WESTFIELD, NJ — Where do you get your local news? In the age of the internet, you can find virtually any information any time. But as local papers languished, finding timely neighborhood news became more difficult — until the advent of hyperlocal online news.
Mike Shapiro, founder and CEO of TAPinto.net, addressed hyperlocal news and the future of local journalism at the Westfield Memorial Library Wednesday as a speaker in the eighth annual Anne and Lee Hale Speaker Series.
While “hyperlocal media” is a fairly new term, its concept actually has a long history, Shapiro explained, in the form of town criers and bills posted in town squares. These days, you’ll find fresh information on news websites that focus on individual cities everywhere, from Berkeley, CA to Elizabeth, NJ Shapiro cited an early example of such a website, Patch.
Patch.com first filled the role of a digital local newspaper in such New Jersey towns as South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn in 2009 before spreading to approximately 1,000 sites around the country by 2011.
Patch.com was purchased by AOL in 2009, Shapiro said. However, AOL’s optimism proved overzealous because at the height of its operations, Patch was only returning approximately $50 million in revenue per year and was top-heavy with layers upon layers of editors, managing editors and other employees. In December 2013, four years later, AOL terminated almost 90 percent of its journalists in a series of painful reorganizations, he said.
Shapiro reflected back to 2008 on the beginnings of The Alternative Press (TAP), which today is known as TAPinto.net.
“I started the New Providence site that October when my son needed open heart surgery and I was commuting to New York City,” Shapiro told the audience. “As a lawyer, I sometimes worked until 1 a.m., then turned around and went back the city the next morning, leaving little time to see my son and wife.”
Other events also inspired Shapiro at the time, including some burglaries in New Providence.
“I didn’t hear about these stories until I got the newspaper the week after they happened,” Shapiro said. “Immediately, I wanted to know more details and info about these events, but all I could find was news that was really old.”
Shapiro started The Alternative Press with his wife, Lauryn, while continuing his job in New York. At home in the evenings, he updated the site with news stories he researched himself — often long into the night.
“I left my job in 2009 and devoted my time establishing The Alternative Press and spending more time with my family,” Shapiro said.
After Patch launched, The Alternative Press expanded to several other towns before Shapiro learned Patch was owned by AOL and was going to spend millions of dollars to launch sites nationwide. At that point, The Alternative Press stopped expanding and focused on their core towns. However, requests from residents from other towns to expand The Alternative Press became any everyday occurrence.
In December 2013, Patch laid off approximately 90 percent of their workforce. That same month, The Alternative Press began franchising sites to people who wanted to start TAP in their town.
In 2014, The Alternative Press rebranded as TAPinto (www.tapinto.net)
“This way, each town’s site is owned and managed by a local franchisee who is involved in the town. We cover everything from town council meetings to high school sports and even break hard news stories like the recent shooting of unarmed teenagers by an off-duty State Trooper in Sparta.”
Shapiro explained that the site’s purpose is not to aggregate content — take content from elsewhere or link to content elsewhere — but to provide original, local news.
“We’re some of the only local online media companies in the country that is making a profit,” Shapiro said.
Advertisers receive banner ads on the site as well as other ways to market themselves on TAP into.
“We provide premium content partnerships to local businesses, giving them ways to promote themselves, and we want to build long-term relationships with these businesses,” Shapiro said. “We want to position ourselves as a winning business model for limited advertising dollars.”
Another reason TAP into’s business model works is because the company provides franchisee owners with the tools they need to set up their sites the way they want, “since they know their towns best,” Shapiro said. “They can add state and national news, columnists, arrange widgets on the site how they want them and even share content if it affects more than one town. We are working on some other projects to ensure that the TAPinto.net brand is integrated into each community and provides the information that residents want.”
In response to a question about what news the TAP into sites do not cover, Shapiro answered, “This is a family news network. I want my son to be able to read any article on the site. We do not have comments and do not promote or endorse any particular politician, and we don’t publish any unsigned letters to the editor or anything defamatory.”
TAPinto.net now has more than 40 independently owned and operated online local newspapers with more than 3.9 million readers.
Shapiro is a graduate of Rutgers College, Rutgers University and Stanford Law School. Besides his involvement as a member and Past President of the Rotary Club of Berkeley Heights. He serves on the Communications Advisory Board of the College of Saint Elizabeth, is Vice-President of the Suburban Chamber of Commerce, and currently serves on the board of the Madison Chamber of Commerce, the New Jersey Jewish News and the New Providence Business & Professional Association.