I am G. Patton Hughes and I publish a hyperlocal website in Paulding County Georgia.
My 21st Century Knight News Challenge is to write about how I am going to make money out of this hyperlocal new media venture. My goal is to share with you observations of a lone entrepreneur who had a new media idea and is trying to make it work.
I feel it important to set the stage for what will follow so bear with me while I present a little history. I’ll use a “QnA” format.
Q. The first question is how I came to start Paulding.com?
A. I was a writer and later editor for one of three weekly newspapers. I began playing with new media as early as 1994, becoming a forum geek in the days of Compuserve and the old AOL. I parlayed an ezine I started called Auctionland Online Report (about eBay and the online auction industry) in 1996 into a job as ‘[email protected]’ with the Times-Mirror’s Hartford Courant in 1997. When I went full time with auctionuniverse.com – I was no longer with the newspaper — I bought the domain Paulding.com as a ‘fall back’ if the Internet bubble burst. It did and that is how I came to start Paulding.com.
Q. Why Paulding County Georgia?
A. When I first came to Paulding county in 1989 the county had a population of about 38,000 residents, three stoplights and no four-lane. It did have a good location. Paulding is located 30 miles northwest of Atlanta. It has consistently ranked in top twenty fastest-growing counties in the nation since 1989.
Today the county has an estimated population of over 120,000 residents, two four-lane roads and more than 100 stoplight controlled intersections. It still has three weekly newspapers. One is locally owned, has the county legal business and hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. The others are free-distribution advertisers that use primarily local features as filler. There are a few quasi-slick monthly magazines, a handful of shoppers and coupon books. There are no radio stations and as it is dwarfed in population by the other metro Atlanta counties, it gets limited attention from the metro’s major media.
This has allowed Paulding.com to fill the niche as the main daily news source for this community.
The most distinctive aspect of the county is that it is a bedroom community with over 70 percent of its residents commuting to larger counties in the Atlanta MSA. About 16 percent of the county’s tax digest is commercial and balance residential property. Until recently, adjacent counties were host to the primary commercial centers serving the county.
I chose Paulding county as where I would ‘make my stand’ back in 1990. I figured back then that where there is growth; there is opportunity.
Q. What kind of software does Paulding.com use?
A. Paulding.com is based on the forum or message board approach to web 2.0. I use Invision Power Board, which is a relatively inexpensive commercial forum solution in a field where there are many vendors.
I chose it because it is customizable, provides a relatively easy method for members to upload pictures and otherwise interact and communicate. Another reason is that it was easy enough for this 50-something non-code warrior to install and administer.
The problem most in the media have with forums is that they typically are more demanding on those who run them than are blogs. Some have equated the task of keeping an open forum from self-destructing is a task somewhat akin to herding cats.
In many ways message boards are simply blogs with enhanced freedom for the reader to comment. Blogs are more popular because they restrict the freedom of those replying in a variety of ways; the most notable being replies are given second-billing (assuming replies are allowed at all). They are just more orderly.
In my mind, forums are just another variation of the content management system concept designed to provide enhanced tools for moderating large groups of content providers. They are naturally chaotic which to me helps them more accurately reflect reality.
The decision to use this software has in some ways turned the community into a mass of citizen journalists posting incidents as minor as a boom in the night.
That said, had Paulding.com been an aggregation of blogs, it would not be as popular in the community as it is today.
Q. How Popular is Paulding.com?
A. Paulding.com has 13,300+ registered members who have started some 123,000 topics and made some 1,553,000+ posts. Other stats here: http://www.paulding.com/usage says that the site’s main server delivers about 5 million pages a month delivered to some 350,000 visitors.
What this means is that Paulding.com is a community conversation. The breadth of the conversation is amazing from impromptu restaurant reviews to comments both pro and con on Al Gore’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The members have come to rely on themselves for breaking news stories from the high school coach who struck a student, to the posting of rough transcripts of the local emergency services scanners. (We have an entire forum just for these reports.)
The statistic I’m most proud of is that of the 13,345 members, some 6,868 (51.5%) have posted one or more times. Of that number some 1160 (8.7%) have posted 100 times or more. This suggests a participation rate of 48.4 – 42.8 – 8.7 which is much higher than that predicted by Dr. Neilsen and his accepted 90-9-1 participation metric.
The down side of this is that only a portion of the 1.5 million posts qualify as newsworthy. Instead, we find ourselves too often the scene for drama as personality conflicts in a group of 13,000+ folks are inevitable. Controlling this drama is one of the major challenges of managing the site but in a perverse way, the drama can make it real and contributes to the popularity.
Q. Has that popularity made Paulding.com a financial success?
A. I’ll be kind and say that Paulding.com’s financial performance is falling short of its potential. As owner and publisher of the site I am to blame.
Every small business is enormously dependent on its owner’s personal strengths and weaknesses. That makes the issue of making money from Paulding.com as much a personal challenge as it is a business challenge.
While I’m confident of my abilities as a new media visionary, the greater reality is that I’m an editorial and publishing geek, not a slick salesman.
Hence my challenge and my blog will detail how I get from here (popular success with lackluster financials) to there (unqualified success or crashing and burning). The outcome is not crystal.
Still, the idea is that if Paulding.com were to reach its potential, that success should be truly inspirational.
Q. How so?
A. Easy. Here is a site started by a small town writer/reporter/editor without a print component, without much of a bankroll and just a few new media skills who enlists and creates a community to cover itself, communicate with each other and even help the needy, chastise the greedy and keep their politicians in line. … That’s nice but if you add the line … and making good money while doing it; the narrative truly does become an inspiration.