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March 27, 2017

What Are They Thinking: The Millennial Gold Rush Goes Local, In Charlotte

Everyone in publishing now loves the Millennials, as well-funded startups from Mic (“What Are They Thinking: Chris Altchek’s three magic words for Mic: video-centric millennials company”) to Buzzfeed to Vice and Vox target the next generation.

While media attention is riveted on national news sites targeting Millennials with heat-seeking videos, let’s consider America’s favorite cohort outside of New York City and south of New Jersey. Gannett, the country’s largest daily newspaper publisher, signaled its interest in March when it bought a minority interest in digital entrepreneur Jim Brady’s Spirited Media. That company operates Billy Penn in Philadelphia and plans to launch in another city by summer’s end.

Bloomberg CEO Justin Smith is among those seeing the big Millennial opportunity for legacy media, as well. It’s Millennials + mobile + social that opens a huge new business opportunity, he told me last year. (“Bloomberg’s Justin Smith Sees a Window in Shakeup of Digital Reader Habits“).

In addition, I’ve talked recently to other investors seeing – and strategizing around — the same opportunity. As they do, they are all beginning to notice the newest millenial-targeting kid on the block, Charlotte Agenda.

Ted Williams’ Charlotte Agenda aims to satisfy 18-34-year-olds and is apparently doing a pretty good job of it.

 

First published at Politico Media

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As Charlotte Agenda approaches its one-year anniversary on April 8, 31-year-old publisher and co-founder Williams says the self-funded start-up is on track to produce a cool million dollars of revenue in 2017. This year, he says, the site’s sponsors will generate between $600,000 and $800,000 in revenue, bringing the site to profitability.

Behind Williams’ numbers: 25 sponsors, listed midway down on the home page. Who doesn’t want to target Millennials these days, and the list shows it: Bank of America, Allen Tate Realtor (the largest firm in the city), UNC Charlotte, Carolinas Health Care System, Uber and the three locations of Bojangles Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits.

Williams says he has capped the number of sponsors on the site, at any one point, at 25. They sign contracts, with roughly 20% committed for one year and 60% for six months, says Williams. Ten rank as “premium sponsors,” given their level of spend.

The sponsors get a growing, and increasingly engaged local Millennials audience. Note the name of the site: Charlotte Agenda. With a good mix of things to do and nightlife, which we’d expect out of young demo product, I’ve seen a growing amount of local political and development coverage. Agenda, perhaps, as in personal calendar and civic issue.

The site’s tagline is also instructive: “A user’s guide to Charlotte.” That notion of usefulness and utility, and not just reading, acts on at least twin understandings. The no-brainer: it’s an active population. Equally, though, it is the smartphone, the ultimate utilitarian information appliance that Charlotte Agenda has recognized as its prime delivery vehicle. Sixty-two percent of its audience comes in via the smartphone. An additional six percent uses a tablet; only 32% is desktop-driven.

The self-funded operation is small, now consisting of five full-time and one part-time staffers. Yet, its Writers Page names more than three dozen contributing writers. In a mid-metro area like Charlotte, there are lots of people who can write – well – for not much money.

Charlotte Agenda offers a good high/low mix on the news and on city life. On Thursday, editor-in-chief Andrew Dunn (second from left, below) published a story on Gov. Pat McGrory’s increasingly fraught relationship with his hometown of Charlotte (where he served seven terms as mayor) led the page. It took a local look at the story much in the national news, as Republican governors are being asked to peel back anti-discrimination laws. The headline asked a good question, “Can Pat McCrory’s relationship with his hometown ever be repaired?” and accompanying gif of McCrory’s awkward hug with another Charlotte politician showed the tension.

You can see, below, the range of stories Charlotte Agenda offers. They are written conversationally, with an intimate knowledge of Charlotte and heavy on city life. For Williams, it is about the news of the day, but doing it in ways that more befit the more causal sensibilities of Millennials.

 

CHARLOTTE AGENDA 9 TOP STORIES copy

 

Twenty-seven-year-old Cristina Wilson (far left, below) heads the growing business operations. Williams’ co-founder 30-year-old Katie Levans (far right, below) serves as Creative Director & Co-Founder. Williams (second from right, below), who turns 32 in July, is the self-described “old guy” in the group.

charlotte-agenda-team-1 copy

As it approaches its one-year anniversary, the site counts, internally, 275,000 Monthly Unique Visitors and one million monthly page views, or four views per visitor.

