Flying and Thriving

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 122 views 

It’s been nearly five years since Dustin Bartholomew and Todd Gill abandoned comfortable jobs as advertising executives to turn a hobby into a new career.

While working full-time at the Springdale office of Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, they were also part-time musicians flitting about Fayetteville’s lively music scene.

To add to their musical bent, Gill and Bartholomew began blogging about the city’s happenings as it related to local bands and artists.

“We just thought there should be a website telling you what’s going on in Fayetteville,” Bartholomew recalled.

That was late 2007, and, naturally, led to a niche readership for the website, which was called the Fayetteville Flyer, with content driven by music and concerts.

About a year later, local businesses began to approach the Flyer about advertising opportunities.

“People wanted our [advertising] rate card; I had to look up what that meant,” Gill joked.

By December 2008, Bartholomew and Gill made the decision to dive headlong into a new career. But music wasn’t the sideline they chose to pursue. It was journalism.

Today, the Fayetteville Flyer is a smartly designed hyperlocal news site with everything you’d expect to see on a Web-specific and geographically-focused publication: there’s an events calendar, as well as tabs for news and views, arts, events and life and columns and features.

In monthly metrics, The Flyer has approximately 190,000 page views and between 50,000 to 60,000 unique visitors.

On the social media platform, the Flyer has about 7,700 Twitter followers and is approaching 4,900 Facebook likes.

And a streamlined advertising model has helped the venture become profitable. Bartholomew and Gill estimate revenue has tripled since late 2009, and the Flyer moved its headquarters last fall to space in the Pyeatt Building at 205 N. College Ave., its third location since opening initially in back of a building on Township Avenue, where their band gathered for rehearsals.

They have grown the business – operated as Wonderstate Media LLC – to a point financially where both are earning slightly more money than when they left CJRW.

They are the only full-time employees on the payroll.

“It’s been a five-year process,” Bartholomew said.

Added Gill: “It took about five years longer than we thought. The business plan we showed our wives was just skyrocketing immediately.”


Feet on the Ground

Bartholomew, 34, and Gill, 36, both grew up in Washington County and attended the University of Arkansas.

Bartholomew was raised in Prairie Grove; Gill in Fayetteville. The Flyer has benefited from those local roots.

“We’ve always had our feet on the ground in Fayetteville,” Gill said. “It just seemed like a natural fit to start writing about it and build our own website dedicated to it.”

But the Flyer’s intent initially was not to provide a destination for news, but rather simple, everyday information valued by residents of Fayetteville as relevant.

“We wanted someone to tell us when to put our trash out for July 4th,” Bartholomew said. “I don’t think we had aspirations of being a news-gathering source early on.”

Also developed to go along with the Flyer was an online business directory called Local 540.

“We kinda thought we would build our business around that directory,” Bartholomew explained. “It seems standard today, but back then a business couldn’t just put up a page on Facebook. For [businesses] that didn’t have a web presence, this was a way to offer a web presence.”

With the popularity of social media taking off at roughly the same time, Local 540 quickly became obsolete, but Bartholomew and Gill realized the Flyer could stand on its own.


Sponsor Support

By late 2009, all of the Flyer’s Local 540 customers had been transitioned to an advertising package on the Flyer website. The two entrepreneurs’ focus went there as well.

At the time, the Flyer had about 10 sponsors, Bartholomew said. Today, there are about 45 businesses who advertise on the website.

Those sponsors sign a one-year renewable contract to place ads on the site. The cost? $300 per month, or $3,600 per year.

There are another 10 or so regular advertisers who purchase banner ads through other, short-term advertising options.

“The 45 [sponsors] are what we rely on to keep the business stable; to keep the paychecks coming in,” Gill said. “We know that we can continue going out and bringing in news without wondering if we’re going to be able to sell banner ads this month.”

Gill said there isn’t a whole lot of turnover with the sponsors. When annual renewals come up, it’s rare that someone drops out.

Sponsors run a wide gamut of Fayetteville businesses: bars and restaurants, construction companies, medical clinics, retail stores and real estate companies.

“It somewhat legitimizes your content when you have some established and respected advertisers,” Gill added.

Fayetteville-based restaurant chain Slim Chickens is one of the Flyer’s longtime advertisers.

Chief marketing officer Greg Smart said the company’s advertising with the Flyer tend to be more specific to products or promotions.

