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Our Hometown: Taking the grunt work out of online news

Trust us: Running an online news operation can be hard work.

That's especially the case in the cash-strapped newsrooms of small newspapers across the country.

But what if the work of producing a news website could be outsourced? What if having an online presence required no additional effort from your paper's precious few reporters?

That's where Our Hometown comes in.

"It's really a complete turnkey service," says CEO and founder Steve Larson. "Our key is, Let us take care of it and get every bit of usefulness out of what you're producing - without having to change your process at all."

How it works

Our Hometown operates the websites of some 152 small newspapers across the U.S. and Canada.

Newspapers like the Oil City Derrick in Pennsylvania or the Compton Bulletin in Los Angeles send a PDF to Larson's team of 7 or 8 production guys. (Almost all of the company's 15 employees live in the Rochester area.)

The PDF Our Hometown receives is the same file the newspaper sends to its local print shop.

Then, with special software developed by Larson, Our Hometown's production staff extracts the stories, pictures and ads and puts them all online.

In about an hour, the newspaper's website is updated with the latest edition.

"It doesn't really require any effort on the part of the publisher," says Larson.

Our Hometown handles the latest technology too, making sure local newspapers work on mobile devices. A tablet interface will soon be released. Our Hometown is even experimenting with location-specific advertising.

Larson says the approach is simple: "Get as much content up there as possible. Maximize the value for the reader and the advertiser and the paper."

Small town, big reach

Our Hometown is headquartered in the Finger Lakes village of Clifton Springs, N.Y.

Steve and his wife Pat (the company's CFO) run Our Hometown out of their 19th century home. It's a quaint setting for the seat of a small online publishing empire.

The company works mostly with weekly newspapers, though Larson has been adding dailies over the last nine months. Circulation for Larson's dailies are in the under-30,000 range. He's trying to bring on papers with circulations of around 50,000. (By comparison, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - a Gannett paper - has a daily circulation of just over 115,000.)

System-wide, Larson says his client newspapers attract a million unique users a month.

Making it pay

But turning online eyeballs into a meaningful source revenue has long vexed the newspaper industry.

Larson says he's seen "decent results" with the dozen or so paywalled sites in his network. But, overall, Larson isn't bullish on local paywalls generating the kind of returns that newspaper publishers wish they would.

"If you go in with the right expectations and set your cost structure right - not what you want, but what the market can produce - you can make it a profitable venture," says Larson.

While Our Hometown makes money on a contract basis - Larson's going rate for daily newspapers is about $25,000 a year - the company still relies on the continued existence of small town papers.

"Hey, if they're not making money," Larson says, "they're not going to stay with us for the long term."

Larson hopes Gannett's forthcoming paywall system gets more people in the habit of paying for online news. If that were the case, he says, the small papers Our Hometown works with could see a trickle down benefit.

"Something bigger"

As a niche player in a changing industry, Our Hometown is thriving. Founded in the late '90s, the company has grown in the face of market upheaval.

When it comes to motivation, Larson is clear: The chance of creating the next online game changer keeps him coming back for more.

"We get to keep taking a shot at something bigger," Larson says. "Like, maybe we can define how newspapers should look on a tablet.

"Maybe one day the New York Times will call up and say, 'Hey, what are you doing with location-aware offers?' "

WXXI/Finger Lakes reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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