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Funding hyperlocal news - your input invited

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Ads on the Rapidian?

"Maybe hyperlocal advertising would actually benefit our small businesses and residents."


Each week, a Rapidian staffer will publish a piece related to goings-on at The Rapidian, developments in the world of citizen journalism and tips for making the most of the site. Click here for past editorials.

There is no question that things are really hopping at the Rapidian. Monthly visitor numbers are up a whopping 78% compared to 3 months ago. Now nearly 15,000 visits are being made each month to check out what's happening. Hundreds are signed up to be reporters. Rapidian stories and authors are being quoted and referenced by mainstream media.

By most accounts, this is success. And within this moment, I delightfully agree. But beyond today, I  can’t forget one very critical element: The Rapidian was provided with enough seed funding to actually experiment. Our initial funders gave us the gift of time and the ability to test, revise and test again. We had the funds to create a strong web structure and the fortunate ability to launch with real substance. Oh, to think we could just continue this way.

But seed funding comes with serious obligations - to create something beyond the experiment that serves community and can actually be sustained. Establish something that can be viable once the seed money is gone. And as I ponder the options, I tend to come up with more questions than answers. Most tend to center on how generating income would (or would not) affect the substance of what has been created.

Let’s start with advertising. Are ads ok on The Rapidian? Most I talk to are less than enamored with the idea. We have become very used to our “clean look:" No pop up ads or busy sidebars; community information without the commercial pitch. Would visitors feel the same about The Rapidian if we rented their 30,000 eyeballs to Sprint or 1-800-Flowers? Should we accept only local ads? Would it be more acceptable if we were restrictive? Maybe hyperlocal advertising would actually benefit our small businesses and residents.

Then there is the possibility of really small advertising, like classified ads. Would a local marketplace section of used cars, garage sales and apartments for rent hold enough appeal against the free services of Craigslist or the reach of MLive?

I often get asked why we don’t just fund the Rapidian with more grants. After all, it has worked so far. Unfortunately, I find grants are the most misunderstood funding stream in the nonprofit realm. There would be no Rapidian without grants from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. But rarely do grantors fund ongoing operations, at least in not the media and technology world. They often fund the beginning in hopes of seeding something that will eventually survive and flourish on its own.

Should we simply ask people to provide support? Would it work? Would enough folks buy the milk when they can log on to the cow for free? It has worked for public broadcasting for years, but I can find few examples on online journalism that are covering expenses this way. But it could be possible. This is West Michigan, after all.

While I would love to spend the next year simply enjoying the continued growth and development of The Rapidian as a community-powered, local information platform, it is more likely that I’ll be looking 2 or 3 years ahead to find the ideal combination of activities that will keep The Rapidian both valued and sustainable well into the future. Hopefully the methods will be as creative as they are effective. As is the Rapidian way, ideas and input are welcome (and needed). It’s taken a community to get us this far and it’s for certain that’s what it will take for us to continue. Please let us know what you think. Bake Sale anyone?

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 I see selling advertising space as somehow essential to the long term sustainability of the Rapidian, models exist that we see everyday, i.e. NPR, PBS. The trick to successfully merging adverts would be in keeping it hyper-local, apply the same criteria for advertisers as is applied to content submissions. Seeing a big red M on the sidebar of the site may cause a potential hemorrhage, but seeing a link to a locally grown business would be benign. The dilemma is primarily one of perception, are our local businesses part of our community or not. Commerce and culture have always been intertwined, humans have always bartered, bought and sold goods to one another. The fear is that advertisers would control content, it would be difficult to see such a scenario happen with the format that the Rapidian functions on. There are many potential advertisers that would be viewed as neutral by readers i.e. foundations, non-profits, colleges & universities, public initiatives, events, etc. 

I think having a daily sponsor might be good? Similar to public radio. If that is McDonald's or someplace local, or your grandma, is fine with me.

I like this much better than multiple small ads, both as a viewer and an advertiser. It's finding the advertisers willing to pony up the big bucks.

The only difference between Rapidian and most other websites out there is you are 'local'. The more hyper-local you are, the less there is the large companies that would benefit from even sponsorhip like Amy suggested (and I do like that idea otherwise). is about the only website I still get pop-up ads for, they are so desparate for revenue.

News as a community resource is great, I wish we could fund publically in a similar vein to NPR or local library.

what about fundraiser festivals? like the GreenFood Bluegrass thing at the Felt Mansion a year ago? 

I love bluegrass :-). Seriously, it will likely take a creative combination on things. Thanks for helping think this through!

