NAGS HEAD, NC — In August 2011, when Hurricane Irene menaced the Eastern seaboard, The Outer Banks Voice was less than a year old. Drawing its name from a 200-mile ribbon of North Carolina’s coastline, the online-only news source fed frequent updates to residents of this vulnerable area during the storm. The coverage was local, but clicks came from far and wide—many from readers in distant landlocked states. More than mere spectators, these were owners of vacation homes and long-time yearly visitors anxious to monitor the damage.
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Traffic swelled to 68,000 pageviews the day of the storm, nearly half as many as the site had received during the previous month. “We kicked butt with Irene,” says Rob Morris, the site’s editor and guiding force. “I was updating like every 15 minutes.”
The hurricane traffic demonstrated the demand for online breaking news reporting in the region. The lack of such coverage had long been obvious to Morris. There was little daily coverage to begin with, but, more recently, layoffs had exacerbated the problem. Morris himself was one of these layoffs, having run the Virginian-Pilot’s North Carolina section (based in Nags Head, on the Outer Banks) for a dozen years before losing his job in 2009. He later came back to the paper as a columnist, but, a year and a half after that, he watched as the paper’s owners scrapped the North Carolina edition he had helmed. The Coastland Times and Outer Banks Sentinel, other local competitors, did not publish in print daily; nor did they focus on breaking news on the web.
Not immediately sure what to do after his layoff, Morris golfed. “You can get pretty bored pretty fast doing that,” he says. Luckily, he was soon approached by Russel Lay, now The Outer Banks Voice’s president. Lay was writing an opinion and humor site focused on the area, called Russ’ Outer Banks Blog. He asked Morris if he wanted to team up. Morris told his buddy, “I was thinking the same thing.”
The initial plan was simple. The site would cover local government, crime, business, and arts. Morris would become the fledgling site’s sole reporter and news editor. Lay, who had previously worked as a banker and had no news experience, would write opinion columns and see to the business aspects. Together, they would sell ads and maintain the placement of them on the site. Freelance writers would contribute columns on subjects like food and wine.
Morris focused his coverage primarily on Dare County, which encompasses six towns dotting 110 miles of Outer Banks coastline — the bulk of the region. The site also covered stories in the neighboring counties, but to a lesser extent. Morris handled much of his reporting by phone, and by watching public meetings streamed online.
Under a recent partnership, The Outer Banks Voice shares a full-time reporter with a local radio station, Max Radio of the Carolinas. “We’re basically their newsroom,” Morris says. In return, the station markets the website and sells ads—meaning that Morris and Lay no longer have to. The change has boosted revenue. “They already had a territory and a client list,” Morris explains.
Not surprisingly in this coastal region, the real estate industry is perhaps the largest buyer of ads, along with car dealerships, restaurants, and other local businesses. “The real estate companies are trying to reach an audience outside of this area,” Morris explains. The fact that the site has a demonstrated readership beyond the Outer Banks, he says, “obviously makes it more attractive than the locally circulated newspapers.” The site is profitable, Morris reports, though he and Lay do not receive a living wage from it. This year, the site will pull in an expected “low six figures” in revenue, according to Morris.
A smartphone application is under development, but the site’s mobile strategy is in the early stages. If the budget allows, they will add additional news sections in 2013. Apart from that, no changes are planned to the business model, newsgathering approach, or the feel of the site.
For now, Morris says he will continue to emphasize getting news fast, a lynchpin of his strategy. Stories are often just a couple hundred words, or shorter. Longer features do run occasionally, but he chooses them selectively. “Unless you have something that deserves an investment of time and effort, you are better served by working fast and getting it up on the website,” he says. Literary flourishes, stylish writing — “I think that’s the newspaper model. It doesn’t work for a news website.”
The Outer Banks Voice Data
Name: The Outer Banks Voice
City: Nags Head
Principal Staff: Rob Morris, editor; Russ Lay, president.
Affiliations: Business and content partnership with Max Radio of the Carolinas; Content sharing agreement with Coastal Review Online (N.C. Coastal Federation); Content sharing with the Island Free Press.
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