A growing number of blogs and online news sites are emerging regionally in tandem with the growing availability of cheap and simple web design software and server space. This new breed of publishers, however, is finding it’s much easier to produce written content than to generate revenue.

That’s just fine, most say, because they’re seeking a creative outlet, not a cash cow. While they enjoy breaking a story first – posting it before the established newspaper in their localities – online publishers regionally aren’t yet earning enough money to establish commercial offices or hire full-time employees.

Most of them, however, believe the tide eventually will turn as readers continue to shift their loyalties away from newspapers.

“If every newspaper in the United States could get away from publishing as a printed piece, they would cut costs by 60 to 70 percent and better monetize their operation,” said Howie Hanson, owner of HowieBlog.com in Duluth and distributor of a daily e-newsletter. A print newspaper publisher (Twin Port People) from 1983 to 2002, Hanson said he’s never regretted going online, contending the venture has financially supported his family “since day one.”

Working on a shoestring

But in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin, Hanson may be the exception. Other online publishers say their primary effort is communication, not monetizing their ventures. That includes Perfect Duluth Day, one of the oldest area blogs, which was launched in 2003 by Barrett Case and Scott Lunt.

“When Barrett and Scott started, there was no intent to be a business of any kind. It was about five years before it became a formal business,” said Paul Lundgren, who partnered with the pair in 2008 and currently is the group’s president. Cory Fechner and Brian Barber also became partners in 2008.

Now in its eighth year, the blog employs Lundgren, one sales person and an events calendar editor.

“Perfect Duluth Day is profitable in the sense that it earns money, but not in the sense that the owners walk away with tons of money,” Lundgren said. “All of us have other jobs.”

That’s also the case with Andrew and Claudia Broman, who launched The Ashland Current with partner Tristan Fitzgerald in 2010 using personal funds. To keep costs to a bare minimum, Fitzgerald, who provides computer expertise, designed the site using open-source software on a Linux platform.

“We wrote a business plan and projected we’d break even (without paying any salaries) in three to five years,” said Claudia Broman. Like Perfect Duluth Day, the partners work from home offices or, as Andrew Broman said, “mobile from anywhere.”

“We had fresh content running even when we spent a week on vacation in Colorado,” he said.

On the Iron Range, Aaron Brown launched the Minnesota Brown blog in 2006 “because an audience was there.”

“Initially, it was a hobby. I never had a business plan” or an intent to create a commercial venture, said Brown, who describes it as “a point of view blog.”

“I don’t have to care about what advertisers or followers think,” he said.

Kim Sampson launched RangeNewsNow in April because “I saw a hole for online news on the Iron Range...I was tired of not being able to see what was happening except through a paper subscription.”

Like many online publishers, “We are all volunteer, we generate no income,” she said. “We like being a grassroots organization.”

Her long term goal is to monetize the site, and a business plan currently is being developed, “but first things first. We are just letting it grow” for now.

Non-monetary benefits

Regionally, the emergence of several small online publishers coincides with the erection of online pay walls by the American Consolidated Media (ACM) Superior chain, which owns newspapers across the Iron Range and in Northwestern Wisconsin. While the independents offer entire stories without charge, ACM newspapers offer just a headline and lead sentence to non-subscribers. Todd Keute, regional operations manager, did not respond to an interview request.

“I believe we have made a dent in the news market. We beat MDN (the Mesabi Daily News) on spot news a majority of the time,” said Sampson, who previously was a news producer/assignment editor at WDIO-TV. “We are getting a reputation to be the place to go to for breaking news on the Range. I share content with WDIO and you will see our content on air with regularity.”

In its short history, The Ashland Current has grown to attract 100,000 page views monthly.

“We have a lot of original content, and I really think we compete against the Ashland Daily Press. Sometimes, we scoop them,” said Andrew Broman.

He and Claudia are very familiar with their print competitor. They met while working for the Daily Press (and later married). But neither felt the small-town newspaper offered them much of a financial future.

“With the crazy hours you had to work for $10 an hour, it just wasn’t worth it,” said Andrew Broman, who left the Daily Press in 2006 to become a teacher. And when the newspaper became part of an Australian media conglomerate, they felt its budget wasn’t sufficient to provide Ashland the coverage it deserved.

“I think the Press has become a better product because they have to compete with us,” said Claudia Broman, who also works part time in a marketing capacity for a food cooperative.

Lundgren said Perfect Duluth Day doesn’t pretend to be an alternative to the Duluth News Tribune. But it’s a venue for people to voice their feelings about the city, including its daily newspaper.

“The owners of Perfect Duluth Day have no beef with the News Tribune, but our users have taken on the daily many times,” he said. Other Duluth media “respect what we do, but don’t confuse us with a journalism web site. By and large, what we’re doing is not journalism.”

A positive trend

Local online writers say they’re not taking advertising from newspapers, yet print revenue continues to trend downward. Duluth News Tribune Publisher Ken Browall says his parent company, Forum Communications, is aggressively pursuing ads for its online products. He believes established newspaper companies have a sales advantage over smaller competitors.

“They come and go, pop in and out,” he said, and often don’t establish themselves long enough to develop a customer base. “Our web site just continues to grow,” he said.

“I have a part time sales person, although, none of our ads are being charged right now,” Sampson said. “In this financial environment, it is hard to get advertisers on board. The Iron Range businesses have not dealt with online advertising much, such as click throughs and impressions, so they tend to be a little nervous about this format in that regard.” But monetizing the site remains her long-term goal.

“Our ability to attract an audience is far greater than our ability to attract advertising,” Lundgren conceded, “but in time, we’ll still get there.”

Ongoing changes in traditional media, including pay walls, leave Andrew Broman optimistic about alternative online ventures.

“We don’t pretend to do everything the Ashland Daily Press does,” he said, but the Ashland Current also doesn’t have any debt or face the high costs of publishing a paper product.

“The only bill we have to pay every month is for the server,” he said.

“Our biggest goal is to serve the community, and we’ve exceeded our expectations,” Claudia Broman added.

Brown, formerly editor of the Hibbing Tribune, sees a time when small online publications will become profitable.

“I feel like I’m waiting in the weeds for something…when newspapers reach the end of their lifecycle,” he said.

With his previous print background, Hanson feels online publishers will have to raise their sales and marketing skills to the same level as their newspaper counterparts.

“If you don’t have the skill set to be a publisher, you won’t make it online,” he said.