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Franchises: keeping journalism organic

September 9: When Carll Tucker decided to launch Main Street Connect, a series of hyperlocal sites slated to launch in communities around the country over the next few years, he decided franchising them was the way to go.

“I sort of had this romantic notion of all the displaced journalists and a whole bunch of mom and pops around the U.S.,” he said.

As it turns out, Tucker and the investors behind Main Street Connect were recently so impressed by the success of sites that launched in March, including the Daily Greenwich and Daily Norwalk in Connecticut, they might not go the franchise route at all. “There was a tremendous appetite in the reading public for the product that we were offering and they are becoming regular readers at a rate much higher than we anticipated,” he said.

Despite the possible change in business models, Tucker is an avid proponent of the franchise model when it comes to community news. Financially it makes sense for publishers who don’t have the money to start a chain of publications, while also growing local entrepreneurship. “The second is that you can guarantee that in the hard times you have a lot more determination when somebody has a big economic stake, they’re going to be much more reluctant to walk away from it than if they didn’t,” he said. Essentially, the franchise model is one way to keep community journalism organic, he noted.

Keeping journalism local and building stronger communities is the mission for Georgia-based AroundAbout Community Magazines (ACM). Kara Kiefer is the executive editor of AroundAbout Town Laker, the franchise’s flagship magazine, as well as the director of production for the franchises. “We are reader-driven and do whatever we can to support our local businesses and advertisers,” she said in an e-mail interview. “By being hyperlocal, we are relevant to our readers, and through their submissions, which we encourage, they are telling us what they want to read about and see in our publications. We strive to be positive, relevant and entertaining each month.”

Although the Town Laker was launched in 1996, the first franchised publication didn’t debut until 2002 after the Town Laker had proved successful. Today, ACM serves eight communities throughout Georgia. By watching many print publications fold and fail in the last several years, Kiefer believes the franchise model has proved to be viable where other models have not. “We have a proven product, and we’ve already gone through all the ‘hard stuff’ of starting a publication,” she said. “A franchise owner will learn from our failures as well as our successes and through our knowledge, he/she can hit the ground running.”

The franchise model seems to also have worked for Snap Newspaper Group, which covers communities mainly in Canada, but also in the U.S. and even Bologna, Italy. Launched in 1994, Snap has continued to grow and now boasts 55 markets. Plans for further growth appear to be imminent. In March, Snap announced that it had teamed up with international franchise sales brokerage firm Franchise Tactical Inc. to aid in its expansion in North America and Europe.

Growing community journalism is something Tucker knows about, as Main Street Connect is slated to launch in 3,000 communities before the end of 2013. For now, Tucker and his investors are taking a pause and fixing the model before they start launching around the country. But if it didn’t work out, he would be happy to follow his business plan of franchising, he noted. And either way, he believes he can keep the news “organic” no matter what the model by hiring staff that are deeply involved in their communities. “It’s just really putting the digital equivalent of great newspapers in communities across the country,” he said.

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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