The failure of newspapers in the United States has become a commonplace occurrence over the last few years. Newspapers are in the middle of a perfect storm– declining readership, higher prices for paper and newsprint, and intense competition for ad dollars. It is not yet clear how the gap left by these newspaper closings will be filled, but many experiments with new publishing models are underway. One such experiment is the HometownTimes.com, an online newspaper franchise founded in 2003 by Paul Baron.
Paul Baron is a successful serial entrepreneur who enjoys taking on tough challenges. He relished the opportunity to create what’s next for the future of journalism. Before starting the HometownTimes.com, he had already demonstrated his business acumen through telemarketing, mass-communication advancements, and even a popular New York restaurant. Today he is focused on filling what he sees as the growing gap in community news throughout the country. The company, headquartered in Georgia, now operates more than 500 internet-based news sites across the United States. I recently had the opportunity to ask Paul about his business and how he sees the emerging future of online journalism.
FPP: How did you first get involved in online journalism and what was your motivation to start the HometownTimes.com?
PB: The community in which I live, a suburb of Metro Atlanta, was being underserved by the regional newspaper. They were losing money, cutting costs, and the first areas cut to save money were the advertising, reporting, and distribution of the news and information relevant to the smaller local communities around the city.
FPP: Can you briefly describe the evolution and growth of the HometownTimes.com since its inception?
PB: A local entrepreneur, who is now my technical operations manager, founded an online news site to serve the community of Cumming, GA. He created CummingHome.com, which due to my prior observation and the realities of the dwindling coverage from the print media, became a hit with the community. While attracting a large percentage of the local population and many local advertisers seeking to attract a community audience to their products or services, I realized this model of hyper-local online news could be expanded to serve any community in the US … or anywhere.
FPP: How does the basic HometownTimes.com business model work?
PB: I formed HometownTimes.com to establish added value to the CummingHome.com site that started this model. I also wanted to create the systems, training, and support that would make it attractive, affordable, and easy to manage as a ‘turn-key’ business for anyone from the experienced journalist wanting to stay in touch with the issues of importance to the community in which he or she lives, to the stay-at-home mom or dad with some basic creative writing skills or otherwise connected to the community through organizations like the PTA, government, chamber of commerce, Rotary, etc. We also leverage the national presence of our 520+ sites today, with national advertisers that would never be likely to advertise with a local paper, but being able to deliver a total national audience with local focus is a key differentiator to the Hometowntimes.com business model. A franchisee can acquire a single community site for only $4,995.00 – including complete setup, training, and support to get started. Ongoing support is included as well, for a small monthly fee that includes placement of all ads, coupons, images & video, and the software technology to deliver the content from local reporting or advertorials.
FPP: What is the coverage area of a typical HometownTimes online newspaper?
PB: A small community of 10,000 – 100,000 is the typical coverage area; although multiple adjacent communities can be “bundled” to offer a better business opportunity to the local franchisee and value to local advertisers.
FPP: How does each HometownTimes.com paper establish its advertising base? Is the advertising all local or do you also supply ads through ad networks?
PB: The responsibility of the local owner/franchisee or reporters is to acquire local ads. Many local establishments may be franchises (e.g. Subway, Jiffy Lube, Mr. Handyman, etc.) or national brand companies (like airlines, cable companies, Starbucks, Home Depot, etc.); and Hometowntimes.com, as a company, secures national ad agreements and shares that revenue with our franchisees at the local level. We encourage our local owners to market their sites to the local community through traditional means (direct mail, posters in stores, billboards, ads in local print publications, etc.), networking organizations, becoming involved in the community, and by building original content onto their sites to attract both readers and advertisers.
FPP: How is content produced for each online paper in the HometownTimes.com family? Is there a basic formula to help determine the mix or is it up to each franchisee?
PB: Our franchisees are provided our Hometowntimes.com Content Management software and training to use this very easy to learn, intuitive application. They write their own stories, solicit content from their advertisers, or others in the community. Our training includes identification of sources. We also have our own proprietary software that can capture information, events, and post this to the sites – that service carries a very small fee, but is very useful in getting such items as obituaries, concert events, and more.
FPP: What is the profile of a typical HometownTimes.com franchise owner? Are there specific traits or background that you have found that make an owner more likely to be successful?
PB: The successful Hometowntimes.com local publisher/franchisee can be a stay-at-home mom/pop, an executive retiring who wants to be connected to the community through networking, a college graduate out of journalism or business school, or an experienced reporter or ad salesperson seeking to work from home. It can also be a more experienced general businessperson seeking to manage a team of reporters and salespersons, and who can take over a larger territory to manage the smaller community sites within that territory or metro market.
FPP: Many large daily newspapers have closed their doors in recent years. Do you see the same thing happening to smaller local/community print publications?
PB: Yes, if they don’t take advantage of technology to reach the audience they serve through, minimally, a responsive online version that complements and adds value for readers and advertisers.
FPP: What is HometownTimes.com competitive advantage against established community papers?
PB: National presence with local footprints and focus. And our technology and features that have proven to gain traction with readers and deliver value to advertisers. We’re using social networking, not in the traditional sense, but to quickly report news or information that might benefit those who have expressed interest in specific events or activities. For example, we can use Twitter or Facebook to alert a community of subscribers who have requested notifications of weather warnings, traffic jams, or the results of Friday night’s high school football game. Mobile text messaging is used to drive customers to stores offering a special discount to our readers.
FPP: How would you like to see HometownTimes.com evolve in the next few years?
PB: We want to provide a path to employment or financial independent ownership to thousands of people across the US. We see 3,000 community sites with franchisees delivering high-value local news, information, and events to their local audience and driving customer traffic to help their fellow local small businesses succeed and thrive. Also, we want to promote communication and interaction and growth to our country’s small towns. And, of course, we would like to see financial rewards go to our employees, shareholders, advertisers, partners, and franchisees.
FPP: What do you see as the long term future of news journalism in America in the coming years?
PB: It will only thrive with the technology that continues to leverage real time reporting and interaction with audiences. Those companies and solutions that take advantage and deliver a quality product will thrive. Hometowntimes.com looks forward to a bright future for journalism, journalists, readers, and America’s small businesses and communities – we are grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this emerging business model to serve communities at the local level to improve the quality of those residents and businesses.
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