DETROIT, MICHIGAN — It’s been six years since Paul Schutt and Brian Boyle founded Detroit-based Model D, a business news website that orients itself toward the positive side of the job loss-plagued Motor City. The site was the first of what would turn into Issue Media Group, a network of nineteen city-based websites, from Tampa Bay to Toronto. In each case, Schutt, Boyle, and a third business partner, Deepa Ramsinghani, have employed roughly the same template: optimistically-minded business, technology, and entrepreneurial news, served with a light touch and a dash of culture. Or, as Schutt says, “It’s Fast Company mashed up with Curbed,” referring to the business glossy and the chain of sleek local real estate blogs. “You don’t read it to find out who’s going out of business. You read it to find out who’s going into business.”
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Nearly all of the sites—nineteen in total, based in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Marlyland, Florida, Minnesota, and Canada—operate with a staff of five, including a publisher, who is responsible for the business end of things, and several editors, some who generate stories and others who are responsible for photography and video. Most of the sites are run like a magazine, with specific publication dates, as opposed to a more blog-like continual stream of stories. Each “issue,” published once or twice a week, contains more than a dozen new stories and features.
“I think the main thing is to be fresh,” says Jeff Hill, the local publisher of the network’s Grand Rapids, Michigan site, known as Rapid Growth Media. Hill says that his site, which publishes new stories every Wednesday night, averages up to 40,000 visitors a month. Those stories stick mainly to small business and environmental news, which Hill says the local newspaper, the Grand Rapids Press, doesn’t have the space or expertise to cover adequately. The site’s Sept. 29 issue, for example, included news of a new brewery and a feature on an environmentally conscious retail store, among other stories. His goal with the writing, Hill says, is to keep it aimed towards a general audience, and less so towards the number crunchers. “There’s a bunch of business publications, but they’re very left-brained,” Hill says. “We felt there was more of a need for right-brained coverage.”
Writers for each of the pieces are paid on a contractual basis, Schutt says, and are not full-time employees. Neither Schutt nor Hill would reveal pay rates, but Hill says that all of his writers have other jobs, and most are paid per story. Schutt says that around six hundred full- and part-time employees have written for the network of sites. “Because the newspapers are laying off so many people, we’re attracting incredible talent,” Schutt says, adding that recruiting events for the writers were a surprise. “I always thought that we’d show up and there’d be a room full of hipsters. But they’re certainly more in the thirties, forties, fifties range than they are in their twenties.”
Each site’s revenue comes mainly from underwriters, rather than from CPM or traffic-based advertising, a model that Schutt says takes after NPR. Local traffic numbers are simply too low to support a purely CPM-based approach to ads, Schutt says, though he declined to specify traffic numbers for any of the sites. The network also participates in a few ad networks, and makes some direct sales, but underwriters pay for most of the costs, Schutt says. Underwriters contribute on an annual basis to support coverage of a certain subject area, like banking or housing. In return, the underwriter will get advertisements in addition to the rights to republish some of the site’s material on their own website. “They don’t get to interfere with coverage,” says Schutt, who declined to give exact revenue numbers for the network. “But we do have a point of view, and that point of view is to cover growth and investment.” On Hill’s Grand Rapids site, for example, Rockford Construction, a local commercial contracting firm, recently sponsored the site’s development news.
Issue Media Group sites cover more than just business news; their stories focus on non-profits and governmental agencies as well. One post from last year that featured an innovative project at the Toronto Public Library, where, in addition to books, customers can “check out” humans: library members get to meet people with interesting life stories, and talk to them in half-hour blocks. More typical of the network’s coverage, however, are stories like this one, from the network’s Ann Arbor, Michigan site, that is more akin to something a newspaper might do: a 1,400-plus-word profile of an advertising company that is making waves by modernizing many of the auto industry’s marketing campaigns.
Before establishing Issue Media Group, Schutt worked for ten years in a tech firm, and his goal for the network, like many of the small businesses he covers, is simply more growth. Schutt, who did not have journalism background before launching the network, says he hopes to have “fifty or a hundred” of the sites up and running at some point in the future, and he is planning another half-dozen or so by this time next year. When asked more generally about his strategy, Schutt says that he and his partners are taking things market by market. The next step, he says, employing a business term for uncontested market space, is asking themselves, “Where is that next blue ocean?”
Issue Media Group Data
Name: Issue Media Group
Revenue Sources, other: Underwriting from local businesses
Principal Staff: Paul Schutt, Brian Boyle, and Deepa Ramsinghani, group publishers.
CMS: Custom System