Michael Golden, who got rich when he and partners led by Michael Rubin sold their former online-retail company, GSI Commerce, to eBay for $2.4 billion in 2011, is investing a couple of hundred thousand in the local-news business.
Golden is backing "hyper-local news websites" MoreThanTheCurve.com and AroundAmbler.com as part of a new media company, Burb Media, LLC. His partners include Kevin Tierney, publisher and founder of both websites. They're planning to add another in Glenside this year, with more on the board.
Local news is, famously, a great way to make a small fortune — if you start with a large fortune. But Golden says it's not expensive: Burb has three employees: techie-designer Marc Garabedian, "who's been with me since GSI;" AroundAmbler writer Ben Bergman; and Tierney, who focuses on Conshohocken. Many readers seldom visit their websites, Golden adds: "They are getting our information through Facebook" and other social media. "For this audience, these things represent a huge amount of community. We get incredible reader engagement and reader response."
They're giving away the product. So how will Burb get paid? "Advertising is enough for break-even," Golden insists. He figures on selling $100,000 in advertising this year — some of it from Golden-backed restaurants and apartment rentals — plus another $200,000 from "physical events that we own the intellectual property for" — farmers' markets, the June 24 Conshohocken Music Festival ("tickets are $25, we'll sell more than 2,000"), restaurant weeks, beer gardens, and pub crawls. "Between the websites, social media, and events, we get the message out."
Golden, best known locally as a restaurant angel investor (Bryn and Dane's, Bahn Street, among others) and apartment owner, has national investment contacts, and publishing cred. "In 2007, I took over Complex Magazine in New York. It was very insolvent. I'd been running HomeClick, a $100 million luxury-home-improvement site." A board member worked for Seymour Holtzman, who owned Casual Male, the retail chain whose suppliers included T-shirt maker Ecko Unlimited, whose owners had started Complex to reach its young-male readers, and wanted to stop losing money on it.
"So when I sold HomeClick, they asked me to turn around this magazine. I thought it had tons of potential. We bought into it at (a valuation level of) $9 million. I hired a publisher. We built an incredible website and a vertical ad network. We grew our audience really fast — 21- to 29-year-old men. We drove tons of Google traffic. They sold it a year ago, to the Verizon and Hearst joint venture, for $350 million." But Golden is kicking himself that he sold his stake in 2010, when the group brought in Accel Partners and Austin Ventures to pay off its CIT debt, at a valuation of $57 million.
Still, he caught the bug: "That was a successful foray into the media business. Now, I've found another great opportunity to do that again." And make more millions, really? "I'm not saying we'll be as successful monetarily. I have another reason: Having strong local news reporting in our community is really important."
Surviving local print papers and websites — the weekly Ambler Gazette, the Montgomery News, the daily Norristown Times-Herald — share content. They are owned by Digital First, the private-equity-owned chain that has been trying to unload its Philadelphia-area papers, after shutting the venerable Conshohocken Recorder and the Plymouth Meeting and Lafayette Hill weeklies, among others, over the past decade.
Will Golden, with all his business interests, let Tierney and Bergman take on tough local issues? "That's a great question," Golden says. He says it's like when his old magazine covered rival sports shoe makers in the sneaker wars. "We could have a huge influence on sales. They'd spend money on our advertising. So we need our writers to have editorial independence."
But that doesn't mean bland, Golden added. "We have to take positions" on contentious zoning and development issues. "Kevin is a thorn in the Conshohocken Borough Council's side. As a reader, I enjoy that. I like to see people get heated in comments on social media."
Will he be tempted to back projects that bring him personally more customers and more income? "I personally am not involved in any of these development things," Golden said. "But we don't need to be a neutral, soft voice. We need to take a position. We'd like to see Conshohocken do its best."
What agenda will his sites support? "I don't have a grand view. I have a really cool model: news and physical events we can bring to a town. And restaurants. And real estate. It's all a domain we like. Glenside is next. It's a place I know well." Any examples he likes in other markets? "The Chestnut Hill Local, a nonprofit, is in every way an advocate of what is best for Chestnut Hill. They are the hub of what is going on in that community."
Golden expanded his views in a Facebook posting. Highlights: "For nearly twenty years now, there has been much excitement about the possibilities of hyperlocal digital media, adding up so far to, mostly, hype. From IAC's City Search in the late 1990s, to, most recently, AOL's Patch, numerous attempts have been made to build a large network of hometown websites. To date, everyone has failed.
"This to me is analogous to the decade-long discussion of TV and internet convergence. We all knew it was going to happen, then it just seemed like it never would. Today, I can easily watch Netflix over my Xfinity connection. My TV is smart. Convergence is here, but it has been anticlimactic. The tale of local digital media has been similar. After many false starts, the time for it is now and yet it has been anticlimactic.
"Since the invention of the printing press, the local newspaper has played a critical and complex role in communities. It is among other things the most important way a community embraces its civic life. It enables the town's citizens to see, know, and care about their community. It drives conversations, serves as a public record and informs the town's people of what is happening in their own backyard. The local newspaper has been the most relied-upon source for crime, taxes, local government activities, schools, local politics, local jobs, community/neighborhood events, arts events, local social services, and real estate/housing, etc. The local paper has held government accountable, exposing wrongdoing and corruption, and upholding free speech.
"Today, if you are a local newspaper, the walls are closing in and the oxygen is being pumped out of the room" as ads flee print for social media.
"And yet, we don't need to save the newspapers. We don't even need websites.
"We need reliable, authentic, grassroots journalism. We need a place where the people of our community can engage with each other and share information and viewpoints. The tools to do this are here today. Local media businesses like More-than-the-Curve have become essential resources for the community. Often powered by 2 or 3 people, hundreds and thousands of organically grown, hometown digital-media businesses have emerged and are rapidly eclipsing the remnants of the local newspaper industry in their towns in terms of relevancy, engagement, and reach. I am personally a huge believer in this trend and think these small businesses will rapidly become the de-facto source of critical information in their communities.
"I believe we are providing an essential component in the fabric of the Conshohocken and Ambler communities and we will build a great business by bringing our neighborhood readers and local merchants, restaurateurs, and service providers together."
In a separate statement, Golden promised his sites "will now grow into central hubs for each community. Beyond local news, the sites will offer a one-stop shop for events (calendar, ticket sales, galleries), local guides and directories, online food ordering and delivery, real estate listings, people and business profiles, etc … I am personally a huge believer in this trend and think these small businesses will rapidly become the de-facto source of critical information in their communities."
Burb properties include:
MoreThanTheCurve.com - News and Events in Conshohocken, West Conshohocken, Plymouth and Whitemarsh
AroundAmbler.com - News and Events in the Ambler Area
Spring Mill Farmers' Market - Seasonal Farmers' Market in Conshohocken/Whitemarsh
Conshohocken Beer Festival - Annual Beer Tasting Event
Conshohocken Beer Garden - Seasonal Pop-Up Beer Garden
Ambler Yards Beer Garden - Seasonal Pop-Up Beer Garden