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
Since taking over the Long Beach Post in 2018, publisher David Sommers has successfully realized his goal to run on reader revenue instead of programmatic ads. The operation has also grown significantly, going from four employees to 24 people, primarily journalists.
The news website, started in 2007, continued operating as a small newsroom in the years following the 2011 death of its co-founder, Shaun Lumachi. Then in 2018, Sommers, who was a close friend of Lumachi’s, established a business plan with local investment group Pacific6 Enterprises to expand the Long Beach Post newsroom to become the largest in the city.
The ownership team, which all hails from Long Beach, has been supportive, Sommers said.
“I don’t have to focus on maximizing my profit margin,” he said. “They gave me the runway and the investment we needed to execute this plan and do something important for the community.”
From the start, a three-part plan was in the works to pursue and secure reader revenue.
1. Grow the journalism
“You have to grow the journalism first,” Sommers said. “Otherwise, you have nothing to take to the community.”
He immediately quadrupled the staff to help improve the quality of the editorial product. The news team started breaking more news and conducting more investigations. Much of the recent coverage centers around education news, for which Long Beach Post is actively fundraising through Local Media Foundation.
“The [education news] page views may not be high, but the engagement and interaction are,” Sommers said. “It’s the quality and not the quantity of that audience.”
But hard news isn’t the sole focus. Sommers hired a food critic and started an arts and culture section, which now gets strong advertiser support, he said.
To ensure the Post was writing stories that resonated with Long Beach readers, Sommers established the publication’s first Community Editorial Board. A collection of informed community voices paid a stipend for their perspectives.
An open call for candidates yielded 144 applications, he said, including 22 finalists. Seven people of different backgrounds were eventually named to the first cohort to serve a one-year term.
2. Grow the business revenue
The decision to invest in the journalism paid off, with quarter-over-quarter reader revenue growth at 126 percent to start the year, well above its 15 percent projections. Third-quarter growth is at the same pace as last quarter, Sommers said.
The core message to readers often centers around community and the Long Beach Post’s efforts to reach historically marginalized groups within the city. Supporters often receive updates about what their contributions enable.
“We spent a great amount of energy not just doing the journalism but showing how the journalism works,” Sommers said. “That really helped us grow reader revenue.”
About $50,000 has also been raised in support for two Report for America writers, allowing for more original Spanish language reporting —in addition to translations — and a Spanish newsletter.
“The effort all speaks to an important part of our community that often goes unheard,” Sommers said. “It’s been an important part of our effort to diversify our staff and diversify our leadership.”
The Post also received more than $14,000 in reader contributions as part of the just-ended COVID-19 Local News Fund. The key, Sommers said, was balancing the request for one-time contributions with the company’s broader goal to gain long-term support.
“You don’t want to alienate one core group of reader support, but fortunately, we haven’t seen the loss of one over another,” he said.
3. Grow distribution and marketing
The Long Beach Post’s advertising division was re-envisioned as StudioLBP, a full-scale client services agency offering products beyond traditional display advertising, including graphic design, video, and commercial production, e-commerce, and web design services. The Long Beach Post’s product team provides coding, data visualizations, and other technical skills to Studio LBP and the newsroom.
Converting the model to lean on consumer revenue was more straightforward because the operation isn’t hampered by long-term legacy costs, such as printing facilities and other operational expenses.
“It goes back to being nimble,” Sommers said. “We have built into our work culture the ability to let things fail and learn from the failure to fine-tune the next big thing,” Sommers said. “That’s a unique position to be in.”
Much of the brand studio’s work centers around sponsored posts. During pitch meetings, sales staff will often run potential clients through CrowdTangle to see how their businesses compare to competitors. See more examples of how the Long Beach Post is utilizing CrowdTangle for business strategies.
The publication has so far avoided layoffs or furloughs during the pandemic, although some positions have been left unfilled for the time being.
Just before COVID-19 quarantine measures were put into place, Pacific Community Media, a subsidiary of Pacific6, announced the purchase of a local family-owned competitor, the Long Beach Business Journal, a twice-monthly print publication that launched in 1987. Now it’s run as a digital-first publication that also gains revenue from the print edition, Sommers said.