school job. I was going to college for communications and while in college they had us start a blog for one of our journalism classes to keep some notes. What happened was that people started reading the blog for information. From there, we started reporting on current events. That turned into freelance work with journal register company newspapers in Montgomery County and Bucks County.
I liked the local aspect in the place that I live. This led me to work for Patch. I learned from a really great team of vendors and reporters there. While Patch had a great concept, I don’t think it was executed in the best way business-wise. Since I was interested in the business side of journalism as well, I took everything I learned at Patch, and I decided to start my own local news publication. We picked nine communities to cover in lower Bucks County, especially in the Levittown area—our main focus. We picked those communities because there was a large number of small businesses and medium-sized businesses that were still family-owned.
There was also a really strong sense of community. There were several school districts. A lot is happening. You have everything from police chases and federal lawsuits to really positive stories that make national news. The area is also a pastor for New York and Philly markets. You have a lot of interesting people who work in those places, and a lot of people don’t realize they live in their neighborhoods. It was a good time and opportunity to launch, and we felt we could offer a different perspective than what was presently being offered. At that time, there was really big newspaper coverage. We took the patch model and drill down a little more on the communities. Then, we launched, and it took off.
You took that experience and launched Levittown Now. What has happened in the years since then? How much have you grown?
I was able to go launch Levittown Now about a month after leaving Patch. I started to make some plans, and I brought the Patch audience with me because they trusted the Patch brand. We took off really quickly at first and then plateaued for a bit, but later we began to grow more and more.
We were covering all different local things. One of the strategies that I thought was good was covering cop accidents and car accidents. Readers love that stuff. We used that to draw traffic in. From there, we built upon our new coverage, which now I think is second to none. We still covered the police news. Schools stories are also very popular. We cover a majority of business openings. If we drive by a state or know of it, we’re probably writing about it. That really helped us grow.
We also tried to get back to as many people as possible and answered the phone. Other organizations don’t always have that ability. I always tried to be down to earth. It’s always been my motto: Be flexible, be nimble, and be down to earth. And it’s worked out.
We’ve seen some changes in our media market over the past few years. Where I felt we had plateaued and it was almost impossible to grow more, we have now seen growth with an older audience. Specifically, people in their seventies, eighties, and a few in their nineties. It’s been interesting to see that growth. I can’t imagine we’ll grow anymore because I think we’ve had such good penetration, but who knows what will happen in the next few years.
Tell us about your team. I know when you first started it was pretty much just you. I know that your life has changed significantly since then. I’m imagining the way you produce the news has changed too. Tell us about that.
When we started, it was two people. It was a very small operation. One of those people ended up leaving. From there, I brought on two full-time equivalent positions and that worked out well. Both of them were with us for six years, and they were both interns. Eventually, they left. The past year I’ve been experimenting the using those salaries and putting them into hiring freelancers to report different types of stories on byline pieces and police blotters, so I could focus my reporting efforts on different things. It’s been an experiment to see which format works best, and I think we’re nearing the conclusion.
We have a stable of at least six freelancers who are regular every month, and usually every week, for reporting things. We also have ad sales consultants and an accountant that works with us. We’ve really grown. I think we’re finding our footing of what our footprint’s going to look like long from now.
I’ve talked to a lot of smaller publishers, both newspapers and online, and they all said it takes five to 10 years to figure out what your business is going to look like. In journalism, it’s a lot different than other startup businesses where, in a year, you might have most things figured out. At the time, I thought they were crazy for saying that, but now seven years later, I’m realizing they were a hundred percent right. While we’ve been steady and stable this whole time, we’ve made money. We also perfected what we were doing. I think COVID-19 aside, this is really going to be the year that we grow in the business side and the readership side. We’ve worked with national organizations on building better relationships with our readers. We’ve had a great relationship with the Facebook Journalism Project and Google News Initiative. We have a lot of really exciting stuff over the next year.
Are you seeing those opportunities continue to grow as local ownership of local newspapers shrinks?
Yes. A Google conference in Chicago had us out in December, which was a great opportunity. What Google did is they brought small, family-owned publishers, and everything from one-man bands or two employees to 300-employee organizations. There were also some larger representatives there from national or international organizations, but it was a lot of smaller, family-owned publications, or single owner publications.
