ELON, NORTH CAROLINA — Journalist Michelle Ferrier has been involved in creating online communities for over ten years, and was the editor of MytopiaCafe.com, a now-defunct hyperlocal news offering by the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Although MytopiaCafe gained a devoted following of 3,000 users, Ferrier argued in a 2009 piece for Poynter that the site was doomed from the beginning. In retrospect, Ferrier felt that the site tried to chew more than it could swallow—it should have started with a smaller geographic footprint or niche topic and then grown its operations and technological capabilities as it gained revenue.
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It’s a lesson that Ferrier has taken to heart with her new venture, LocallyGrownNews.com, a news “cooperative” that provides common technology, content, and marketing functions that will allow women to create news sites focused on local food issues in their communities.
“I recognized there were a lot of challenges to [the hyperlocal] model especially, with one or two person operations,” says Ferrier. “If there were content platforms and things for people to share, it might be more sustainable.”
In 2010, Ferrier, an associate professor at Elon University in North Carolina at their iMedia graduate program, was one of three winners of a New Media Women Entrepreneurs award given by the McCormick Foundation and J-Lab. She used the $10,000 to develop and launch a model site for the cooperative that serves the Greensboro and Winston-Salem regions in North Carolina. The site went live in April 2010, and is the start of what Ferrier intends to be a national network of sites as she recruits more journalists and bloggers into the cooperative.
“There are some communities nationwide that I think would be ripe for this kind of approach, and there’s some folks I’ve got in my targets,” says Ferrier. “The idea is really to scale it such that each woman would be responsible for her localized content and then also creating national or evergreen [content] that could be shared with other people in other cities.”
The person behind each respective site would bring their unique strengths and skills in reporting or advertising or design to the larger network. “Each hub brings something to the larger collaborative project,” says Ferrier. “That way all of our strengths can help build the organization.” Additionally, each site would also display advertising that is sold network-wide, and share in the LocallyGrownNews technology and web platforms. Once there are enough examples of successful LocallyGrownNews sites countrywide, Ferrier envisions charging new journalists or bloggers a franchising fee to launch sites in their regions.
Although the spirit of Ferrier’s idea is unique, it’s logic is not all that different from the bet on the scalability of local online news sites made by Patch: the bigger the network, the larger the shared revenue possibilities. “At the national level, we’re aggregating content from other sites and hopefully attracting national advertising as well,” Ferrier explains. Some specifics still need to be happered out, but Ferrier says that the more a given member of the network contributes to the larger cooperative via producing national content or other efforts, the larger her percentage of the network’s national ad revenues will be.
In addition to both local and national advertising, Ferrier hopes to launch another revenue stream: syndication of food articles produced by LocallyGrownNews contributors to paying hyperlocal sites around the country.
LocallyGrownNews is focused on food for several reasons. Ferrier says she was looking for subject matter that could create a sustained conversation in individual communities, but that also shared common trends nationally. By covering all aspects of local food—health, nutrition, economy, environment, politics—LocallyGrownNews insures that there is a central mission to each site but a diverse range of news and reporting opportunities.
Not to mention, Ferrier is passionate about local food. “I think you can categorize me as an evangelist,” she says. “I’ve always been an avid gardener and good cook, and so when the opportunity came to marry my personal interests like eating good food and farmers markets, it was a natural choice.”
For now, Ferrier is focused on proving the concept of the hyperlocal franchise. In October, LocallyGrownNews launched its first offshoot in Tampa Bay, Florida. Run by freelance food writer, vegan, and mom Dana Villamagna, the site is for “hard core locavores” as well as food producers, educators, and artisans. Ferrier, who is a former research associate in the digital media department at the University of Central Florida, was involved in the launch and will work with Villamagna as she brings LocallyGrownNews to Tampa Bay. “It’s really important to work with each of the women who are coming along and understand the dynamics and make sure they are successful,” she says.
Over the next year, Ferrier hopes to launch between six and ten more LocallyGrownNews sites around the country. “We have to have working models so people can see this,” she says.
Principal Staff: Dr. Michelle Ferrier, publisher and founder
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