How VTDigger created self-service portals to better connect its readers and boost revenue

Vermont may be one of the smallest states in the United States, but the nonprofit news site VTDigger, has a loyal following in the Green Mountain State. 

The site averages more than 350,000 visitors per month, and it wanted to find a way to better connect its dedicated audience to information and services that they would find useful — and could also bring in new revenue. 

To that end, in early 2019 VTDigger decided to launch self-serve portals for obituaries, birth and marriage announcements, press releases, real estate listings, and more. These types of resources were in high demand from readers looking for a more accessible obituary process and local businesses that wanted to use VTDigger as a public relations opportunity or job posting resource. The self-service model would also maximize the site’s limited staff resources. 

The Lenfest Institute contributed a $50,000 dollar grant to support VTDigger’s self-service portals as part of the Local News Business Model Challenge. VTDigger was one of seven grantees from around the United States focusing on experimenting with new models to support local journalism. 

You can read an overview of all the Business Model Challenge projects here, and sign up below to get all of the posts sent to your email inbox.

VTDigger launched its obituary section in March 2019, and it’s published more than 50 obits that have brought in an additional 125,000 pageviews. 55% of those users who read obituaries stay on the site for at least one more pageview.

In 2020, obits will be published for a fee, and the site expects to make $15,000 from the product. It has VTDigger also launched a PR portal where businesses can post their own press releases. The site also created a job classified section that it is now testing.

“We know there’s a need out there so we pursued that,” Anne Galloway, VTDigger’s editor in chief and executive director, said at a recent gathering of the Lenfest Institute’s Business Model Challenge grantees.

VTDigger decided to start the project focusing on obituaries. The site had previously used platforms such as Legacy.com to post obits, and those were some of the most popular stories on its site. However, the site was cluttered with ads, and VTDigger wanted to figure out its own system for posting local obituaries.

“Most of our clients are in their 70’s and 80’s,” said Galloway, “and they want to buy print and we have this disconnect because their families aren’t reading the paper and don’t necessarily know when the services are happening.”

VTDigger created a user-submitted form that would be sent right to the editorial staff for moderation and review. The form also included space to upload a photo or video, a section for inputting memorial service information and an area for readers to post their condolences. During this testing process, the site decided not to charge readers so it could first test user response.

The initial reception was favorable, pushing Galloway and the Digger team towards promoting the restyled section to attract readers outside of their existing audience. Looking forward, the goal is to increase this marketing effort with a mailing list for obituaries and other life moment announcements and visiting local funeral homes to establish connections. 

“Just because we build it doesn’t mean they’ll come,” Galloway said. “We have to make sure they know about it.” 

While the obituaries have yet to generate direct revenue, their positive reception has actually helped drive donations to VTDigger.

“Again I commend you for another addition to VTDIGGER! What a fantastic opportunity for survivors to share memories of their loved ones,” one reader commented. “Also, I have threatened to make a donation to VTDIGGER for the last couple of months. The time has come for me to put up or shut up. Can we set up an automatic monthly credit card payment?”

Another reader wrote, “I appreciate many aspects of VTDigger journalism but your obituary section is something I feel compelled to thank you for. I honestly don’t know what editorial control your team exercises over the content, but I find them thoughtful and inspiring.  I’m thankful to hear these stories and short biographies.”

This solid foundation also resulted in additional goals such as adding more announcements including wedding or birth announcements, creating a dedicated mailing list, advance sorting and filtering systems and eventually introducing payment. 

The team created a press release portal to cut down on the hours spent uploading copy. This user-generated form is organized by category and company to help integrate the form into the site’s news feed. 

“We’ve been essentially providing free advertising for a long time. For a $200 buy on our site, you can release as many press releases as you want published.” said Galloway, “A lot of people want to be able to link the press releases on our site. We want to incentivize people to post their press releases.”

Like the obituary portal, this user-driven platform has space to embed a picture, video, or map as part of the release. The form also has an option to state if you’re an underwriter or are submitting a government, allowing those to move past the payment section. Underwriters — that’s non-profit speak for advertisers — get to post press releases on from VTDigger’s site without an additional charge. Otherwise it’s $25 per individual release. It expects to make about $10,000 in 2020 from press releases, plus $24,000 in related advertising. 

Looking ahead, VTDigger wants to continue forging connections with local businesses and upsell underwriting packages, making themselves a one-stop-shop press release resource. 

It also plans to launch a classified ad section. Aiding local businesses in Vermont is essential for VTDigger, especially when hiring has proven to be a challenge in the state. Posting a job classified in a local print paper is increasingly expensive and ineffective, blocking out businesses who can’t pay the price, while the online alternative doesn’t provide reliable coverage of recent openings.  

Recognizing these gaps, Galloway and the team moved jobs to the front of their classified section. This would serve their highly educated readership looking for the next step in their careers in Vermont and boost overall productivity in the job marketplace. VTDigger expects to generate $15,000 this year from classifieds.

To expand this service, they want to invest in a formal launch of the revamped classifieds section equipped with underwriters, develop a job posting keyword and category match engine powered by email notifications, and seek out more recruiters to expand possible openings for readers. 

All of these advancements were a success for VTDigger. Though some of them need updating — the PR portal and classifieds took longer to build than expected — none of them let down the outlet in terms of revenue growth or increased engagement. All that’s left for the Digger to do is expand these sections even further to better serve the people of Vermont and create a more stable newsroom. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of responses from readers and from businesses who want us to get this going,” said Galloway, “We’re optimistic that with the organic responses we have gotten that we’ll be able to move ahead and build more readership and build more revenue over the next year.”

Creative Commons photo of the Vermont Statehouse by Jonathan King.

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