The publisher of The Alternative Press, Michael Shapiro, left his position as a litigator at a law firm in New York City to launch the site in October 2008. A longtime blogger, he started The Alternative Press (the online-only alternative to printed papers in the area) in just his hometown of New Providence, NJ. But the coverage area expanded quickly and now includes 10 surrounding communities. He says life has improved since trading in his legal eagle wings for community news, even though he’s still pulling 20-hour days.
Notably, Shapiro’s territory includes Millburn and Westfield, where he rubs shoulders with some big-time media players–Patch (recently bought by AOL) and The New York Times’ The Local (in Millburn)–experimenting in hyperlocal.
How has the launch of Patch and The New York Times’ The Local blog affected your business?
It’s interesting; I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far with how it’s affected our business. Before they got there, I wondered how it was going to impact us. I thought the lure of a big company, with lots of money, would cause a problem. But, we’ve not only held our own, we’ve attracted a lot of their users and one of their reporters came over to us.
The only place its hurt us is in the area of publicity. Believe it or not, despite what we’re doing and the success we’ve had, not a single media outlet has covered us at all. They’ve done all of these stories about Patch, The New York Times, and BaristaNet and here we are, I created the site from scratch, we’re bringing in money, we’re bringing in more in revenues than any of those sites with the possible exception of BaristaNet, which has been around for years, and nobody has covered it. [Editor's Note: The NYT launched a self-service advertising vehicle for The Local on Wednesday.]
It’s kind of frustrating because it’s like, “this is newsworthy!” Here’s a local guy, with all local people competing with them in the same market and we’re never mentioned. If it was something were we weren’t getting traffic or we had no advertisers, I well could understand it. But at this point, we have more advertising than both of them combined. That’s incredible to me.
Have you done marketing to get the word out?
We’ve done PRNewswire and other things to get publicity but nobody picks it up. Otherwise we have grassroots pr. We’re at the Summit street fair and we’re doing email marketing. But, that kind of limits us at this point. Our traffic keeps going up, but if we could get mentioned in a major publication, even in the stories they’re doing about Patch or the Times, our users would go through the roof.
Talk about how you’ve been able to ramp up so quickly. Your staff has grown right along with your coverage area, how have you been able to manage it?
We now have over 100 paid freelance reporters, over 20 columnists and a 3-member sales team, all built up since October.
On the sales and business side, one avenue has been bringing on people like realtors or people with sales experience who are looking for part-time gigs. Like moms whose kids are gone in the morning until three, so they have that chunk of the day and then they’re back to being moms.
Basically, we’re always looking for sales people. We are struggling to handle the volume, we cannot handle the number of calls coming into us. Just in our 10 towns alone, there are approximately 20,000 businesses, so we need more bodies reaching out to the businesses that are not calling us.
What do you see as the potential for growth on your sites?
We have almost unlimited space for advertising, even if we hit the space we can start rotating ads. If we do a back of the envelope, it’s literally millions in revenue. We say to people you can advertise on our site for as little as $99 up to google.
We have a free business directory. For $99 you get an annual premium directory listing, which includes a logo or photo, a link to their website and it comes up first in the directory.
The same goes for real estate listing, which runs $15 to post your house for 3 months, as well as the community calendar. Inventory for those is basically unlimited, but our sales people aren’t even selling them right now.
As far as growing the number of towns, we could be in 100 towns tomorrow, but my feeling is you do it right. Before we launch, we go to do outreach to leaders, build a local advisory board, and put some reporters on the ground.
We’re probably going to continue a gradual expansion to more town in our area. I don’t know if we’ll grow at the pace we went in the first year because 10 towns is a lot to cover.