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Michael Shapiro’s NJ News Franchising Experiment

Friday Mar 06, 2015  |  0 comments

By Tara George

Michael Shapiro seems an unlikely architect of a sustainable model for hyperlocal journalism: he’s a lawyer with no background in business or in journalism.

But Shapiro claims to have found a way to make local journalism pay – and on a large scale. His franchise of TAPinto hyperlocal news websites has found a market among entrepreneurial people often with no journalism experience who are looking for a second income they can generate from home.

So far, Shapiro has 30 local news websites in the TAPinto franchise network, 28 in New Jersey and two relatively recent additions in Pennsylvania. He hopes to have ten more sold by May, and is clear about his aggressive ambitions for expansion.

“My goal is that in the next two years to have close to 100 sites,” he says during an interview in New Providence where he lives and where he and his wife started their first hyperlocal site in 2008, then called The Alternative Press. “If I can’t do it myself, I would like a strategic partner that can help us expand.”

Shapiro’s model appeals to news entrepreneurs looking for a turnkey operation that sets them up soup to nuts with a website, business model, content management system, inexpensive libel insurance, a back office billings service and tech and editorial support – all for an annual fee of $3,750 to $6,250 depending on the size of the town.

Most of his franchise-holders are not journalists, so Shapiro has hired a couple of professional reporters to train site owners in basic reporting and writing skills including how to master AP style.

Some 90 percent of his franchisees are women, many of them moms looking for flexible ways to work from home and be around for their kids. Indeed, he targets mothers groups while scoping out potential customers.

Shapiro has found that it often works best to have two owners for one town’s franchise and 70 percent of his sites operate this way. The pair often divvy up the workload, one doing the journalism and the other selling adds that cost between $200 to $750 a month depending on placement and size.

“This is not necessarily a business that requires a journalistic background,” said Jessica Marrone, who co-owns the Livingston TAP and had a previous career in business development. “Even if you have that journalistic background, you’re not going to succeed if you don’t have the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Shapiro says prospective buyers should budget between 15 and 20 hours per week on content and less time on sales, 5 to 10 hours. But franchise-holders like Marrone say the workload is more 50-50 with at least 20 hours a week on each. And time expenditure can vary greatly depending on the strengths and commitment of each individual franchise holder.

Dave Lackey said his background in local newspaper ad sales served him well when he bought into the Shapiro’s business in 2012, taking over sites for three towns: Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn. But the journalism part of the operation was much harder than he’d bargained for.

“I’d go to a meeting and that would take hours, then I’d go through my notes and pick out the quotes and the whole story would take me six or seven hours,” said Lackey, who gave up his franchise after two years, parting ways with Shapiro on good terms before moving to Brooklyn where he now runs an audio equipment business.

On the other hand, journalists who enter the fray with hyperlocal often wrestle with the sales aspect of the job. Shapiro has one such franchisee who struggles with the business end because he doesn’t “have a sales bone in his body.”

One obvious risk to having a network of news sites run by people with little to no journalism training is that the quality of journalism could suffer. The stories on the TAP sites deal with restaurant openings and closings, community and school events, or weather advisories. Stories about heavier-duty issues such as budgets are rare.

Michele McLellan, a hyperlocal analyst who publishes Michele’s List of promising local news websites, says she has not encountered another franchise model in the US and that most of the small community sites are started by journalists who were displaced by the recession. But, she says, even with experts at the helm the expectations for content are different.

“In general, looking at the sites through the prism of newspapers is an unfair comparison,” she said via email. “They are not trying to be newspapers, they are trying to be a community information service.”

Shapiro, though, is serious about TAP being about quality journalism. He says TAP has no agenda, no editorial page and no anonymous comments, a way of keeping the vile potential of the Internet chatter out of the community mouthpiece.

“Our goal is to put out high quality, objective, original local news,” says Shapiro.

TAP readership is growing. In 2014 the network had over 9 million page views and over 3 million unique visitors. The highest performing site was Westfield with 487,179 page views last year. The lowest was Milltown/Spotswood with 4,952.

Shapiro says he’s prevented by law from making profit predictions for his sites, and franchisees say profits can vary wildly depending on the work ethic of the franchise holder and the size of the town. But revenue goals that get bandied about are $30,000 to $50,000 in revenue the first year, $50,000 to 85,000 the second.

This month, Shapiro plans to unveil a long-promised redesign of his site, eliminating what he admits is an unappealing “diner menu” choppy layout. Instead, photos will be larger and franchisees will be able to move their ads inside their content.

“And,” he says, “we’ll be mobile friendly as 51 percent of traffic comes from mobile.”

It’s fair to point out, however, that Shapiro has been promising the vaunted redesign for almost a year. And some independent hyperlocal publishers in New Jersey, who have managed to create their own sites and sell their own advertising, find local TAP franchisees to be lightweight competitors–as most editors lack journalism experience.

“Content is still king,” says Virginia Citrano, publisher of My Verona NJ. “As someone who has spent 30 years writing and editing, I don’t find their writing as engaging as it could be. Unless you’re a stop sign, nobody has to read you.”

DataDay
ICYMI: Video from Data Day 2015!