There’s such a narrative out there where a lot of large news organizations and chains are having these financial issues, or they’re sucking all the money out of the community by laying everyone off. But, when you talk to smaller publishers, maybe it’s not a huge boom time, but they’re also not doing what big organizations are doing. A lot of them are doing well and in the process of growing. There are a lot of success stories with smaller publications. The bigger organizations suck up so much pension because their papers reach such a large portion of the population.
Let’s talk about local businesses here in Bucks County. When businesses, business leaders, executives, or community leaders think they have a story that is worth getting out and think they have something to share with the public, what is the best way to pitch you a story idea?
I’ve found what works best is establishing relationships. I think that was one thing that was my fault when we launched. I didn’t go out quick enough trying to meet as many business and marketing leaders, and VR people, which I could have sooner.
I also think organizations can do a better job at meeting journalists, publishers, and new managers. Get to know them because it makes that relationship more authentic.
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s local and what could be a good story angle, but it’s a little easier when you have a relationship with the organization or a person at that organization because you can talk over cell phone, and they can tell you what news information has a huge spin on it.
I always tell people I’d rather have too much than too little. I have some journalists who don’t like getting a million emails a day. Personally, I’d rather get a million emails a day than miss a huge story. But, I also think they should be valuable with it. I think a lot of people send me emails for minor things that don’t need a press release, or they invite you out to an event, or they have a ribbon-cutting for something that isn’t super newsworthy. Instead, they could send as a pitch they want to send you, and then you can run into if you want if it’s a slow news day. I think that is something journalists, PR people, and marketing executives need to work on. Find out what the other person wants and what works for them.
Sarah Larson: The spray and pray approach in PR is apparently still alive and well. Thankfully, we don’t do a lot of that at my agency. We really pride ourselves on getting to know the journalist. You have to understand that everything really is local, and you have to find a connection to that particular outlet’s audience to make it relevant.
Tom Sofield: Yes. One thing I found is that so many organizations think they should get on regional TV news or try to get national coverage. But, from what I hear from marketing people and what I see locally, it doesn’t always matter. While it’s nice for people to see you on the big TV news cast or they see a ten-second clip of an event, that doesn’t necessarily translate to reaching people in your audience because those organizations getting that attention can sometimes hurt them. You’re also not reaching as much of a target audience as you would be with a local newspaper, or a local, online news organization.
We had a study done last year where we’ve seen 82% of all adults in our coverage area visit our site at least once a month and usually multiple times more. You have to think, do you want somebody on TV who’s 50 miles away to see it, or do you want an organization that has a broad reach in your area to see it? Which one is a better use of your time and resources?
Sarah Larson: That is so interesting. I’m going to give you a chance to repeat that statistic. What did your study find?
Tom Sofield: We’ve reached 82% of all adults in the Levittown area at least once a month. I’m happy with that.
We talked about how COVID-19 has changed the way that we live our lives these days. Over the past few months, how has it changed the way that you’re reporting the news?
In some ways, it’s changed everything, and in other ways, it hasn’t changed at all. I think we’re just as focused on local news as we were before. In the early days of COVID-19 coverage, before all the shutdowns happened, we would get some emails from people saying that it was too much and that’s all we were focusing on. But actually, just last week I got a nice email from somebody who was always criticizing in the beginning, and they said that they saw as the coverage went on that it was really balanced.
We were covering school board meetings, government meetings once those things started back up. In the first two or three weeks of coronavirus, there was nothing but coronavirus because everything else was canceled or it had a coronavirus focus, like a birthday party that was a drive by or a shop that was trying to adjust.
I explained to that person who criticized in emails to us that I would love to go out and cover events like festivals and nonprofit events, but they just weren’t happening. Every single thing that I had scheduled and hired people to cover had been canceled now and through the summer. It’s really changed the way we operate from a news perspective, but also from a business perspective. We weren’t hard hit like some publishers, but publishers that relied almost entirely on events and advertising were completely decimated and wiped out. Some lost all their income and had to make it work.
