A local startup with an emphasis on uplift looks to grow

The Vasbinder Fountain in downtown Mansfield

What’s the right formula for a for-profit, local online news startup in a smaller market?

There’s probably no single answer to that question. But in north-central Ohio, the people behind Richland Source say they have a recipe that’s working for them. It includes original content that’s free to read, a diversifying revenue base anchored by digital ads, engagement with live events, a relaxed approach to the traditional “church-state” divide—and an unapologetically upbeat attitude about the local community.

Richland Source is headquartered in Mansfield, the seat of Richland County and a city of a bit less than 50,000 people located midway between Cleveland and Columbus. It’s a part of the Rust Belt that has faced a “slow-motion butt-kicking” over the course of a few decades, Jay Allred, the site’s publisher, likes to say.

But the editorial vision behind the site, he adds, is “to tell the story of the community as a whole, rather than just the things that are challenging.” Or as Larry Phillips, the managing editor, puts it: “Not everything in Mansfield, Ohio, is a disaster.”

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Richland Source was launched in July 2013 with an investment from Carl Fernyak, the CEO of a local printer and copier supplier. Today, the site has six full-time editorial staffers, and is, Allred says, “on track” for a planned five-year path to profitability. It’s also expanding its reach: In March, the site launched Crawford Source, covering Richland’s neighbors to the west. This summer, it will move into Ashland County, over the eastern border.

The outlet delivers enterprise reporting on complicated local issues, like a recent multimedia piece exploring solutions to farmers’ flooding concerns. It also routinely covers council and school board meetings in Mansfield and Shelby, a nearby town.

But what most stands out about the editorial focus is an emphasis on uplift and community growth. “We believe it’s our obligation to put into the public record all of the things that people do in this community to make it a good place to live,” Allred says in a promotional video. That means plenty of features, local lore, schools, and youth sports, ranging from a piece about a day spent riding every Mansfield bus line to a story about a play written by a former high school basketball coach to a video series on how to prepare locally foraged food.

A widely shared feature about a “medical miracle” has a decidedly Christian point-of-view that took its cue, Phillips said, from the religious faith of the family at the center of the story. Another well-received recent article was about an elderly couple who walk the streets and pick up trash, just because it’s a nice thing to do. “It doesn’t sound big in the scope of all things that exist, but it matters to people in this area,” said David Yoder, the site’s platform and technology manager.

The approach also means keeping the news hole devoted to crime in check—even if that sacrifices some pageviews. And while Richland Source keeps an eye on tough stories like a police corruption case that recently shook Mansfield, it doesn’t attempt to offer comprehensive coverage. The local daily, the Gannett-owned Mansfield News Journal, said Phillips, covered it “gavel to gavel … exactly how the daily newspaper of record should be covering it.” Conversely, Richland Source focused only on the big events: the indictment, the opening and closing arguments, the verdict, and the sentencing.

Both Phillips and Allred have newspaper backgrounds. Allred grew up in a newspaper family—his father worked his way up from the mailroom to become publisher of the News Journal, where Allred himself was employed in the 1990s before what he calls a “long detour” in professional photography. Phillips, meanwhile, came to Richland Source after accepting a buyout from the Gannett paper in March 2015. He still feels a deep affinity for his former newsroom, but says he enjoys working with the young staff at a locally owned startup.

“We get to wear the white hat,” Philips said. “When we come on the scene, we just have this positive view about the website and our work.”

The idea is to extend that philosophy beyond the editorial output. After seeing a wave of requests for support and sponsorships from community groups, the staff recently decided to make a two-year commitment to live music and entertainment. The RichlandLIVE program convenes conversations about how to develop the local arts scene, and the site will offer $30,000 of in-kind advertising in the field, available via application to organizations and artists. Richland Source also hosts monthly “After Hours” performances by local artists in the newsroom, and the site is a sponsor of a concert series in a new outdoor performance space next to its office.

“We went on a limb a little bit,” Allred says. “We’re really trying to put a stamp on live entertainment because we believe very firmly that the cultural life in a city is really the city’s lifeblood.”

Finding ways to connect with community events can also create revenue opportunities: One brainstorm was to create popcorn bags for local high school sports games, with the news outlet’s logo on one side and advertisers on the other. This year, 70,000 of them will be in circulation.

But for now, digital display ads bring in about 90 percent of the revenue, Allred said. Richland Source has been able to attract local advertisers, but it’s looking to diversify its funding sources and get that down to at least 75 percent. The site has experimented with offering branding consultant services to local businesses, ventured into native advertising, and is slowly launching a reader membership program that will offer discounts from partner merchants and access to members-only events.

In one case, this experimentation has prompted questions. Last summer, a post at MediaShift noted that Richland Source had started a service writing press releases for local businesses and other groups–and reporters were sometimes called in to help, blurring the line between business and editorial. (For accounting purposes, the reporters’ time was billed to the site’s business budget.) After our interview, I followed up with Allred via email to ask if the unusual practice continues. “Periodically the company will ask a reporter or editor to help the business-side craft or edit a piece of sponsored content,” he replied.

He’s aware of the need to manage potential conflicts, Allred said, and to listen to concerns from editorial staff. “The bottom line however, is the bottom line. We are a small company built on teamwork and collaboration. We–and I would argue most startups in our space–don’t have the luxury to build walls between departments.” He prefers the metaphor of a “four-foot fence”–a boundary that allows for communication–and notes that sales staff sometimes pitch in to help the news side too, by taking photos.

One thing that’s not in the revenue plans: a paywall. Web traffic has grown at an average of 26 percent per quarter since the launch, up to 154,000 unique visitors in April, Allred said; 71 percent of site visits come via mobile, fueled by free iOS and Android apps and an investment in video technology. He declined to specify current revenue numbers, but said sales are up 55 percent over the same period last year, and April “was our best month ever.”

As the outlet looks to grow, he said, “it’s really important to lead with revenue and follow with coverage.” That’s what happened with the nascent Ashland Source in particular. One of the site’s major advertisers, OhioHealth, recently became the official sports medicine provider of Ashland University’s athletic program. That led to a deal in which the healthcare company sponsors coverage of the university sports teams, Allred said, adding that the site has “complete editorial independence.”

Amid the plans for growth, the site’s focus will remain local, original coverage. That’s at the heart of the appeal to readers and advertisers alike, Allred said.

“We’re working without a net—we don’t have a Reuters subscription, we haven’t ripped a story off the wire in three years,” he said. “If we don’t develop local content…”

Phillips finished his thought: “…then there is not any content.”

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.