This article is part of an LMA series on solutions and innovations at and for local media organizations, in which we explore the products, best practices, and strategy behind sustainable and thriving local journalism businesses.
By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
A slow-but-steady growth plan is accelerating for community news outlet TAPinto at the same time most journalism operations are managing decline.
What started as a hyperlocal news operation out of New Providence, New Jersey, has expanded into 85 editions across New York, New Jersey and Florida — up from 71 editions two years ago. The growth comes as franchisees invest in TAPinto and become owner-operators of their own online publications, which collectively garner 2.3 million readers as of June as well as 250,000 Facebook followers and 200,000-plus daily newsletter subscribers.
“We’re one of the only sustainable, scalable news models in the country,” Shapiro said. “And it’s a model that can work in basically any community in the country.”
TAPinto debuted in 2008 by Mike Shapiro and his wife, Lauryn as The Alternative Press. The name change occurred in December 2013 when the couple started to franchise the concept.
Shapiro said the model has a dual benefit of typically filling a news desert, thus helping to build a stronger community.
“That’s why it works best to keep it locally owned and operated and make sure they’re producing local news every day,” Shapiro said.
Franchisees range from journalists to business executives as well as realtors and financial investors who use TAPinto as a side business run by another operator. They make money through traditional online display advertisements as well as through sponsorships, branded content, email marketing and social media marketing.
There are also six print newspapers, including the Mahopac News, that white label the product to establish their online presence. Operators can even include nonprofit groups, including Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, which runs the Little Egg Harbor/Tuckerton edition, and colleges, such as St. Bonaventure University, which runs several student-led editions. Any operator has the choice to lead sales, content, both or neither, finding partners to balance the effort.
Another five franchises of various ownership models are expected to launch this year, Shapiro said, adding to a record seven already established in 2020 — up from five launches in a typical year.
To further drum up interest, TAPinto started hosting webinars in June for prospective franchisees. Both the June and July webinars each attracted about a dozen people.
Tim LeCras, director of franchise development and training, shared during the late July webinar that franchisee survey results show that revenue has grown monthly during the pandemic, and more growth is expected in the future.
He also introduced Jackie Lieberman, an early franchisee behind the TAPinto Westfield edition in New Jersey for the past 9 years. She also started the NJ Flavor section a couple of years ago, a standalone topic-based content hub for New Jersey TAPinto websites to freely use. It’s one of the first such regional platforms established by the company.
Lieberman has gained a better life balance since exchanging a traditional job in the industry for her own journalism endeavor. When she started NJ Flavor, she also hired a managing editor to take over the Westfield website, representing her first staff member.
The six-figure operation has overcome bumps in the road during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lieberman said, thanks to new clients who need to promote changes to their businesses during quarantine measures. In fact, she anticipates greener pastures on the other side of the looming recession.
“We also have more readers than ever now,” said Lieberman, who has 6,000 subscribers in Westfield alone. “Local news has become so important to people because we’re getting out that message daily about what’s happening. When the pandemic is over, I think it’s going to put all of us at TAPinto in a really good position.”
In fact, success has sustained across TAPinto. Shapiro credits a steady revenue increase to strong local relationships with business owners who read the digital-only publication for the growth.
“Those factors have led us to go against the grain in a good way,” he said.
They have also created creative solutions to help businesses facing hardships, creating a “grand reopening package” — the first such package created by TAPinto — that combines content marketing and traditional advertising with promotions on Facebook for an introductory price. What was originally intended as a short-term solution has evolved to become a regular sales offering, he said, because of its popularity.
“Whereas I think in other media companies it would take a lot longer to do something like that,” Shapiro said.
A front-end marketing platform is also making it easier for businesses to come to TAPinto franchisees, whether it be a press release placement or event announcement. And as a beta member of LMA’s Branded Content Project, they are gaining additional business insight that is handed down to franchisees. That includes the ability to leverage sponsored content on Facebook, an extra revenue stream that has already doubled since it launched in April and could triple by year’s end, Shapiro said.
Finding reliable new revenue streams gives Shapiro confidence he is still on pace to hit goals of 200-250 TAPinto sites in the next 3 years and 500-plus sites a decade from now. In order to help spur that level of growth, Shapiro’s future plans call for creating local contact lists that help get the word out about potentially launching.
He recommends journalism entrepreneurs at least reach out about his “turnkey” operation before investing in their own infrastructure
“What I’ve seen in my 12 years of doing this, the failure rate is incredibly high,” Shapiro said. “It’s unfortunate after people invested significant money in infrastructure — and that’s when they come and reach out to me.”
TAPinto is currently a small corporate operation, with only three full-time employees and another part-timer. In the next year, Shapiro intends to soon bring on a regional salesperson to sell across editions as well as a chief content officer to manage overlapping content opportunities.
Visit the TAPinto website for more information about franchising opportunities and upcoming franchise webinar dates.
Q&A with Tracie Powell on disrupting philanthropy, organizational culture, and challenges to the journalism industry