Slim Chickens no longer advertises with daily newspapers.

“It’s just not cost effective,” he said. “This is really a more affordable option and it’s been a way for us to stay relevant on a hyperlocal basis. I wish there were other [websites] like the Fayetteville Flyer in our other [restaurant] markets.”

As for expenses, Gill operates the website through the WordPress publishing application, which is free. The website is hosted by a company in Chicago.

“It’s very low overhead on both of those fronts,” Gill said. “There is technology out there that lets you run a website and handle a lot of traffic, a lot of photos and videos and a lot of comments that’s pretty inexpensive.”


Competition for Readers

As far as content, the Flyer’s initial offerings were driven by a mixture of various organizations’ email blasts, and commenting on other news distributed through local newspapers and television stations.

It didn’t take much time before Bartholomew and Gill realized they could start producing their own version of the news.

“We have grown into a place where we produce all of our local content,” Bartholomew said. “We go to the meetings, and a lot of times we pride ourselves on being the first to get the news out.

“And growing up here, we’ve always got a source.”

Gill said 95 percent of the Flyer’s content, including photographs, is generated in-house. They also have a network of correspondents, who contribute reviews and commentary on topics ranging from beer to theatre productions.

And by reaching a specific niche audience, the Flyer can actually be second in reporting a news event and still be first in its group.

Bartholomew labeled the Flyer’s target demographic as young professionals between 25 and 45, and is Fayetteville-centric.

At network affiliate stations, viewership in 2012 fell in all of the key local TV news time slots — morning, early evening and late night.

According to the Pew Research Center News Consumption Survey, local TV news viewing dropped to 28 percent last year in the 18-29 age group, and to 46 percent in the 30-49 demographic.

Pew Research also reported a decline last year in the percentage of adults who report they read a newspaper “yesterday” for all age groups except the 18-24 age group.

Bartholomew said a big part of the Flyer’s success is hitting the audience that’s hard to reach.

“Maybe they don’t pay as much attention to traditional media, but they are more engaged online,” he said.

Operating an information site that’s free is, of course, a key part of the success.

Both men agree that daily newspapers still matter because of their amount of resources.

And, they say, the competition for news reporting is fun. But because the area’s only daily newspaper puts its content online behind a pay wall, the field is somewhat equalized for the Flyer and its staff of two.

“Keeping [the Flyer] free is a core belief,” Bartholomew said. “We’re going to be advertiser supported so that we can provide free news. It’s our customer service. It’s our service to the community and it’s a big competitive advantage.”


Open to Opinion

Gill said the Flyer gains a lot of its traction from its comments at the end of each news item. Because there is no registration for its users, anyone with an opinion can post to the website.

“Right now, it’s as anonymous as it gets,” he said.

While most are anonymous, others come with attribution. Bartholomew noted members of the Fayetteville City Council engage on a regular basis.

Sarah Marsh, an alderman who represents Ward 1, said she is a frequent Flyer reader and sometimes commenter.

“It’s fun to have a constructive debate,” Marsh said. “Sometimes people weigh in with questions that I am able to elaborate on.”

She said the anonymity of the comments frees a person up to be more candid in their response.

“Sometimes that’s good and bad,” she explained.

Marsh said she has commented in the past on Fayetteville’s daily newspaper online website, though she no longer does and even canceled her subscription.

“As far as Fayetteville coverage, the Flyer is my primary news source,” she said. “They have the best coverage of city news and I find it to be thorough, accurate and timely. They’re very good at not just capturing the facts, but truthfully portraying how the city meetings go.”

Like Marsh, Justin Tennant, who represents Ward 3, also is a daily visitor to the Flyer.

“I’ve always considered it Fayetteville’s version of USA Today,” he said. “It’s quick and to the point and the stories are relevant.”

Tennant said if he had one complaint about the website, however, it is the anonymity of the comments.

“As a city council member, I can’t vote on something or comment on something in a meeting under the name JP47Hogs, or whatever,” he said. “I find it difficult to engage in those sorts of things.

“If everybody put their name, email and phone number, I would engage more.”

The Flyer is examining different systems and experimenting with the possibility of making comments available only to registered users, Bartholomew said.

That would be free, of course, but what he doesn’t want is to interfere with the engagement.

In addition, Bartholomew said the Flyer is negotiating with a correspondent to provide additional sports coverage.

“That’s an area I feel like we can build a business around,” he said.