Inside TAPinto’s franchise model for local news

Since 2004, more than one-fourth of newspapers in the United States have disappeared. Of the 2,100 papers that have shuttered, more than 2,000 of them are weekly or non-daily papers that largely reported on smaller towns and cities, according to University of North Carolina research.

In many communities, these closures have left a gap in coverage of day-to-day news — everything from government and schools to youth sports and updates on small businesses. 

There are many ongoing efforts to try and fill the gaps left by legacy outlets. One of those is TAPinto, a franchised network of 85 news sites across the northeast and southeast. The sites are free to read and supported by local advertising. 

“We’d love to expand what we’re doing, if [towns] want to help fill the void of local news in their communities,” Founder and CEO Michael Shapiro said in an interview. 

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to tap into TAPinto’s franchise model, examine how it has found a way to serve communities through a collection of online local news sites, and discuss its approach to local advertising. 


 

Solution Set is a weeklyish newsletter from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. We take an in-depth look at one worthwhile strategy in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.  

Here’s the TLDR: 


TLDR

The Challenge: To create a sustainable model for local news, TAPinto developed a franchise model. 

The Strategy: TAPinto sites are individually owned, but they can share coverage and resources across the network.

The Numbers: Currently, there are 85 TAPinto sites in the northeast and southeast. 

The Lessons: The TAPinto sites have learned to work closely with their communities and respond to their needs and successfully sell ads.

The Future: TAPinto believes that there is potential for sites all over the country and hopes to keep expanding.

Want to know more?: Scroll down for additional coverage of TAPinto and other efforts looking to reinvent local news. 

Anything to add?: Our colleagues at SpotlightPA just launched a Diverse Source Database of Pennsylvania experts as a public service for all journalists. Scroll down to learn more about the project.


The Challenge

After his son had successful open-heart surgery in 2008, Michael Shapiro decided to rethink his career as a lawyer. He wanted to change focus and work on something that would benefit his local community in New Jersey. 

He got into local news. Shapiro lived in northern New Jersey and saw legacy outlets recede across the region amid the recession. So starting with a small team of freelance reporters and salespeople, Shapiro launched the first TAPinto news site, covering his town of New Providence, NJ along with sites covering the nearby towns of Summit and Berkeley Heights. 

In 2009, he left his full-time law job to solely focus on TAPinto, and the site continued to grow expanding into other markets. 

Around the same time, AOL bought Patch, its own network of hyperlocal news sites, which it expanded rapidly across the country. But in 2013 AOL decided to cut back, gutting Patch with layoffs and site closures. Shapiro saw an opportunity to expand TAPinto. (Patch has since relaunched and grown under new ownership — and it’s now reportedly an acquisition target.) 

As it looked to grow, TAPinto began licensing its brand and technology to new owners to run their own sites. But as TAPinto continued to expand, Shapiro decided to pursue a franchise model, which afforded him more control as franchisees are required to run their sites in line with certain procedures. (Think of how all McDonald’s look the same, for example.) 

In late 2013, licensees were offered the opportunity to convert their license into a franchise, and within a year after, all of the original sites were franchised.

Jackie Lieberman joined TAPinto as a freelancer in 2011. Now, she is the franchise owner and publisher of the Westfield, N.J. site

“I thought, ‘wow, this is really where local news is going. I want to be part of this.’ I didn’t know how yet, but I knew that I wanted to be on the ground floor,” Lieberman said.

TAPinto’s sites seek to cover the nuts-and-bolts of local news. Recent stories on Lieberman’s Westfield site include Westfield ‘Be The Light’ Luminary Project Raises Over $30,000 to Fight Hunger, Westfield: 10 Things to do to Get in the Holiday Spirit, and Online Market Offers Holiday Shop Options from Westfield Merchants.

The sites are largely ad-supported and are free to read. 

But as the company continued to expand, it needed to continue to develop editorial strategies that work for both the individual sites as well as the network as a whole while also developing sustainable revenue models. 


The Strategy

One of the keys to TAPinto’s franchise model is that they are built on a common infrastructure that enables publishers to share coverage with one another and sell advertising. 

Through TAPinto’s publishing platform, the franchisees essentially just plug into the company’s templated websites and are able to begin posting stories, pictures, and videos without much technological background. The CMS also enables the sites to share coverage. TAPinto also offers sales and journalism training for publishers.

“The CMS is built for collaboration and communication among the site,” Shapiro said.

TAPinto pulls in its revenue from advertising and marketing with more than 500 advertisers across its network. The site offers content marketing, which can include a sponsorship that has a featured branded column. 

Each franchise sells its own advertising, though they can also share ads across the network. The individual franchisees also offer email marketing in both its daily newsletter and dedicated email blasts for subscribers, social media marketing, native advertising, exclusive sponsorships, branded content opportunities, and traditional online advertising. 

The site includes a milestones section, where people can pay to have milestones published such as graduations, weddings, or the birth of a child.

