What's New in Local News
An “Innovation Conversation” with Carll Tucker, Founder, Chairman, & CEO, Daily Voice
Carll Tucker is the Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Daily Voice, LLC., an online communications company publishing forty-one community news sites across the affluent suburbs of Westchester (NY) and Fairfield (CT) counties. Read regularly by more than half the adult populations of these communities, Daily Voice enjoys an extraordinary market penetration that’s virtually unprecedented for any news medium.
Carll founded Daily Voice, LLC in 2010 after decades as the Editor and Publisher of Trader Publications, which published The Patent Trader newspaper and a dozen other local publications in Westchester and Fairfield. In 1999, he sold Trader Publications to the Gannett Company.
A summa cum laude graduate of Yale University, Carll’s career has featured his tenure as the Editor and Publisher of Saturday Review, and as a staff writer and theater critic for the Village Voice in New York City. He is also the author of The Bear Went Over the Mountain (2005) as well as countless columns and articles (as the recipients of his morning email missives can attest). Net, Carl exemplifies the rare writer with something to say who can actually say it effectively.
I joined Carll on a beautiful May morning in the Armonk offices of Daily Voice for a team meeting and a look into the future. A future that includes enduring and dynamic local communities; a remarkable new online publishing model; Aunt Sally; Bill and Hilary Clinton; and no paywalls!
Lou Killeffer: Carll, let’s begin at the beginning; what exactly is hyperlocal media? Hyper-local news?
Carll Tucker: I hate the term hyperlocal, though that seems to be what I do. I hate it because it focuses internally, not externally. I prefer the term “community communications.”
That said, there’s no fighting the jargon du jour. Hyperlocal, best I understand is communications that used to be called local. If you stratify news, you have international, national, regional - think, in media terms of the various DMAs, designated marketing areas - local, and then personal. Facebook has a lock on the lowest rung. The top two rungs are crawling with competitors. We’re aiming to dominate news coverage in rung four – and maybe, as we evolve, share rung three with local TV.
More specifically, “hyperlocal news” answers the question, “What’s going on in town?” and by extension, “What’s going in my area?”
Hyperlocal media, which includes news, of course, can be any media that aims to serve folks and businesses on Main Street. Groupon, Yelp, Angie’s List, Reach Local, YP, and the lame offerings of most legacy newspaper companies, are all part of that mix.
LK: How is hyper-local different from other media; what does it comprise and deliver that the other’s can’t or don’t?
CT: The difference is of course primarily in the market that it serves – neighbors and neighborhood businesses. These are distinct; so what it offers is distinct. The New York Times does not aim to tell you about Aunt Sally’s hundredth birthday, though that’s the big news in Pelham, NY. We don’t tell you about Obama unless he comes to town, which he did last week. We tell you about a lot about the Clintons but that’s because they live in one of our towns, Chappaqua, NY.
LK: Carll, what is the Daily Voice’s mission and what is your model?
CT: Our goal is to tell people what’s going on in the communities we serve. We currently serve forty-one communities, with about 1.5 million inhabitants. We aim to serve 100 times that number, which would comprise about half the United States; the non-urban half.
What’s going on is urgent news, breaking news, civic news, events, real estate, restaurants, and, above all, neighbors, neighbors, neighbors.
Technically we are a single website, with lots of variants, one for each town we serve. We aim to be the best local news available by far. In our current footprint, that means pretty much one site per town. In less congested areas, where the towns are smaller, with fewer businesses and less news, we may opt for one site per county. We only need to be the best local news available by far, not better than that.
Our sites are free to users. We do not believe in paywalls, except for our competitors, because we think that mistake alone will do them in. We derive our revenue from local businesses and institutions. We sell visibility – display advertising, native advertising, which we call Content Partnerships, and a few other revenue streams we haven’t introduced yet.
Our basic operating unit is the pod, which covers approximately 1.5 MM people. We expect each pod to operate with better than 50% margins. We will keep overhead low as long as I’m around. No Taj Mahals for Daily Voice.
LK: How long have you been at it; have the communities you serve responded?
CT: We started in January 2010. We launched our first site in Norwalk, CT. That year, we launched an additional nine sites in southern Fairfield County, CT. The following June, we launched thirty-one sites in adjoining Westchester County, NY. Then we proceeded to make an incredibly bobble-headed mistake, which almost finished us...To cut a really long story short, at my insistence we hired my successor in November, 2011. It was like hiring a homicidal babysitter to care for your tot. When I returned as CEO in March, 2013, DV was fighting for its life. Now it’s in the pink of health, made pinker by the collapse of our most conspicuous rival for this space, the division of AOL which was known as Patch.