I think we’ve always been diversified to some extent where we were not as hard hit. We’ve also received a nice grant from the Pennsylvania News Association and the Facebook Journalism Project that helped us fund our operations.
We seem to jump in a voluntary paid membership, which has helped to lessen the impact. One of the ways we’re doing to give back to our community is we’re going to be offering matching advertising grants in the next few weeks as businesses start to reopen. We’re able to do that because we were able to get some of those grant funds that took a little bit of the burden off us. We have a little bit more wiggle room, and we’re not furloughing or laying anyone off. I think that’s one good thing that we’ll be there to help out businesses. We’re a small business too, so we’re kind of in the same boat.
How will that matching advertising grant work for example?
I’ve gotten a lot of help from a media group out in the Midwest. Then were working on a program like this, and they launched the program name on a whole bunch of newspapers out in the Midwest. We traded some notes on what we were doing and received some information from them. Tomorrow, we’ll finalize this, but it seems like it’s going to be a program where if you were an industry impacted, you’ll submit a short application. Let’s say if you’re applying for a thousand-dollar grant, you’ll put in 500 dollars, and we’ll cover the rest. While on one hand, it’s a new contribution, on the other hand, that’s money that we’re not going to save. We’re willing to take a hit knowing that we’re helping our community recover. Hopefully, in the long term, we’re building a better relationship with those businesses.
I also hope it brings on some advertisers who were maybe on the fence about advertising or had previously thrown all their money into Google AdWords. We’re also offering nonprofits a little more generous of an opportunity, which is something that we’ve done for years. We’ve given lots of advertising to our nonprofits because they’re such an important part of our community.
Understanding that the pandemic is still going on, and things change and evolve constantly, and the next day’s story becomes the next day’s story, are we at a point now where non-COVID stories can get some attention?
I think so depending on what it is. I think if it was a ribbon cutting or a virtual ribbon cutting, I don’t know if we’re necessarily there yet. But, I think if you have a strong story about the way that you’re helping your business or you’re planning a big expansion, I think that’s something that will be getting attention. I know we’ve had several of our evening email news blasts that have gone out that have not been COVID-19 related as the leading story. They’ve mostly been big development projects. Police news, and school news, which parents are really clamoring for right now with all this uncertainty. I think we’re getting to the point where we’re able to move past just coronavirus all the time.
Are the school boards that you’re covering discussing the Fall yet and what it’s going to look like?
Nobody’s outright saying it, but it’s always the undertone in their conversations. So far, publicly they are all on board for school in the Fall with mitigation measures, but nobody’s said it for certain because there is so much uncertainty. Even the budgets which are due at the end of June in Pennsylvania, they’re still not a hundred percent locked in. Everyone’s trying to figure out if there’s federal aid and state aid coming, and how tax revenues are going to be impacted. It’s a moving target at this point.
One of the things I did want to give you a chance to talk about is the volume of communication that you get from PR agencies and businesses. On a typical day, how many emails or calls do you get from people who want to communicate with you?
Our general news email started from 78 emails a day on average, pre-coronavirus, which has been steady between 70 and 80 for probably two to three years. As of the end of April, I think we were averaging around 211 emails a day, which is a little bit insane. What made it different than usual is of those 70 emails we were averaging before, about a quarter were actually useful and for our area. With the 200, I don’t have the percentage, but a significant number were readers asking important questions about food delivery and school closures. That took a little bit of effort to try to answer as many as we could. Our team certainly didn’t answer all of them, but I tried to answer as many as I could.
I came up with some responses to questions. People were asking a lot of questions about schools and mail delivery. I had responses I could send back. More questions were on store closures, which was a big one when the stay-at-home order went into effect. I tried to manage it. We got phone calls on our advertising number for news tips, and I know I don’t have the number for that, but it was insane. Even to this day, it remains pretty steady. Of all the phone calls, probably about half were really for nonprofit, school or government. So, we were able to direct people there. We have a cheat sheet with all those numbers because people often call news organizations and journalists looking for help for housing or food insecurity, so we were already familiar with directing those people to the right resources.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen an uptick in out-of-state calls. You’re always going to have the local people call about the UFOs all the time or have some other issues going on, but nationally, especially with coronavirus, we’ve seen a lot of conspiracy theory emails. I don’t feel too special about those because they’re usually entered in the email field with about 50 other journalists at random news organizations.