Darlene Cullen, who owns TAPinto South Plainfield in New Jersey, said sales initially came from connecting with people that she knew and cold calling referrals. In the current world, it’s more based on emails and Zoom meetings with clients. 

“I’m finding it harder and harder because we can’t really get together,” Cullen said. “I enjoy getting together with people to sell this item that is only online, and I can’t bring you a paper and show you what an ad is gonna look like.”

Despite the pandemic, advertisers and local businesses seem to stick with TAPinto because the site has earned their trust throughout the years and built up truly local readership. The idea of TAPinto was to develop the coverage that resonates with local residents. 

“We built their trust and we’ve become a place that [readers] go to for information,” Lieberman said.

Beyond its hyperlocal coverage, TAPinto is creating more regional reporting that can be used by sites across the network to supplement their core coverage. Lieberman started NJ Flavor in November 2018, which provides statewide New Jersey food reporting for the 55 towns in TAPinto’s network. The advertising side of NJ Flavor is regional instead of hyperlocal, which means it can offer advertisers a larger audience of interested readers. 

TAPinto also offers franchises to a wide variety of owners. In July, the Southern Ocean County New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, located on the Jersey Shore, franchised the site covering Little Egg Harbor & Tuckerton from TAPinto as a way to try and support additional reporting on businesses in the area. 

The chamber of commerce’s main mission is to promote and foster economic growth, and it thought that independent journalism in the community would help advance that mission. Prior to launching the site, it had always been issuing press releases, generating sponsored stories, pumping out social media content, and more. 

But it wasn’t attracting the audience it wanted. As a result, the chamber decided to start a TAPinto franchise to share key community news, CEO Lori Pepenella told me in an interview. 

“The TAPinto network is such a real asset to have because they have stories that other writers put out there, especially when you’re talking about the bigger statewide picture or an individual issue,” Pepenella said. “It’s a great network to be a part of.”

Although they might not be doing hard-hitting accountability journalism, it’s news that helps people live and lead better lives in their communities, as well as helping local businesses connect with people in their markets. 

For example, in South Plainfield, N.J. some of the most popular TAPinto stories are about the events going on in the community, including what’s happening at the local senior center.

“They have Meatball Monday, Taco Tuesday. So what we do is we help them get the word out that Monday is Meatball Monday and what to expect on the menu. It’s goofy, but it works,” Cullen, the site’s owner, said. “People like the human interest.”


The Numbers

There are currently 85 TAPinto sites across the country in New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Florida. Like most news organizations, their readership has spiked since COVID-19. 

In February 2020, TAPinto attracted 1.46 million monthly unique users, 3.5 million monthly pageviews, 231,436 Facebook followers, and 212,839 newsletter subscribers across the network

By October 2020, TAPinto had strong growth of 1.9 million monthly unique users, 4.79 million monthly pageviews, 257,108 Facebook followers, and 264,719 newsletter subscribers.

In March 2020, the Westfield, N.J. site — one of the most-read in the TAPinto network — had more than 400,000 pageviews with a population of approximately 30,000 people. A typical month brings in 200,000-300,000 pageviews per month. 

“Our readership has just gone through the roof,” Lieberman, the site’s owner, said.

For South Plainfield, the population is about 23,000 and their pageviews are approximately 75,000-80,000 per month — including many readers who no longer live in the town. 

“What makes me happy is that many people, whether they retired to Florida, the Carolinas, wherever they are, they’re following TAPinto because they feel that they’re still finding out what’s going on in their hometown,” Cullen said.

Across the TAPinto network, the sites work with approximately 500 advertisers. As of late May, only 16 clients had paused their accounts due to the coronavirus lockdowns, and the site brought in more than three times that amount of revenue lost in April thanks to new contracts, Shapiro said. 

“It’s really because our sites are locally owned and operated, we’re really covering original local news everyday, and advertisers want to be where the eyeballs are, and clearly right now the eyeballs are online,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro wouldn’t share specific revenue figures, but he said franchisee advertising revenue increased by more than 10% in January through October 2020 in comparison to January through October 2019. 

New TAPinto franchisees require initial investment between $6,175 and $10,025 when starting their sites, according to Entrepreneur. Starting a franchise requires an initial fee of $4,000, and franchisees then have ongoing royalty fees of $400 to $600 or more per month. 


The Lessons

• Centering your community creates better journalism and better business

Maintaining local ownership of the sites, the TAPinto franchisees across the country have come to know their communities and what their audience is specifically interested in reading. By focusing on local events and other news that was traditionally covered by local newspapers, TAPinto strives to bring towns together through their coverage to provide a sense of community. 

“Not everything is about murder or the budget. You know, you could share ridiculous stories,” Cullen said.

Readers enjoy seeing highlights of kids sports teams in their town. Reporting on all of the local events happening truly helps the community to remain engaged. 

“There’s a lot happening and it’s really important that people understand what’s happening and have access to information that will help keep them healthy and safe,” Lieberman said. 

