The man who saved his local news site in two days

Tran Longmoore. Courtesy photo. Photo by Tulika Bose.

After five years, Tran Longmoore decided to quit doing the thing he loved the most.

Longmoore, 46, could no longer afford covering the town of Saline, Michigan, population 8,810, with his digital-only news site. In an August 5 article titled “The Saline Post Is Calling it Quits,” he informed readers that “for various reasons, I simply failed to generate the revenue I required to continue publishing.”

“I kind of neglected ad revenue and making sure it was healthy for the website,” Longmoore tells CJR. “I thought it was time to stop what I was doing, quit the experiment, and start making some money.” He decided to pursue a job in public relations or social media to make ends meet.

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“I felt sad that I was giving up something I built. I also feared I might give up a lot of relationships,” Longmoore says. “As a reporter, you built relationships you wouldn’t have otherwise, and you might lose them when that’s over.”

But everything changed pretty quickly. Shortly after he posted the going-out-of-business note, people in town texted him and reached out on social media and begged him to reconsider. So, he posted a call for donations through PayPal a day after his goodbye note, and 24 hours later he found the funding to keep reporting.

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What follows is the story of his fortune as told to CJR by the man behind the site. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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For the most part I stayed away from my computer when I posted the note. My wife, Andrea Worthing, and I walked in the park that day with our beagle mix, Cokie. My wife calls him Coco, but I call him Cokie. There were a whole bunch of responses on Facebook and Twitter. I was just ignoring them; I wanted to get away from it for a little bit. Then I got a couple texts from people in town saying, “put out a call, people are ready to give you money.” I didn’t think people actually would because I had already done it. I talked to my wife, and she knew I wanted to keep doing it, so I had to come up with a number for how much I needed to keep it going. So, we came up with a figure: We needed at least $1,000 a month. If our call on Paypal worked out, great. If not, we would refund those donations. I don’t think we were up 24 hours when we hit our goal, which are all recurring contributions.

Overall, we got at least $1,600 in recurring donations. The other day I got a $200 check from a lady who likes our stuff. The soccer team also held a fundraiser and gave us $200. I put up calls for donations in the past, but [they] didn’t generate much revenue. There was a box sitting there on the site for a year, but people kind of ignored it cause everybody does. You might see the box, but unless you have an urgent reason to [donate] it seems like people don’t. Announcing the closure before asking for the money to keep it going was sort of a jolt that caught attention. People have said “that was a great idea,” and I wish that I could claim that I thought of it. But if I was smart enough to think of these things, I would have done it before. You have to be a content marketer and everything now.

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Tran Longmoore, left, and wife Andrea Worthing cover a Saline High School football game. Photo by Pete Draugalis.

It was humbling; I felt really grateful. I felt a little bit scared to be honest, because you write a lot of things and you forget people read them. It’s kind of weird to know people value it that much. It’s a little bit scary because you gotta step up your game and do more to serve the readers because they are out there, and now they have put some money on you. I’m not charging for it, they are voluntarily paid for it. In a way, the people who donated to me, they didn’t just donate to me; they donated to the whole town because now everyone has free news. The neighbors wonder what happened with the fire at the marijuana growhouse, they can know because their other neighbors made it possible.

I’ve been running this site since 2012. Before that, I worked for Patch.com, covering Saline for two years. I learned a lot from [Patch], and I learned a lot about what not to do. The [incumbent] mayor was in the race for state representative, and the Republican candidate bought an advertising package from Patch. He complained about the amount of coverage the mayor was getting on the site. He didn’t live in Saline, so I didn’t give him the same kind of coverage. So my editor told me any future content about the mayor has to be approved. At that point, I was out. I was also getting myself into trouble on the corporate conference calls every week. I quit Patch and started my site the same day. (Patch had not responded to a CJR inquiry when this story went live.)

I was already working hard. I’m not trying to brag about it, but I think people knew I invested a lot into it. I’m doing it myself. I still make a lot of stupid mistakes and I don’t edit my stuff very well. I just kind of feel like I owe it to people to step that up a little bit more than I did. I don’t know if I can put in more hours but moving into the town has made that a lot easier.

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For the past 30 days, we’ve had 327,000 pageviews. Crime and fire stories typically do well. I recently wrote a column that got a lot of attention about a homecoming float made by a Saline freshman that upset Ann Arbor Pioneer [high school] students. It’s a silly controversy. I don’t write opinion columns often, but I wrote one saying it’s ridiculous that this is a story at all. That one probably got about 50,000 pageviews by itself. For us that’s huge.

I have to continue to look for revenue streams. There are a few things I want to do editorially that I can’t now, like attend more government meetings. Even though it’s not a lot interesting to people, it is one of the main roles of the press. I also want to do features on interesting people. I feel good that I can do this, but I don’t have to worry about selling more ads. If one of my advertisers decides he or she doesn’t want to participate, I don’t have to stress out. I’ve been meeting with a local independently-owned newspaper called The Sun-Times for a partnership. They cover Saline and five other towns in the area. They might pay for my stories, which would be another source of revenue.  

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.