The business is being built on engagement, taking these forms, according to Williams:

—A daily newsletter list of 13,000, with an open rate of 58%,

—An Instagram following of 37,000. CA found Instagram to be an under-utilized channel for news in Charlotte, and now considers it a top distribution priority. As a start-up, CA used poor man’s analytics; Williams sent out a survey to his users. One big surprise: Almost 70% of his Millennials audience said they were on Instagram.

“We break a lot of our scoops on Instagram, especially do it at nighttime before people go to sleep,” says Williams. “You get a photo, you can break some great news, and then the conversation in the comment threads is just excellent.

“We think there’s a large audience that looks at things after dinner, like that 8:00 to 10:00pm time. It’s really freaking powerful, and I think a great long-term asset.”

—A fledgling membership program. Eighty percent of the 325 signed members have opted for an annual payment of $60; the rest pay $5 a month. Early notice and access to events, a T-shirt and goodwill are the lures. Members can also pen “op-eds.”

Williams learned some basics via a short start-up career, first with a Washington D.C. health site Health Central, which was later sold. When his girlfriend took a job in Charlotte, he moved with her and worked on the digital side of a local ad agency. Then, he worked for the McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer for two years, as Director of Digital Strategy & New Initiatives.

But the fit wasn’t there.

“Everyone is having task force meetings like, oh, ‘You can’t link, should we do it or not’? Then it breaks out to a sub-task force, then someone writes a paper and it sits somewhere, and someone is like ‘Revenue is down.” Williams says he wanted to experiment more, following the readers as they used other platforms. “Our audience is there, and I think it’s an important complement to what we do, and it’s what people like.”

Williams says he admires the work of the Observer, while noting why he thinks it is so hard for old media to crossover.

“It’s the way the culture works. You know there’s not a lot of transformational leadership. There’s a lot of safety.”

At the Observer, Williams developed CharlotteFive – a mobile-first, Millennials-seeking digital-only product.

Today, that product survives, produced by two editor/reporters and, like CA, a stable of freelancers. In monthly visitors, it comes it at about half of Charlotte Agenda; on average, its visitors take in two pages, compared to CA’s 4.

“What’s really interesting to me about both of these sites is that they’re both drawing big audiences,” Observer top editor Rick Thames told me.

“In some cases, I’m sure the audiences are crossing over and probably reading both, but I also find people in the city that are reading one or they’re reading the other. One thing I think we learn from this is that there’s the younger, under thirty audience there is prepared to actually read something on a regular basis, day after day in a city the size of Charlotte, and there’s enough audience there, that two sites are flourishing at the moment.”

The most popular story on CharlotteFive? It was headlined “Who’s Sharon Anyway and Why Did They Name All These Roads After Her?” and talked about all the roads with Sharon in their names, and it drew 34,000 page views. Says Thames, “It’s a kind of story that would be of interest to anybody who hadn’t spent much time in Charlotte and was still kind of scratching their head over it.”

Thames sees that the experiment is both about content and design, which is un-newspaper-like. “The presentation has just been interesting….There are a lot of people under 50 or under 60 who feel under 30 and so I think we’re drawing some of them as well. But really, most people don’t necessarily know that it’s about the Charlotte Observer. We don’t hide it but it’s just not there as a big banner or anything.”

Ted Williams is more concerned about harnessing the platforms of the day than he is about Charlotte Observer competition.

What’s ahead in Year Two?

For one thing, Williams says he underestimated the power of Facebook.

“I had been spending too much time on Facebook. Now I spend a lot of time thinking about it, not a lot of times doing stuff about it, but damn if Facebook isn’t just incredible. They’re so smart. They’re like annihilating everyone. I just respect everything that they do. Just looking at what they’ve done with Instagram, the patience that they’ve had at monetizing that product, rolling it out and making it easy to buy.

“They are making a ton of money, and everyone needs them.”

Is this the future of the local news business? Consider it a future at this point.

It’s important not to make too much of the small experiments like Charlotte Agenda. After all, it’s a small business that produces a comparatively number of stories a day, staffed by a handful of not terribly well paid people. Its audience is still small.

Yet, what makes this a story worth following is that it one of creating something from nothing. In a decade of unending local news loss, Ted Williams puts a small stake in the ground, waxes optimistic about the need to inform a new generation about local news and earnestly constructs tents of a business model around his passion.

It’s tiny, of course, but directionally important. That’s why Gannett is investing in Billy Penn, and its soon-to-be-born sister. Both Billy Penn and Charlotte Agenda embrace the elements – mobile first, conversational, a jaunty mix of high and low, events-led engagement strategy, a focus on sponsorship – that clearly form building blocks of growing local digital media businesses. The big question: How big can the house be built, with what kind of journalistic capacity?

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