Monday Mar 02, 2015  |  0 comments

On February 26, the Center for Cooperative Media teamed up with representatives from FindTheBest.com, NJ Databook, The Record, EthnicNJ, NJ Advance Media, Parse.ly, and several other local data journalists from around NJ to bring you Data Day 2015.
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A Look Back at Your 2014 Brags

Wednesday Jan 07, 2015  |  1 comment

Well folks, it’s officially 2015. Here at the Center for Cooperative Media, that means it’s time for us to reflect on the previous year in the hopes that the next one will be even better. So, in the spirit of nostalgia and self-aggrandizement, here are some of the best brags of 2014 from across the NJ news ecosystem. (If you didn’t send a brag in after we asked, you just failed Marketing 101.)

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Judge: Parsippany Focus Protected by New Jersey Shield Law

Friday Sep 26, 2014  |  0 comments

By JOE AMDITIS

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 3.50.04 PM

Frank Cahill, main writer and chief editor of Parsippany Focus, an online newspaper serving the Parsippany-Troy Hills community.

In a victory for press freedom and online journalism in New Jersey, a Superior Court judge has ruled in favor of Frank Cahill, the chief writer and editor of his local online newspaper, Parsippany Focus. The ruling affirms that Cahill and the Focus are protected under New Jersey’s Shield Law.

Shield laws are meant to protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources, and New Jersey’s Shield Law is often heralded as one of the strongest in the country. With the advent of the Internet, however, some people claimed that the lines between journalism and personal blogging had become blurred; that there was an inherent different between print and online journalism – and that’s where Frank Cahill and Parsippany Focus come in.

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Bringing Data Into the Sunshine

Thursday Mar 20, 2014  |  0 comments

By DEBBIE GALANT

Imagine, says Waldo Jaquith, director of the U.S. Open Data Institute, that weather data was treated like much other government data. Say you had to file a Freedom of Information Request to get it, and when you did get it — weeks later — not only was the storm you were interested in long gone, but you got it as a PDF?

Luckily, in 1870, Congress established The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce, which would ultimately become the National Weather Service. As a result, weather data is free and plentiful.

First print edition of New Brunswick Today. Credit: Charlie Kratovil
Digging Deep in New Brunswick

Monday Jan 06, 2014  |  1 comment

Two Rutgers graduates are doing local news in New Brunswick by going full throttle on investigative reporting.

New Brunswick Today is run by Sean Monahan, its 32-year-old publisher, and Charlie Kratovil, its 28-year-old editor. The two are determined to make this venture work both on the journalistic level and as a business proposition.

“We have a product that people really want,” Kratovil said during a recent interview. “People want the news. It helps that we are young and interested in our city and feeling positive. ”

Left to Right: Charlie Kratovil, editor, and Sean Monahan, publisher, of New Brunswick Today.

Left to Right: Charlie Kratovil, editor, and Sean Monahan, publisher, of New Brunswick Today. Credit: Debbie Galant

According to the duo, New Brunswick Today is doing well, with a roster of paid freelancers and volunteer staff, lots of media attention (Kratovil has been featured on Chasing New Jersey, and other stories and video have been picked up by News 12 New Jersey and Fox 5), a new print edition, and a grant from NJ News Commons for investigative journalism.

Dodge Foundation
Sharing to Survive

Wednesday Nov 27, 2013  |  0 comments

Sharing to Survive (via The Dodge Blog)

I know how hard it is to share. I’m a first child. I am hard-wired to want to be the first in everything: the best, the brightest, the most loved. Not only that, but I was born and bred to be a journalist. I grew up outside of Washington, DC, the…

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Taking Stock of Anniversaries

Tuesday Oct 29, 2013  |  0 comments

For all the talk of journalism’s noble past and uncertain future, the truth is that journalism’s day-to-day is a lot like slinging hash. Everyday journalism is produced quickly, in massive quantities, in front of a live audience.

Think Rt. 22 diner, not Le Cirque. Cheeseburger, fries, soda. Crime tape, victim, arrest.

hyperlocal
Hyperlocal Time Machine

Monday Jul 29, 2013  |  0 comments

Hyperlocal Manifesto: A Piece From 1880 in the Red Bank Register (via http://broadstreetads.com)

It almost brought a tear to our eye when we came across a stirring piece in an 1880 copy of the Red Bank Register, apparently reprinted from the Burlington Hawkeye, “Iowa’s Oldest Newspaper.” Although it was written 130+ years ago, it seems more relevant…


Jerry demarco
DeMarco: Being First Was No Solace

Thursday Jul 18, 2013  |  0 comments

This is without doubt the first time I’m not proud of beating the competition by a good long time:

Former prosecutor Fahy suicide victim on Route 17

I wouldn’t have thought much of the initial suicide call, but law enforcement shut down both sides of the highway indefinitely during the height of the evening rush. What’s more, a photo someone sent me from the scene showed what looked like 20 officers from various agencies, local and county.

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Tending to the Business Side

Thursday May 30, 2013  |  0 comments

When I started Baristanet, one of the first hyperlocal news sites in the country, in 2004, I didn’t realize I was starting a new industry.

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