One of the brightest lights in local journalism suffered a setback late last year when Raleigh Agenda, the sister site of Charlotte Agenda, closed its doors after failing to find a sustainable business model.
But the closure of the site didn't prevent the parent company from banking a comfortable profit in 2016, said Ted Williams, Charlotte Agenda's cofounder and publisher. The company brought in about $875,000 in 2016, mostly from sponsorship deals supplemented by ad campaigns and job listings.
Sponsors have included big names like Uber and Bank of America as well as regional and local businesses.
"It is mostly brand advertising aimed at reaching the next generation of our city with our authentic voice," Williams said.
Charlotte Agenda, which was launched in 2015 with an initial investment of $50,000, is on track to book more than $1 million this year, Williams said. For comparison's sake, it lost about $45,000 the first year it debuted with the understanding that incurring costs would pay off down the line.
That bet paid off. Nearly two years since its founding, Charlotte Agenda now has 375,000 unique visitors per month and 1.3 million pageviews. It has 23,500 newsletter subscribers (with a 50 percent open rate) and 67,500 Instagram followers. The company has six full-time employees, four part-time employees and about 10 core freelancers.
About 70 percent of Charlotte Agenda's revenue in 2016 came from annual sponsorship deals, Williams said. Job ads and limited-run ad campaigns comprised 10 percent each. The remaining 10 percent came from membership (5 percent) and event listings (5 percent).
"We try to stay away from direct response (advertising) because Facebook and Google are really good at it," Williams said.
Roping in regional ad deals became the biggest obstacle to replicating the success of Charlotte Agenda's business model in Raleigh, Williams said. The company was able to save money by taking care of administrative work in Charlotte, but it wasn't enough to find a path to financial sustainability. Ultimately, two newsroom employees lost their jobs.
“The advertising market is tough," Williams said. "And it’s only going to get tougher.”
While local ad spending will go up, especially in metro markets like Charlotte, Facebook and Google will continue to be the big winners, he said. If digital-first local news organizations are going to survive, they will have to tout their authenticity and connections to communities as major selling points for advertisers.
Another problem facing companies like Charlotte Agenda is finding digital business expertise in local markets, Williams said. Much of that talent is clustered in major markets like New York, but savvy talent remains indispensable for local media entrepreneurs.
An expansion back to Raleigh or another city is not currently in the works for Charlotte Agenda, although Williams said he wouldn't rule it out as a possibility. Instead, the company will focus on new ventures in Charlotte: A (printed!) guide for newcomers and, in 2019, an events business.
Although Williams said he isn't bullish on print as a business staple, he thinks a magazine-style guide has major upsides for readers and advertisers. Businesses that want to reach newcomers can take out ads that have value for months at a time.
Reference guides have a literal shelf life and can be spontaneously discovered at apartment complexes, businesses and real estate offices. And it's in line with Charlotte Agenda's mission, which is to be a user's guide to Charlotte.
Over the next few months, Charlotte Agenda will hire between one and three additional employees to shoulder the additional workload, Williams said.
The revenue boom in 2016 was mostly the handiwork of Chief Operating Officer Cristina Wilson, who helped nail down additional sponsors and convince existing ones to stay. One of the keys to Charlotte Agenda's success has been cultivating mutual respect and collegiality between the news and business-side employees, Wilson said.
"...It's been really refreshing to be a part of an organization that values advertising itself so highly," she said. "In a lot of other media businesses, I think the advertising can end up feeling like the enemy, or like you're forcing readers to 'eat their vegetables.'"
By contrast, employees at Charlotte Agenda think "readers genuinely want to hear from local brands who can help them make smarter decisions, as long as we are creating content that's useful and relevant," she said.
"That mentality makes a huge difference in the content creation and distribution process, and ultimately the effectiveness."