Charlotte Agenda's local news formula: fewer advertisers, deeper partnerships

If scarcity is dead on the Web, the Charlotte Agenda didn’t get the memo.

Charlotte Agenda is a North Carolina-based news site that launched earlier this year with a simple, if counter-intuitive advertising model: Rather than work with large group of advertisers on low-CPM display deals, the site plans to pursue big partnerships with a handful of local and regional brand advertisers. That, in theory, means more ad revenue.

“We’re trying to create a kind of boutique offering,” said Charlotte Agenda publisher Ted Williams. “For a brand looking for a long-term kind of deal, we want to be the go-to place for that. If they’re looking for people to buy carpets tomorrow, they should go someplace else.”

The site’s first — and so far only advertiser — is OrthoCarolina, a large orthopedics practice in the United States, which is signed up to run through the end of the year. The site plans to sell just 15 sponsorship “seats” to local brands for the entirety of 2016.

The challenge for local-news sites is that the focus on small communities constrains their ability to scale and spread costs across a large audience. That can be fatal on the Web, where most publishers are chasing scale over small audiences. A recent survey of local news sites found that only half of the 94 sites polled were profitable (though that’s higher than the 32 percent who said the same in 2013). Only 9 percent of the sites reported more than $500,000 in revenue.

Williams said he’s “far from naive” about that reality. “Local news online is a pretty mediocre business,” he admitted. “It’s a pretty bad space to be in financially, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any sustainable models.”

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The approach makes sense to Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. “Investing in relationships and engagement not just with your community but also with your advertisers makes a lot of sense right now,” he said. “But in the long term, they may want to create some lower-bar options to give businesses of different sizes a chance to get a toehold on the site and see what they can do.”

The Charlotte Agenda has also been successful on the audience side, at least by local-news standards: The site reached 185,000 unique readers, according to internal numbers (they’re too small to be measured by comScore). It also has 4,996  newsletter subscribers and 14,200 followers on Instagram. Charlotte itself has around 809,000 residents, according to the 2014 U.S. Census.

The site started out targeting young Charlotte residents with a mobile-first approach to local-events coverage. To that end, it has focused heavily on its daily newsletter, which is populated by the roughly 10 stories it publishes daily. There’s coverage of local restaurants, politics and job openings at local advertising agencies.

“The idea from the beginning was to be like a friend telling over a beer in a bar,” said Williams, who was formerly digital strategy director at The Charlotte Observer. “It’s all about being informal while covering the things that matter to people most.”

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