Early this year, Ryan Gierach, the publisher of WeHo News, sat down with media consultant Henry “Hank” Scott to discuss a partnership intended to save the struggling seven-year-old online news website.
Very quickly, however, the talks soured.
Scott, who recently relocated from the East Coast, rolled out a competing hyperlocal news site, called Wehoville, which officially launched last month to cover the 1.9-square-mile city of West Hollywood.
As a result, whatever amiability existed at that first meeting has evaporated as the competing publishers now trade barbs over who can best serve the city’s 35,000 residents.
“Is someone from outside of West Hollywood going to be able to do as good a job? I’m skeptical about it,” said Gierach, who has written books about the history of the city.
Despite the news media industry’s struggles, a number of hyperlocal outlets have sprung up lately to compete for the area’s limited ad dollars, including AOL Inc.’s Patch West Hollywood.
But the fight between Gierach and Scott has grown particularly heated, with Scott calling out the objectivity of WeHo News, which he said is too close to city council members.
Scott hopes to differentiate his site by posting more culture and lifestyle content targeting a cosmopolitan audience. The sleek new site also has structural differences, including the ability to let readers comment on individual articles.
“We’re trying to do things that are a bit different,” he said.
Scott has consulted for clients such as the Wall Street Journal. After moving to West Hollywood last year, he learned of the financial struggles of WeHo News and reached out to Gierach.
Scott initially requested a full ownership stake, but later backed out and started his own site, investing six figures in the venture, which he’s running through the newly formed West Hollywood Media Co.
He wouldn’t specify the size of the investment, but said it could keep the operation open for a year. The site has already sold some ads.
However, it’s unclear how lucrative the hyperlocal news business can be.
L.A. businesses will spend $231 million on online banner ads this year, according to consultancy Borrell Associates Inc. in Williamsburg, Va. Still, Chief Executive Gordon Borrell said banner ads are falling out of favor, and sites will need to go beyond that line of business.
“I like to see this stuff out there (but) I am very troubled by the fact that there is no significant business model to support it,” he said.
Scott plans to explore “video ads, stuff that is not as static.” The site currently has three full-time employees, along with about 10 paid freelance writers.
Like WeHo News, Wehoville covers issues such as historic preservation and the local arts scene.
But Scott accused his rival of failing to remain objective, saying “the WeHo News brand is not respected in West Hollywood.” Gierach said he maintains strict editorial standards.
Both publishers emphasized the differences between their sites. For example, Scott’s site has celebrity-focused content, whereas Gierach swears against it.
In its first weeks, Wehoville has published articles such as a Q&A with actress Dichen Lachman and a story about the city’s dodgeball scene.
“Quite frankly there are more people who know the names of the Kardashians than the (names of) city council members,” Scott said
But Gierach has a head start. WeHo News has some 80,000 unique monthly visitors, which dwarfs the roughly 4,300 unique visitors for Wehoville in its first week of tracking.
And WeHo News’ audience was hard-won. Gierach launched the site in 2005 after working for the now-defunct West Hollywood Tribune. WeHo News began to attract an audience, but Gierach, a trained historian, had trouble managing the site’s finances.
He’s also faced challenges from sites such as AOL’s Patch. Gierach fretted that the cash-rich corporation would steamroll his site, but he said Patch’s generic content has not posed a threat.
Gierach hoped to bolster his business this year through a merger with L.A. gay magazine Frontiers. But that fell apart, as did another deal with a private investor.
He grew despondent and began to drink heavily, he said.
“My drinking was affecting the way I could operate,” he said. “There was no revenue coming in at all – with having to pay expenses, I was broke.”
Gierach went to rehab in March, leaving the site dormant until May, when he began to post stories again. That’s also when Scott, who Gierach hoped would be a savior, backed out.
But things have started to improve, Gierach said. He hired two employees and the site is selling advertisements again. A potential financial backer has also recently come into the picture.
Gierach said he believes the ad-based model can work for hyperlocal news sites, and he hopes his site and Wehoville can coexist peacefully.
“There’s more than enough money for everyone,” he said. “It’s a matter of advertisers deciding which they want to be attached to.”
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