In a small town with slightly more than 100,000 people, known for its annual rose festival, news site The Tyler Loop is growing a membership model with events and a newsletter to collaborate, not compete with, other local news organizations. The philosophy is somewhat unique in journalism because limited community resources can create more competitors than collaborators. Co-founder Tasneem Raja moved to Tyler with her husband, Chris Groskopf, and started the site to increase community journalism, events and community partnership.
Innovation in Focus is exploring news organizations that function through new, emerging or unique revenue models this summer. Raja’s lessons from the last two years can help other news startups. Her business model includes donations, sponsorships and memberships. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Reed: Why did you start the Tyler Loop?
Raja: The Loop had to do with (when) I started my career in local journalism; (I wanted to) be a reporter in the city where I felt I had a stake. I started weekly papers in Chicago and Philadelphia and I had a lot of fun doing that. And as I started to build more digital and multimedia and data skills, I started getting really exciting offers for jobs with national outlets. I learned a lot. I got to work with some of the best editors, best journalists, but I always missed that feeling of local. I ended up moving to Tyler, Texas, for family reasons. My husband has family here and we are both journalists. We thought Tyler is fascinating. What if we just kind of scratch this itch to get back to local reporting on nights and weekends, just start our own little project on the side.
We weren’t thinking about monetization and revenue, any of that.
Reed: How have you invited the community to participate?
Raja: We invite the community to support us at $15 a month. We just have a one-tier membership level at this point. The idea is, we’re going to keep our content free for everybody. If you want to see this work in Tyler, you have an opportunity to help us create it. And of course, we’re very interested in the conversations going on about how members can be more than just financial backers, but can inform reporting. So we’re really trying to think as we grow.
Reed: How have you experimented with that philosophy?
The places where we’ve experimented the most with that is event
revenue. We put on a really amazingly successful live storytelling show.
We sold out the downtown civic theatre with 100 people in our
first-ever attempt to do a big event here in town. It was well received
and we made a little bit of money. So that was exciting. And that was
really my first foray into thinking about business sponsors and getting
some larger gifts to help us put on the show and ticketing.
Reed: How many members do you have now? Are you sustainable?
Raja: We have about 120. Part of the story that I always tell is it’s very important to understand actually how far we are from sustainability. If communities want more national journalists to return to their hometowns, or take a job outside the big four coastal journalism markets, they’re going to need to find ways to sustain and support us or help us sustain and support ourselves.
Our membership growth is directly tied to the amount of time that I have to put attention into it. When we first launched, all I was thinking about was memberships. And getting our first hundred members was a breeze. As I started moving into focusing on events, our membership growth slowed.
Reed: Why did you see a market in Tyler?
Raja: Tyler is lucky to have a daily newspaper. We have a good relationship with several folks over at the newspaper. The way we thought about it is you know the paper does a good job and certainly with the resources it has, it does the best job that it can to cover the who, what, where, when. We saw ourselves as being in the business of how and why and what and how did we get here and why should you care? And so our sort of tagline is in depth, inclusive innovative, and we believe in collaboration, not competition. We always include items from the local daily news outlets and we make sure to shout out their work.
Reed: How has reader feedback changed your strategy?
Raja: No. 1: A lot of our reporting is driven by an audience survey. The survey is very simple. I asked, “What do you want to better understand about Tyler?” The primary way that we distribute the survey is through digital — our email newsletter, our Facebook feeds, our website. But I also do it in person. I reach out to different community groups in town and I do this exercise where I ask, “What they want to understand about Tyler? What they wish, other people that are understood and Tyler?”
Reed: What have you found?
Raja: We believe that our best way of existing in this community is to say, “Our stories come directly from you, from our audience.” And especially when we take on challenging topics like race, segregation and water quality.
Reed: What type of metrics or statistics do you have that show you’re making an impact?
Raja: I don’t look at page views. I don’t look at site visitors. I’m really much more interested in events. Who is coming to the events? How many people? How many of these people came to the loop for the first time? A really good example of that I would say is our live storytelling show. In the final lineup, our age range was from 17 years old to 91 years old. Tyler’s demographics are very diverse, about 50% white, 25% Latino, 25% black and our storyteller lineup almost very, very closely mirrored those statistics.
Reed: What did you learn about Tyler from creating the live storytelling show?
Raja: I was amazed at how easy it was to convince people from wildly different backgrounds in our community to participate in this show. And to tell stories that spoke to a wide range of authentic and extremely varied experiences of life in Tyler.
Reed: The stories have to be true?
Raja: Yes, and they have to have been something that they experienced in Tyler. The show is called Out of the Loop. The loop is a ring road in the city.
Reed: Let’s backtrack for a moment. Why don’t you look at page views?
Raja: We’re not a daily site. We don’t expect people to come to our site every day. A weekly newsletter is really becoming more and our point of contact.
Reed: Your husband — is he working on it with you, as well?
Raja: He’s on our board. He’s able to put time into The Loop from a board member perspective. Full time, it’s really just me.
Reed: What do you wish you had known when you started?
Raja: We launched in April 2017. We started our membership program in August 2018.
Those two things are related. Whenever you’re launching something new, everybody is excited. Everybody wants it. Everybody wants to be a part of it. So I think I would have launched the membership program sooner. I wanted to prove that we are something before I start asking people for money. I think that there was a way to start monetizing with a much more thinner product. I would have just changed the order in which we had done things.
Reed: What’s next for The Loop?
Raja: I hope that we could be moving into a future where we’re going to see more investment from foundations and major givers. There’s exciting possibilities on our horizon. I don’t know yet if any of them are going to pan out. I hope we can capture the kind of support runway that we’re going to need to go to the next level.