TAPinto aims to be the eyes and ears of the town, and listening to its community’s needs in surveys and other forms of feedback is a huge portion of getting them the news that they need on a daily basis.

“The real point of this is you can make it work the way your neighborhood needs it or how your town needs. You can really mold it to whatever your audience needs,” Lieberman said.

This type of model appeals to advertisers because the franchisees actually have their fingers on the pulse of the community and understand the needs and wants of their target audience. When selling to advertisers, it’s important for them to understand the businesses in the community and what the readers are looking for. 

Another benefit: Because the majority of the audiences of TAPinto’s sites actually live in the communities, advertisers know they’re reaching a dedicated target audience. 

Collaborate with neighboring towns

TAPInto’s common CMS enables its sites to share content and work with one another, even if they aren’t in person. 

NJ Flavor, the section of TAPinto that explores foods and tastes throughout the Garden State, is one way of how the sites can share content — and advertising revenue — with one another. 

“Any site in New Jersey can opt in to get NJ Flavor stories on a section of their site, so I’m in more than 55 towns now with that site,” Lieberman said. “They get all the stories and all my ads get seen on their sites.”

The different towns help each other out, too. For example, in the height of the spring wave of the pandemic, the New Jersey sites would take turns having someone cover Governor Phil Murphy’s daily pandemic update press conferences each day for everyone. 

“It had such an impact locally that we needed to cover that,” Lieberman said.

Running the statewide stories together is helpful for audiences, and if one town has a story that could be equally relevant in another town, it can be picked up. If something happens on the border or crosses over towns, the sites are able to work together.

Work with local businesses 

TAPinto’s partnerships with local businesses is what supports and funds its work, so it’s critical that it fosters positive business relationships with community members.  

For example, in April, TAPinto provided free content marketing to any business in its coverage area that was struggling from the pandemic. To try and boost its advertising revenue across the network it also held two webinars for local businesses covering the value of content marketing as well as a special grand re-opening for new advertisers, which provides them with introductory packages and a reduced rate. 

“The local business community is the backbone of our community,” Shapiro said.

Cullen emphasized that she’s not a pushy seller, which helps build those relationships.  

“I tell you what we’re all about, I understand budgets, but then I just ask, ‘Can I just reach back out to you in like a month or two?’,” Cullen said. “I’m very laid back, and it’s worked for me.”

Partnering with the Chamber of Commerce has also been helpful for both TAPinto and the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce. It allows the Chamber of Commerce to merge with the strong network of TAPinto, and it is another franchise for TAPinto. 

“It’s a desire to make sure our communities are connected in that way,” said Pepenella, the chamber’s CEO. “When working with businesses, we make sure that we provide them the easiest way to access what they need to be successful.”


The Future

TAPInto is certainly looking to continue expanding across the country. Its goal is to have 250 sites in the next three years, Shaprio said.

Shapiro also said the company is looking to hire a director of content to help coordinate and manage coverage across the network. 

“They would not only be in charge of making sure our standards are enforced across the network of sites, but in addition they would work with the sites to collaborate more readily and also likely doing at least one statewide story each week that is relevant to the towns,” Shapiro said.

TAPinto also continues to adjust to the pandemic, for instance it is ramping up promotion of its milestones section to make it easier to celebrate virtual events or small COVID-friendly weddings. 

Finally, Lieberman is looking to expand more with NJ Flavor by selling more advertisements regionally and by collaborating with additional  franchisees. Lieberman believes there is room for plenty of growth.


Want to know more?

  • For more background on Michael Shapiro, check out Local Media Association’s article
  • Shapiro offered insights into the franchise process in this interview with the Passage to Profit podcast
  • Axios recently profiled another attempt at creating a broader network of local news coverage. Here’s its story on how Patch is building a local newsletter platform for journalists.

Anything to add?

Hey — it’s Joseph. I wanted to share an update from our colleagues at Spotlight PA, which last week launched a Diverse Source Database. The Database is a collection of more than 100 Pennsylvania-based sources who made their contact information available to all journalists.

Here’s more detail from Spotlight PA:

Like every database, there are limitations. There are people who don’t trust the media, who don’t want to be singled out in this way, or whom Spotlight PA has missed because of its own limitations.

This is also just a small step in the commitment to diversify journalism in the state. The database is a tool to help journalists expand and improve their coverage, and Spotlight PA has invited all of its 58 partner newsrooms to participate, nominate, and use it. Spotlight PA will continue to use its leadership position in this collaborative network to advocate for greater representation and inclusion in coverage throughout the state.

In addition, Spotlight PA has created a new Twitter handle, @PA_Sources, which will feature experts from the database each day and highlight when they appear in coverage.

The Spotlight team told me they’d be happy to share more about the thinking behind the project — as well as their materials and code — if anyone would like to learn more. Please feel free to reach out.

Thanks, and we’ll be back with our next issue before the end of the year.

Photo of Westfield, NJ Photo_Land / Shutterstock

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