How to Start a Local News Site: A Step-by-Step Guide

October 14, 2020

So if you’re here, you are probably already sold on how important local news is. But where do you start if you want to take the plunge and build a local news site for your community?

There are a lot of resources out there and it can be tough to know exactly where to begin.

No worries, we are here to guide you through the process step-by-step.

Step 1: Pick your spot

The first thing you need to do is figure out what the area is that you plan to cover and how you plan to cover it. There are a million ways that you think about this, and there are some articles that recommend conducting surveys and focus groups to confirm if there really is a need out there for your publication… but we think this is taking it too far.

Our advice is simple:

Don’t overthink this. Look at what is out there in your area and if you notice there is a hole in coverage that you think should be provided by a local news site, then go for it!

That’s exactly what a very successful California local news site called Berkeleyside did - they saw that newspapers in their area covered city news, but nothing comprehensively about their neighborhood. They also wanted to create a forum for their neighbors to debate issues that they care about.

They didn’t run surveys and spend too much overanalyzing, they just saw the gap and they went for it. There is plenty of time for surveys later if you are having trouble building an audience. (see Step 4)

The bottom line here is this: if you see that news coverage is missing and you want a new place to engage with your neighbors that is a good enough reason to get going.

Step 2: Make sure this is for you

But before you go too far down the road, make sure that you are going to be able to keep this going - consistently. Take this from us, writing takes dedication and commitment, especially when you are trying to keep up a regular news publication that needs to be updated frequently.

Open up a Word Document or Google Docs and just start writing about the topics that you want to cover in your community.

When you have around 5 articles good to go, you should feel good enough to move onto the next step.

If you are struggling with topics to write on, check out some of these reporting guides from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

Also, know that this is a marathon not a sprint. Make sure that you are in this for the long-haul and you can support yourself without making any money from your site at first. The founders from Berkeleyside went 18 months before they started to pay themselves a salary.

Step 3: Set up your tech

One of the main reasons we are building Epilocal, is that we want to make this part so simple that all of you have to do is start writing and we will handle the technology for you. (If you are interested in being one of the first to test our platform, let us know here)

But for now without Epilocal, the process to set up your tech looks something like this:

Choose a domain and set up web hosting

To keep things simple, it is easiest to buy your domain name and your web hosting (where you store your website’s files) from the same provider.

There are many to choose from and the process looks slightly different for each one. We have had good experiences in the past with A2 Hosting.

Install your Content Management System

Next, you need to set-up your website and the easiest way to do this on your own is by using a Content Management System or CMS. Again, there are several out there, but the most common one for news sites is Wordpress.

At Epilocal, we are creating a new CMS that will be part of our platform, but for now, Wordpress is a solid option albeit not the fastest or easiest to use at times.

The control panel for your hosting provider should have a shortcut for installing Wordpress. Otherwise check their installation guide. (For example, here are the instructions for A2 Hosting)

Style your website

Once you have Wordpress installed on your website, you have lots of options to get the design and style just the way you want it.

This can be an overwhelming process and we recommend starting with something simple where you can just focus on writing - then learn over time more of the theme options that Wordpress has to offer.

Get publishing

Now you should have your site up and running, you just need to start adding content to it. You can write and publish your content from directly inside Wordpress, but it takes some getting used to and you will want to read some articles about the quirks that go along with it.

Also, Wordpress offers a wide range of plugins that you can add to customize your site further. Here’s a list of some of the more popular plugins for news websites.

At the beginning, the focus should really be on your writing and news content rather than on the technology itself.

There’s some good advice in this playbook for creating a local news site from Harvard, that sums it pretty well:

“Keep your tech as simple as possible and suppress the urge for customization until you get good help and good advice.”

We couldn’t agree more, keep it simple and just focus on publishing consistently - even if its not pretty at first.

Step 4: Find your voice

As you start writing and publishing, you will gradually find your voice, what you want to cover and what your audience responds to.

Again, try to keep this simple at first - focus on a narrow range of topics or geographic area. Especially if you are only one writer there is only so much you can cover.

If you are struggling to find an audience, now would be a good time to do a little research and to focus on getting the word out about your publication.

The same Harvard playbook recommends a couple of good ideas for researching what topics are important in your area:

  • Use a free tools like Google Forms to design a survey and distribute it in your community
  • Test out local interests using Facebook and Google ad targeting tools (you can do this without buying any ads)

Getting the word out and driving more people to your site is also important at this point. There are of course the traditional digital options social media and digital advertising.

But even better than that for a budding local news site is this idea from an interview with the founder of a local newspaper in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania:

“In the first year, we had the opportunity to trade advertising on the site for advertising at events. That really helped push our name out even further. As the site continues to grow so does the ability to sell ad space on the site.”

Basically this means that rather than charging local businesses for advertising space at the beginning, you will give it away in exchange for them getting the word out about your site.

Then once you get big enough, you already have relationships with these businesses and can easily upgrade them to paying customers.

Step 5: Start monetizing

Once you have a good rhythm publishing and are building an audience, you can start to think about monetizing. To give you an idea of how long it takes to get to this point, Berkeleyside that we mentioned above began offering paid advertising to local businesses about 6-months after launching.

In the same interview, they summed up nicely the other options out there to look at for generating revenue from your news site:

  • Membership revenue (from subscribers and donors)
  • Syndication (selling your articles to bigger newspapers who want to reprint them)
  • Events (with revenue from tickets and from signing up sponsors)
  • Merchandise
  • Sponsored content
  • Classified ads

Also, if you are interested in forming your local news site as a non-profit, you can look for grants and other funding opportunities.

Here’s a good resource on forming a non-profit organization and this article from the Knight Foundation sums up some of the best funding opportunities for non-profit newspapers.

Step 6: Find a support network

Finally, once you are on your way and getting established as a local news site, you will want to connect with other people who are doing the same thing.

If you are a nonprofit, you can join the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Otherwise, you can join the Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers.

Both of these are great networks with over 200 members with lots of resources to help you learn and share experiences.

Ready to get started?

Local news is one of the cornerstones of a strong community and now more than ever it is important to provide information and a voice that your neighbors can trust. If you are ready to get started, follow the steps above to get your voice online.

And be sure to sign-up for updates from Epilocal, as we are planning to release some tools soon that will make the steps above even easier.

Want more info on business strategy for news sites?

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