I think sponsorships are the way to go.  I think there are enough companies and organizations willing to help finance the continuance of The Rapidian by simply getting in return a notation of their name, logo and small slogan.  I think the number of companies that now "sponsor" events or online publications that seemingly offer them little in return is amazing today considering the slow economy. I think community-minded readers of The Rapidian would offer them a bigger bang for their buck. Maybe one special fundraising event would be good, too.  The community and The Rapidian staff have come too far and struggled too hard to give this up without a good fight!!

Events and fundraisers take an amazing amount of time. Unless there is a volunteer committee that wants to do one, I'd stay clear of them. Last thing you want to do is to hire someone just to raise money to pay for themselves.

 you're right about the volunteers...but that is exactly what the Rapidian has already... people who utilize social media, blogs etc to spread the word... a boat load of writers, photographers and videographers to cover and promote.... artists, musicians, business people galore to carry it off... and a willing public to attend and contribute to great stuff like this... and all of them willing to VOLUNTEER to something so great and so vital to the city and culture we all love. Maybe a Rapidian version of Artprize? 

. . . but, keep stick to the clean ads and place them strategically on pages with articles that relate in some way - health ads on health pages, business ads on business pages,etc.


Also, why not add a Religion section along with the other sections listed in your search drop-down menu. There is certainly a lot of religion in Grand Rapids - seems appropriate.


Housing and employment classifieds database where people can upload their resumes and connect with local employers and vice versa. A small fee for participation would not seem inappropriate, and you'd be helping the economy in Grand Rapids. Maybe you could pull in some of the large employers database info for those looking for jobs. Other places are doing that. I would hope Spectrum and other large employers would pay to be included. Who knows?

 I understand completely the need for The Rapidian to raise revenue.  I find advertising an interesting way to say the least, and maybe the wrong way. Especially when I think about how the idea of hyperlocal citizen journalism came to be.

Over the last decade or so it's become pretty clear that the business model that has sustained journalism (selling advertising) is not sustainable.  As a result daily newspapers have cut staffs, trimmed distribution, and many have shut down all together.  Out of that rose the idea of citizen journalism.  If dailies can't get to the news properly, then why not everyday people?

So now that there is talk of selling ads I just feel the need to point out the cyclical nature of journalism.  Just something to think about.



Nick, I certainly understand what you are saying. Rather than a talk about selling ads...I think the conversation needs to be about overall sustainability. In that conversation we have to consider both the traditional and the truly innovative. I hope we land firmly in the innovative column. Thanks for chiming in.

Both events and grants have significant cost and time that would be a challenge to long term sustainability.  I think traditional advertising will turn off your audience.  I would go for a few key year or bi-annual sponsorships.  They get more exposure/bragging rights and it is less work.  In addition, let your readers know how much you need to opperate with a Donate Now button showing actual balances.  Give donors the option to be recognized in some way for their contibutions.  Keep the dollars coming in posted in real time.  Ask readers/writers to put the word out through social media.

The larger question for me is: what will the Rapidian look like after the pilot phase? Are we declaring the experiment a success and leaving the Rapidian product as is? Or do we anticipate new projects?

Answers have a lot of implications for the kind of funding we might want to solicit. If things are going to stay as is, then grants probably aren't such a hot option. But then, I don't think maintaining the status quo is a particularly solid long-term strategy for securing any type of funding.

Personally, I would love to see the Rapidian expand writer training opportunities and increase the diversity of its journalist pool. Time-bounded partnerships/projects a la ArtPrize coverage might be a nifty way to do both, while positioning the Rapidian more competitively for grants.

I don't have a problem with advertising/sponsorship, though it probably makes sense for this site to stick with local groups. Especially if ads popped up in a sidebar based on what one reads, it could be a really great way to connect folks with businesses they aren't already familiar with. Man... I would spend so much more money in my neighborhood if, while reading a Rapidian article, an ad for something at Lamb or Global Infusion popped up and I could immediately just go walk over and buy it. Wait... maybe this isn't such a good idea... ;-)

I don't know about events. A speaker or curated conversation series might be interesting, but there are already so many "Save the [Name of Nonprofit]!" events already. Impromptu sponsored Foursquare events might be fun--restaurants/bars could donate a percentage of the night's revenue to the Rapidian. Some strategic hyping would probably have to take place to get those off the ground, though.

Crowd-funding gets my vote. Increase the ways people can give small gifts via text, donate now button, e-newsletter, etc. Another option would be to crowd-fund certain stories or projects to free up unrestricted gifts for things like utility bills that no one wants to fund.

Hmmm.... as usual I have probably provided WAY more information than one would ever want in a comment. In sum, diversify everything, product and revenue, and it'll probably all work out :)