How to Become a Local Publisher
A guide for great writers who are looking to start their own hyperlocal news website.
You're a passionate writer. It might be your full time gig now, or just a side thing, but you've finally decided that you want start your own local blog.
You don't know where to start
This is a guide for helping you get set up. We'll walk you through getting web space, free publishing software, how to run ads on your site, and how to get involved in the larger publisher community. You're doing a great thing by becoming an independent, local journalist. Every town needs one of you!
This was written by two software guys that have worked with and for some of the most well-known local blogs in the US. If you get stuck somewhere below, don't hesitate to ask for help: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You have a lot of choices when it comes to hosting a news blog, but it's important that you make the right choice. The type of software you'll need is called a Content Management System (CMS). This is software that is installed to a web server. The most popular free choices for local blogs are:
Of the four above, Wordpress is the recommended choice for the following reasons:
- It's the best supported by the developer community
- It has the most themes/designs
- You will be able to find developers easier if you should need one
- More plugins (functionality extensions) are available
- The most famous hyperlocals use it
- More web hosts support it
- It is the most flexible
It is possible to get started using a free account using a service like Tumblr and Blogger, but you'll find that the ability to customize your blog and grow a business will become a challenge down the road. Unless you have tightly-held convictions, go with Wordpress.
The one definite cost you will incur is for a web host. Web host costs can range from as little as $8 per month to $100/month. The makers of Wordpress list a variety of hosts, but this guide strongly recommends WPEngine for the following reasons:
- WPEngine specializes in Wordpress
- Wordpress installation is done for you
- Their team is dedicated to keeping their platform fast
- They achieve page load times much faster than the average Wordpress install
- Backups and safety precautions are taken care of for you
You can get started with WPEngine at $29/month. It's a little more expensive than other hosting options, but the ease of use and reliability is well worth it in our opinion.
Disclosure: We do have a partnership with WPEngine. But we only partnered with them because they're the best in the Wordpress hosting business, and we needed someone reliable to refer hosting needs to.
- Decide on a platform (recommended: Wordpress)
- Get hosting (recommended: WPEngine)
Once you've found hosting, ask your webhost support team how to set up Wordpress. Most web hosts can easily install it for you. If you chose WPEngine, it will already be installed for you.
When you're up and rolling with plenty of content and readers, it's time to monetize your site. After all, you're an entrepreneur too, right? Getting local businesses to advertise on your site is the classic route for building a sustainable, revenue-generating local blog.
Getting ads on your site is commnly done in one of two ways:
1. Install an Advertising Module or Plugin to Your Platform
Most publishing platforms such as Wordpress, Drupal, and Joomla offer easy ways for-non technical people to add new functionality to their site via installable "plugins" or "modules". The plugins usually give you a way to upload an image (like an ad), and place it in your site's sidebar or header. This is the easiest option, but not recommended due to long-term considerations.
For Wordpress, the most popular plugins include:
The big downside of this approach to advertising is that as you grow, you may find managing multiple advertisers and ads becomes increasingly difficult. For this reason, most hyperlocals soon move on to using an adserver.
Another serious downside is that your web server is taxed heavily by the burden of serving images and other heavy files. The reasons behind this are purely technical, but it's important to keep in mind when growing.
Overall, this is a great option for those starting out, but it's expected you'll move on to a full-on ad server soon.
2. Use A Hosted Ad Server
The ad server topic is much easier to address than it was 5 years ago. Recently, companies such as Broadstreet (ie, us), Google and OpenX have begin offering hosted ad server services, meaning they handle the dirty work of actually running the ad server software. You just need to sign up and manage your ads.
This is the general workflow for putting ads on your site with an ad server:
- Sign up for a free account with Broadstreet, OpenX or Google DFP
- Set up sub-accounts for each advertiser on your adserver account
- Set up the site sections/zones on your site in the adserver account
- Upload your advertiser's ads
- Specify which ads should show in which zones
- Get the HTML embed codes for each zone, and place them on your site*
Getting all this set up can be a complicated process! But you'll thank yourself when managing those 50 local advertisers becomes mostly painless.
