Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Three score or more of Arlington’s online news addicts came face-to-face Jan. 27.

The usually-virtual networkers shelled out a food-and-drink fee to mingle and congratulate the team at the newsblog ARLnow for reaching its fifth year of continuous local coverage.

Cajoling the crowd via posters to “party like it’s 2010,” the ARLnow folks—in high-rise space borrowed from Disruption Corp. offering a specular view of the D.C. skyline—gave clues to their success: news that creates a sense of countywide reach and a business model that thumbs its nose at competitors who insist that profits come only when subscribers pay.

Founder and editor Scott Brodbeck, a George Washington University grad and veteran of local Fox and NBC newsrooms, donned a mic to tell the crowd, “It is humbling that we made it to five.” He recalled ARLnow’s first story–forecast of a snowstorm—posted on a WordPress site in his apartment– and “figuring we could survive on Ramen noodles.”

What became a daily push-out newsletter and website went on to detail crime, school and county board decisions, emergencies, election results, and scads of restaurants opening and closing.

ARLnow grew to rope in columns and op-eds, some of which draw thousands of comments that are not always civil (the scourge of our digital age).

Brodbeck, who has lived on Columbia Pike and in Pentagon City, says it took two years to reach profitability after launching with the pain of the 2008 recession still raw. His Rosslyn-based staff of six, which includes reporter Ethan Rothstein who came over from Leesburg Today, now gets health insurance.

“The biggest challenge is growing other regions,” he said. His company Local News Now boasts 400,000 readers a month. In Arlington that’s 260,000 unique visitors), his offshoot in Bethesda attracts 70,000 (Bethesda editor Aaron Kraut was at the party), the Reston version 52,000, and (Capitol) HillNow 23,000.

The most enthusiastic age group is those 25-44 and earning under $100,000, according to LNN’s marketing brochure. Those cohorts are less pure, in my perception, about keeping editorial separate from advertising.

Brodbeck aims to exploit “the molecular level of journalism,” which can rely on that amateur iPhone photo to first capture a plane crash. “Local journalism is not going to exist forever in print,” he says. “We launched a business unit, but it’s not our ambition to compete with [Arlington-based] Washington Business Journal. I learned in business school to stick to core competency, which is neighborhoods.”

The nonprofit local model—attempted by the now-defunct Arlington Mercury—is hard, says Brodbeck, who is courting investors. “We provide a service that benefits business and advertisers.” Revenue also comes in by charging businesses for featured listings, sponsored columns and promoted postings. You can pay LNN to circulate press releases and marketing blasts via email, social media, coupons and You-Tube offerings.

As a “content person,” I haven’t found these ads offputting. But they’re probably causing sweaty brows at the competing but still-vital Sun-Gazette, which, though aiming for a less-hip demographic, updates its website daily.

Politically, Brodbeck stays down the middle, denying charges by some that “we fanned the fires of anti-streetcar” sentiment.

Perhaps the highest compliment to his efforts came from attendee Maura Fredericks, a life coach who told me of some friends who moved from Arlington to Cincinnati. They still go online and compare notes on ARLnow’s latest.

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