One thing that makes me feel a little warm and fuzzy inside, is our essential workers, grocery stores and hospitals, have sent so many nice, thoughtful emails who are appreciative of our coverage. That was not something I was expecting and every time I see one, it’s such a nice feeling because you don’t get into journalism for appreciation, and it’s not something that really crosses your mind.
Sarah Larson: It really shows how hungry people are for information. Sometimes, people cherry-pick and they pick the information that suits their own frame of mind. But a lot of people just want some answers. Even if we don’t have the answer yet. We don’t know yet, but they just want to hear from someone. People want to listen and have somewhere to go for information.
Tom Sofield: I’ve always viewed the outreach as important. I’ve had people criticize, who I ended up meeting with in person and found that they were very reasonable people, but they were just mad at national news organizations that they felt were biased. I explain to them how my job works, and they talk about their feelings.
I’ve done that numerous times over the years with people to hear them, and then I can explain how journalism works because most people don’t know how the job works, especially not being affiliated with a larger organization. So, I think it’s good to meet those people because you can explain to them how the job works, and you learn from them too.
Sarah Larson: Absolutely. I used to do that too. I covered congressional politics and Bucks County government for many years, and people would send me angry emails, and I replied to almost every one of them. People don’t realize there’s an actual person on the other side, but there is. Let’s come and talk about it. You get some great story ideas when you just sit and talk to people.
Tom Sofield: You also get a different perspective. It’s one thing where you see naturally what everyone’s talking about are on Twitter, but even locally, most of the stuff people talk about, t’s things that I’ve never ever heard an actual voter talks about. So, I think that’s good when journalists get out of the bubble of hearing from super engaged political people and just talk to regular people who are the vast majority of voters.
There’s a question I wanted to be sure to ask you to give you an opportunity to talk about this fundraising that you did. What is one of the achievements that you are most proud of and why?
I think on one hand, just being in business all these years later, I would say launching a small business is the best and worst thing ever because you can start a morning having the highest height ever where things are going great. At the end of the day, you’re like, “Oh my God, why did I do this? Why didn’t I take that job?” That’s a regular feeling and I thought it was just me at first. Over the years, talking to other small business owners, I’ve been glad to hear I wasn’t a crazy person and that’s a regular feeling. I think one of the proudest achievements I have is that I’m able to eat, afford food and have a car and everything. I’m very proud of that.
I’m also proud of our impact. I never thought when we launched that we would have so many readers, and I never thought that we’d get so many advertiser members from our voluntary membership program and our advertisement.
Another achievement is hearing from businesses. Our businesses and advertisers have been with us for years. It’s been nice seeing the impact our advertising has on their products. I think a lot of people tend to go for a Facebook ad over a local news organization ad because it’s flashy media, and they can see the impact immediately. But, we found that a lot of those advertisements don’t work, and people spend a lot of money on that. Spending locally is great, and it keeps the money in the community.
Also, we’re proud of the impact that we’ve had on nonprofits. It’s always been hard to tally, but our best tally has been that our readers have helped raise over a hundred thousand dollars over the years. We have about $25,000 and probably more of donations to nonprofits through advertising and other services. That’s been a gratifying feeling.
Sarah Larson: One of the old sayings in journalism is the daily newspaper is a community’s conversation with itself. I think in today’s world, places like Levittown Now.com have become the hourly community conversation with itself. You can literally see how news is being shaped in the comments sections and in in the replies. And then the updates to the stories as things go on and acting as that connector to bring people together is so important. We thank you for your continued dedication to local news. Uh, your local news matters.
Tom, I’m so thrilled that you could join me today. It was so great to reconnect and see you again and talk about the local news landscape and how businesses can work with you to get their stories out and get their news out. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. I’m sure our listeners have too. Where can people learn more about your website?
We’ve been talking with Tom Sofield, publisher and editor of Levittown Now.com and Newtown, PA Now.com.
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