OLD Media Moves

Launching a business news Web site takes lots of work

September 30, 2008

Posted by Chris Roush

Aaron Kremer launched RichmondBizSense.com at the beginning of the year, and he’s now reaching more than 1,300 readers a day through his Web site and via an e-mail service.

A former intern on the Richmond Times-Dispatch business desk, Kremer attended graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication for a year, but left without completing his degree. (Disclosure: Kremer is one of my former Business Reporting students.)

After freelancing for a while in the Richmond market, the Willamsburg native decided to launch his own Web site. It helped, he noted, that there was no business weekly in Richmond competing against the daily.

Kremer talked about launching a business news Web site with Talking Biz News. What follows is an edited transcript.

1. How did you first become interested in creating a local business news Web site?

I started writing for the business desk at the Times-Dispatch, the daily in Richmond. I wasn’t there very long, but after my third month I had some ideas about how to make the weekly Metro Business section — which is supposed to imitate the weekly business magazine most other cities have — more dynamic. I told a few editors and they thought the ideas were good and told me to write a proposal. That sort of killed my mojo. Plus they didn’t hire me on full-time. So then I was freelancing and still thought there wasn’t enough business news coverage in town. I talked to one small business owner whom I trusted and she said a business news website was a great idea.

2. What went into the planning of the site?

It sort of developed ad hoc. At first I tried Word Press blog, but it didn’t match what I had in mind. So I scrapped that and hired a web developer in April 2007 and started working on designs with him. We were both just doing it on the side, so it took a while. We launched that first version on Jan. 1, 2008. I quit freelancing a few months later except for a few stories for Virginia Business magazine.

3. What features did you decide were most important?

Aaron KremerThe idea is to be the homepage for business news, which means ideally our readers don’t have to go anywhere else. Step one was to provide a solid newsfeed of all the stories from around the web that a Richmond business professional ought to know. I don’t use RSS. Instead I check all the sites every morning. We’ve gotten loads of compliments from readers who say they like having a personal guide for what stories to read from Inc. or the Washington Post, or the open part of the Wall Street Journal.

But we’re not just an aggregator. We also write the sort of local stories readers need. At first I was writing lengthy business features intended for business owners and entrepreneurs, but I quickly realized the content had to address running a business in Richmond with more actionable news. As much as possible we try to do so in an entertaining way. We’re publishing around 3 stories a day now.

4. How did you find funding?

I spent almost every penny I have. I didn’t intend to put so much into it, but I didn’t want to pull the plug, either. I also have a few side contracts that I work on that I use to help funnel money into the business. The good news is we’re just working out the final kinks now for a private investor. I met him while I was still writing for the Times-Dispatch.

When I started an LLC, he gave me some quick advice and told me to write a business plan and come talk to him again if I needed money. I did, but he couldn’t find any Richmonders who wanted to invest, so he invested. It’s not much, but it should keep us alive for one more year. I’d like to do another round of funding and partner with an established business media company that can bring in some of the sales expertise.

5. Your site has advertising. How did you first attract advertisers?

By giving it away free as long as the company provided a really attractive ad. Now we have a for-real rate card. We charge significantly less than anyone else in town, so some of the established companies have trouble saying no. That gives us some street cred, so to speak, and in six months the idea is to go back to them with solid stats and prove what a great buy it is.

But lining up advertisers is still a challenge. It’s not an easy product to sell. That’s why we built a pay-for-placement business wire. That’s a lot easier to sell because companies can see all the people who read their story, and it’s cost effective. We funnel those funds into the news operation.

6. So, when did you launch, and what were the kinks at the beginning?

We launched Jan. 1, 2008. I felt weird freelancing for the paper and trying to build a competing product. The website itself was also a huge kink. Each version of the website is also like a haunted house. You know it’s creaky and scary, but you try to just look straight ahead.

7. What strategies did you take to try to create traffic to the site?

To write the great business stories and hope people tell their business friends. If they need it, or enjoy it, they’ll keep coming back. We also have a marketing coordinator who uses the Web a lot — Twitter, Facebook, etc. I’m not convinced that really helps much. I get an email whenever someone forwards one of our stories, and I think that’s the best growth. It didn’t start happening until month seven.

8. Do you feel you’re competing with the Times-Dispatch’s business coverage?

Yes and no. We want Richmond business people to come to our site before the Times-Dispatch’s website, but we also want business professionals to need more news. When the Times-Dispatch writes well-reported stories, I put a link in our daily e-mail, which helps us offer more news to our subscribers. I think the current situation is best: a decent business section at the Times-Dispatch but a lousy website. In some sense, we’re trying to create demand for a new product — business news. If the local paper had more of it, then people would be more used to consuming it. We want people to spend more time with local business news.

9. How important to your success is it that there’s no weekly business newspaper in Richmond, like a lot of other metro markets?

That’s key. We wouldn’t have tried this if there was a weekly here. It’s the main reason we pulled the trigger. I talked to a handful of publishers and they all said that Richmond is one of the largest markets without a business weekly.

10. Where did you find your writers?

I still write a fair amount of the content. Occasionally we use established Richmond freelancers (some have written for Entrepreneur and Inc.). We also have an entry-level staff reporter. I e-mailed every business reporting professor and journalism professor in Virginia and D.C. and every editor at every college paper.

11. When did you hope to find more full-time staffers?

I’d like a few talented freelancers first — people who can write strategy pieces about the big companies here. But I could see bringing on another young reporter next summer. It all depends on the revenue.

12. What would you like to change or improve about the site?

I’d like to move to a better template that allows us to highlight more stories every day. I’d like to add a forum where business people can post questions and answers. I’d also like to get better at organizing content. We cover a little of everything — banking, retail, commercial real estate, big businesses, startups. I’d also like to add more opinions/columns. Our stats suggest that tightly written commentary is very popular. I’m not sure yet how to balance our objective reporting with commentary.

13. What’s your current traffic like?

Some days are better than others. Between the daily e-mail and the Website, we’re reaching around 1,300 unique visitors a day. That’s probably not quite enough for the business to succeed, but it’s better than the 30 visitors we had in February.

14. Future plans?

To make this succeed. If it does, then I can branch out to other markets and try to help traditional newspapers figure out how to grow their business coverage, and how to make it very profitable. There are a lot of small businesses that would advertise if they knew they could reach all the other business professionals in their area. Newspapers haven’t been strong at figuring out that side of the business.

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