FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS — Not long ago Todd Gill and Dustin Bartholomew were part-time musicians working in advertising. In late 2007 they began blogging about the music scene around Fayetteville, Arkansas. Gill saw it as little more than a hobby, but bands, he found, were natural self-promoters, pushing friends and family to read their coverage. Interviewing musicians, reviewing shows, and running a calendar of events led to a small, dedicated readership. They called their site the Fayetteville Flyer.
[Profile updated April 17, 2012]
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It took a year before they started getting requests to post ads. “We said, ‘We don’t do ads,’” Gill explains. That stance didn’t last; they accepted their first ads in December of 2008. “It wasn’t long after that we borrowed some money, quit our jobs and started attending city council meetings,” Gill says. The next year, the merger of the free-is-for-suckers Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas pushed their major regional online competition for culture coverage behind a paywall. That became an equalizer for the two-man Flyer operation. “Anything we could do would get traction,” Gill says, “because it was free.”
They began attending meetings—city council, mainly, but also the occasional school board and the Advertising and Promotion Commission, a font of news about events and culture. Gill, who hadn’t touched journalism since his college days at the University of Arkansas, found himself learning on the job, trying to imitate the motions of the practiced reporters.
“The journalism side is terrifying at first,” Gill says. “I just literally watch reporters, figure out who they talk to. There’s nothing easy about reporting, but I’m finding it easier to learn that side of it than trying to learn business and marketing and advertising.”
The Flyer has benefitted from some mini-scoops—it was all over the world’s smallest Walmart opening on the University of Arkansas campus, for example—and has also gained traction by applying a young outlet’s fresh curiosity to old news problems.
The most recent mayoral election in Fayetteville featured five challengers to the incumbent. Without a clue as to how to distinguish among the six candidates, the Flyer invited all of them to be interviewed. To Bartholomew’s and Gill’s surprise, three consented. Once those three were published, the other three accepted. “It was scary to be interviewing mayoral candidates after we were mostly interviewing guitarists,” Gill says. “It was pretty real at that point.” But the conversations drove traffic.
The Flyer’s operations are still spartan; the office, a former gas station, requires a key to open the restrooms around back. It did, though, just start earning enough that its two principles began paying themselves. They’ve found revenue in a streamlined advertising model in which sponsors sign on for a one-year renewable contract to place ads on the site. As of February 2011, three dozen businesses (largely restaurants, bars and venues) were signed on to advertise. Each week, the Flyer calls the businesses and the businesses choose what they want the Flyer to promote, whether that’s a show or drink special. The buy-in from the scene they cover helps to establish the Flyer’s space. “It would be a lot more cutthroat if our competitors were free and they were putting their stuff up,” Gill says. “But [the local newspapers] still don’t publish to their site during the day. It might as well just be the same as getting it on your doorstep.”
[Update: The site’s advertiser base has not changed significantly since 2011. In 2012, the Flyer continues to work with a two-person staff, but has set goals for increasing unique pageviews. Gill would like to have half of the city’s population in unique pageviews per month. He says the Flyer is gradually meeting those expectations.]
Fayetteville Flyer Data
Name: Fayetteville Flyer
Principal Staff: Todd Gill, co-editor and publisher; Dustin Bartholomew, co-editor and publisher.