Q&A with Column’s Founder & CEO Jake Seaton


LMA is excited to welcome Column as a new R&D partner. You can learn more about Column, predictions for the local media industry in 2021 and more in this Q&A with Column’s Founder & CEO Jake Seaton.

 

Please set the stage for the situation around public notices in the local media space right now.

The 2021 state legislative sessions saw over one hundred proposals under consideration across the country that would modify, reduce or expand public notice policies and regulations. Most of these bills did not make it out of committees or to the governor’s desk — some did. In fact, just last week, the Florida legislature passed a historic bill that sets new standards for the publication of notices in local media outlets by governmental agencies. And Column is ready to help our media partners meet compliance.

Put simply, the situation around public notices in the local media space is ripe for innovation. At Column, we believe local media businesses need to be the ones leading the charge of this innovation and we are committed to building the technology that supports those efforts.

As more publishers implement Column in their communities, we routinely uncover success stories about the enhanced and improved experiences that local governments, legal services, and citizens gain with our tools.

Please describe what makes Column unique.

My family has been in the local media business for the past five generations, beginning with The Manhattan Mercury as our flagship newspaper in 1915. Today, we also own media businesses in communities across Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Oklahoma.

What has made Column unique from day one are the experiences and principles I have endeavored to instill in our company and our team. We wrote a lot of the original codebase for Column in the backroom of the Manhattan Mercury while studying the workflow and pain points of the classified staff. We drove across Kansas visiting with government officials, lawyers, and businesses to understand how this process could be better for them.

Column is also unique in our approach to building the business. For too long, the local media space has been underserved and overpriced by technology companies. That is why Column is free for publishers to use. We simply charge a standard processing fee to the customers placing notices with the publishers using our tools.

To advance our mission as a company, we have established a unique Partner Program with local media associations across the country who are in the trenches protecting public notice. We volunteer our services to provide free website hosting for associations working on public notice. We show up to hearings and produce data-driven insights to help make the case for good policy. We dream big with ways we can help.

How does Column help a local media company?

Column helps local media companies in two key ways. First, our tools help streamline public notice operations to return efficiencies and cost savings. Second, our tools help publishers deliver a modern customer experience to local governments, law firms, and individuals that place notices.

Operationally, Column reduces the costs of managing public notice business by delivering an all-in-one platform for workflow automation of proofing, invoicing, affidavit creation, pagination, and more. Our processing fee model also enables publishers to increase revenue per notice with the elimination of credit card fees which are covered by Column’s processing fee.

On customer experience, Column provides tools for publishers to serve their public notice clients in a powerful new way. With self-serve templates, upfront proofs, upfront pricing, and digital affidavit storage, the folks using Column to submit notices to their local publication are saving time and ensuring compliance throughout the entire process.

What results are your clients seeing?

Publishers using Column have seen a revenue bump across the board on notices from the elimination of credit card fees per transaction. We are also seeing some of the larger publishing groups that use Column take advantage of the platform’s ability to help centralize operations that might have previously been distributed across regions or teams. In some instances, publishers have been able to reallocate full-time resources away from the administrative work on notices and enable team members to spend time on other meaningful revenue-generating parts of the business.

We are always sharing exciting new success stories on our blog Editorials which I encourage folks to check out.

How did COVID change your business?

When the pandemic began, we were just beginning to expand our business beyond my home state of Kansas. The switch to remote work brought a few behavioral shifts in our ability to bring the product to the market. The local media industry grew comfortable with video conferencing platforms. We were able to meet with partners in different states and teach new customers how to use our products.

During the pandemic, we also made the long-term decision to shift to a remote-first operation. As a result, we have hired and welcomed new team members in Customer Experience, Engineering and Growth, who are living and working in diverse corners of the US and the world.

COVID-19 has also accelerated the crisis facing local journalism, with many newsrooms struggling to stay afloat. For us, that meant our mission became even more important, more urgent. We spent the summer of 2020 becoming a public benefit corporation and committing ourselves to protect the future of local journalism and the information ecosystems that are vital to our democracy, like public notice. Along the way, we’ve attracted a group of talented advisors who will use their industry experience to help us grow our business in the coming months and years.

What are your predictions for the local media space in 2021?

There are a lot of exciting initiatives, organizations, and startups joining forces in the local media space — my prediction is that will (and must) continue.

On public notices, I expect we will continue to see legislation aiming to change or alter the status quo. We believe local media businesses should drive the conversation on the future of public notice and get ahead of the innovation curve.

At Column, we have been particularly inspired by the work of folks like the National Trust for Local News who are applying bold new models for community ownership. I predict (and hope) we continue to see innovative models and technologies embraced across local media businesses.

Do you have one piece of advice you share with your clients you could share with us?

If I could share one piece of advice it would be to empathize with your customers.

Users of Column tell us that working with the newspaper is just one step in a complicated process, often with more than ten other steps, of complying with public notification requirements. Mistakes, delays, or lack of communication at this step are acutely painful for governments and law firms. Column’s tools are designed to create transparency and help folks who place notices save time on those other ten steps as well. As a result, when publishers introduce the Column platform to their customers, they are delighted by the modernized experience and feel that their publishing partner is empathizing and working to make their lives better.

Creating that sensation for the users of our technology has required a lot of hard work and trust between all parties involved, and we never stop learning about opportunities to improve.