They were already mentioned, but the three recommended adserver options for your local blog are:
Disclosure: The writers behind BeALocalPublisher.com are the developers of the Broadstreet Adserver for Independent Publishers. We built it specifically for fixed price ads that aren't sold on a CPM or CPC basis. As an added bonus, it integrates very smoothly with Wordpress, something other adservers don't do. Reach out to email@example.com for more information.
On Ad Sizes
It's best to set up ad slots and ads that fall into to the Interactive Advertising Bureau's standard set of ad sizes. Many local publishers roll with their own custom sizes for a while, but ultimately try and make the transition to standard sizes. Get started right!
Using common ad sizes make your site's ad "inventory" more agreeable to advertisers, especially if you ever want to run national ads on your site or use drop-in "remnant" ads like those from Local Yokel or Google Adsense.
The most common sizes are:
- 728x90, "Leaderboard" (Commonly used at the top on bottom of a page)
- 300x250, "Box Ads", or "Medium Rectangle" (Commonly used in sidebars, or embedded in articles)
- 180x150, "Rectangle"
- 160x600, "Wide Skyscraper" (Commonly used in thin sidebars)
There is also a set of newer ad sizes that are gaining popularity:
- 970x250, "Billboard" (Used most often at the top of the page. For a big and attention-grabbing premium slot)
- 300x250, "Filmstrip" (Used in sidebars, also big and attention grabbing)
- 300x1050, "Portrait" (Wide and very long, runs the full length of the browser viewing area for most people)
The IAB has a list of display guidelines on their website.
It's always good to remember that bigger ads yield the highest clicks. Sometimes it can be tempting to squeeze in many "button" ads, at 125x125, but they are falling out of favor due to poor performance.
Having a software developer available isn't required to start your own local blog, but knowing one to call on for occasional tasks can be very handy, especially for:
- Custom changes to your site theme
- Building functionality that you can't find in plugins or modules
- General technical troubleshooting
- Helping with site downtime
Part of the reason it was so important to choose the right publishing platform is that it can greatly affect how many developers are available to you. For example, there are lots of Wordpress developers, but not so many Joomla developers. And ultimately, the balance of supply and demand will drive the rates you end up paying to a developer.
Finding a good web developer can be done in a few different ways:
- Asking friends or associates who are also in the publishing business for recommendations (other publishers are often willing to share their developer)
- Posting to Craigslist's help-wanted section
- Searching LinkedIn or Google
When evaluating a web developer, always be sure to have a look at their portfolio and ask for references from past clients.
Here are some signs that you've found a great web developer to work on your site.
- They have spoken at one or more conferences
- They have written one or more plugins/modules for the platform you are using
- They have an account on github.com, a collaborative coding hub for developers
- They make code changes on the live version of websites last, after they've tried them in a test environment (commonly referred to as "development" or "staging")
The rate of a good developer can vary wildly, with major factors including geographical location, background, and brass. In the end, you will "get what you pay for". Expect to pay rates similar to these:
- Beginning developer: $30 - $40 / hr
- Seasoned developer: $40 - $60 / $hr
- Talented, in-demand developer: $60 - $90 / hr
In a city, these rates can be boosted dramatically, meaning that a talented developer might charge as much as $150 / hr in areas like NYC or San Francisco, making them prohibitively expensive.
Most hyperlocals should be able to secure a solid, reliable developer in the $30 - $60 / hr range.
In terms of managing costs with a web developer, it's always wise to ask for an hourly estimate for any task you ask them to perform ahead of time.
The hyperlocal publisher community is growing, and getting involved in it is highly encouraged, for your own sake. Each year, publishers gather at conferences like Block by Block to share tips and exchange advice. Getting to know people who have been through what you're going through is invaluable.
Here are some starting points for getting involved:
- Block by Block Conference Website
- Local Indie Online Publishers Facebook Group
- Local Independent Online News
We hope this has helped! It will remain a work-in-progress, and will be updated as new services and better tools for local publishers become available. If you have any questions about anything in this guide, don't hesitate to email: firstname.lastname@example.org