With over a half million of the 1.5 million inhabitants of our towns visiting Daily Voice an average of four times each month, I’d say our communities have taken to Daily Voice like cats to catnip. And when you deduct the young people who wouldn’t dream of reading community news, roughly a third of the total population, the digitally illiterate, mostly oldsters, and the non-English speakers in our cities, the Daily Voice is read regularly by between a half and two-thirds of our entire addressable audience. (Emphasis added, Ed.) When we replicate that market penetration across the US, well, then we’ll really have something.
LK: I’ll say. So how have you succeeded where The New York Times, Washington Post, and perhaps most famously, AOL’s Patch have all tried and failed?
CT: Lou, success is a relative term. We haven’t yet banged the gong on the NYSE or NASDAQ. That said, it appears we have a model that works, after a decade of experiments that failed, sometimes spectacularly. Why?
We’ve had all sorts of luck. We were lucky not to have $300 million to blow, as AOL did. AOL’s big wallet tempted them to propagate a model that could never have been made profitable. Its costs were triple its revenues. They thought this game was a land grab and once they grabbed all the good towns, they could figure out how to make their sites make money. It might have worked if they’d had an infinite amount of time and money. But after $300 million their investors said “No mas”, so Tim Armstrong jettisoned his pet project, which he had founded before coming to AOL. Tim failed, but he had the right idea about the market need and the economic opportunity and he taught us a ton.
Others failed for one of two reasons. One group failed because they tried to cover local news algorithmically – in other words, they tried to create a machine that would enable communities to self-report, so their content costs would be minimal and they could make money-selling ads. It worked for Facebook – why shouldn’t it work for villages and towns? What they ended up with was digital bulletin boards, disproportionately populated by chiropractors and cranks, not a satisfying presentation of what was going on in town. The price was right – but nobody came. Examiner.com, Backdoor, American Town, lots of others followed this approach.
The other group failed because they thought what they were doing was producing a community newspaper online. That meant lots of reporters and costs you couldn’t possibly cover with display advertising revenues. Patch and many of the hyperlocal experiments of legacy news companies and, initially, Daily Voice, were in this camp. They got the product right, maybe, but the cost structure wrong.
The trick is to provide satisfying community news at an incredibly low price. And no, we will not tell you how we figured it out, but thanks for asking.
LK: Ah, yes. The fabled secret sauce...What, if anything, has been the impact of social media?
CT: We’re in the midst of the most drastic communications revolution in the history of mankind – more drastic even than the invention of moveable type because innovation is happening so rapidly. I am no prophet. I’m pretty sure folks will always want to know what’s going on in town and if you produce it agreeably and present it on the platforms they utilize, you can build a business.
Social media is a huge part of this revolution. A hefty percentage of our audience comes to us from Facebook daily. All our sites have Facebook pages. We postand Tweet and tag for SEO and do some SEM and work hard to keep up with the evolving social media ecosystem.
In many towns in America, Facebook is all the local media that survives. Many towns have large vibrant mothers’ groups on Facebook. This suggests to me that community news is an enduring human need.
Some of these mothers’ groups may evolve into real businesses – but it’s not easy. Turning a bunch of well-meaning neighbors into a financed, disciplined, profit-chasing squad is a trick and a half. It’s been done – Mary Kay did it with beauty products – but it takes work, talent, and luck.
Social media serves as a megaphone on every story we publish, increasing its reach and therefore its effect. So far, we’re amateurs at utilizing social media. A year from now, we’ll be ten times better and my answer may be more intelligent.
LK: What’s next for the Daily Voice; for Carll Tucker?
CT: Our aim at Daily Voice is to bring the best community news to all non-urban communities in the United States and make a lot of money doing it. We’ve spent four years figuring out our model. For the next few months we’ll be tweaking our model, identifying the right rollout partner, be they strategic or private equity, and start propagating. Stay tuned.
Carll Tucker serves at the pleasure of his Board. DV is my child and I love it as my child. That said, I want my child to fledge and prosper on its own. For all our sakes, we need to identify and introduce my successor. Daily Voice is my most exciting adventure in a life full of adventures; I’d lead it forever if that made sense, but it doesn’t, so I won’t. How long will I fill this job? As long as I’m needed and, I hope, no longer than I ought.
LK: Carll, thanks very much, and all success, we’ll all stay tuned!
CT: Thank you, Lou. I enjoyed it.