On Monday, the Erik Wemple Blog featured a story on DNAinfo.com, a Manhattan local news site that’s branching out into the other boroughs of New York City. To do so, it’s hiring 15 journalists, boosting the editorial staff to around 40 positions.
The post stopped short of hailing DNAinfo.com as a emulable model for news entrepreneurs. That’s because the name of its benefactor, Joe Ricketts, commonly adjoins the word “billionaire.” A DNAinfo.com executive said this when asked about profitability: “I can’t comment on that,” said Publisher and Editorial Director Leela de Kretser. Of Ricketts, she noted, “His investment allows us to do this.. . . He wants a profitable media company, and that’s what I think we’ll be.”
The piece triggered a pointed rejoinder in the comments section from “NedBerke.” The commenter took after de Kretser’s boast that DNAinfo.com had snared 150 advertisers in the first quarter:
I know the average ad spend of a local business online because I sell it myself, and 150 advertisers ain’t producing enough income for 40 employees and all of their other overhead. Nor will it.
“NedBerke,” it turns out, is Ned Berke. He is the founder of a SheepsheadBites.com, a neighborhood blog launched in 2008 to chronicle the “daily experiences of living in Brooklyn’s best neighborhood, Sheepshead Bay.” Berke also runs a more recently christened neighborhood site, BensonhurstBean.com. A chat with Berke yields the Five Lessons of Launching a Local News Site without a Billionaire:
1) Be prepared for misery: “It’s an incredible struggle,” says Berke, noting that he spends eight to 10 iron-butt hours in front of the computer, plus untold additional ones on sales and covering meetings. Thinking time is another big one. “When you own your own business, you are thinking about it all the time,” says Berke.
2) Use freeware: Berke kept his launch costs to $10 by using open-source platforms and other freebies. “It took almost nothing to get it off the ground,” he says. “I got a free template that I customized myself and then just started publishing news,” he says. That latter part costs nothing. “You just gotta show up,” says Berke.
3) Be jealous: If you have a moneybags sponsor, says Berke, you can afford to hand out “magnets and stickers and sponges.” Without a moneybags sponsor, “magnets and stickers and sponges” are harder to come by, though Berke says he’s stepping up his doodad game. A DNAinfo.com spokeswoman confirms that the site hands out stress balls at street fairs, as well as other items.
4) No numbers: Ask Berke what his revenues are. Not saying. What he pays freelancers. Not saying. What his salary is. Not saying (nor should he). What he’d sell his sites for. Say, $300,000? “Oh, I don’t think so,” he replies. A mill? He responds with a barely comprehensible mumble. He does inform that he’s 27.
5) Executives are off limits: Big shots who show up at an office to talk strategy and arrange meetings with other big shots — a la corporate media — will not find room on the SheepsheadBites.com payroll. Berke pulls down a salary and there’s another full-timer who’s paid on commission, he says (no health bennies). “There’s no room for bloat,” says Berke. “We can’t have a guy doing nothing. This isn’t Wall Street.”
Correction: Headline originally said “$2,000,” a figure that encompasses a longer-term personal investment by Berke in his business.