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VOL. 42 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 28, 2018

Rover hopes to reach ‘hyper-local’ audience

By Vince Troia

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Outfitted with a concept he loved and a name he hated, Brad Dennison unleashed Rover, a news product that combines mobile, web and print platforms with local content, on the surprised communities of Green Hills and Belle Meade this spring.

While bucking convention from traditional journalistic ventures, Rover is a live digital presence, an online blog and a monthly direct-mail newspaper – an amalgam foreign to Nashville.

What Rover and its digital component RoverToday.com aim to do differently from other community news operations is present a hyper-local approach to news content that zeroes in on specific folks in specific dwellings in specific zip codes. Those areas are targeted for their high household income levels and profitable business sectors.

The model is the brainchild of Dennison, the CEO of American Hometown Publishing, which owns several traditional community newspapers and now one non-traditional Rover.

“What really matters in your day-to-day life is what’s really important. Our point of view for stories comes from a reader asking us ‘So what? What does it mean to me?’ That’s what we’re after,” Dennison says. “For Green Hills, it’s traffic, construction, businesses coming and going – that’s a big part of life there.”

So far, the response has been positive, and advertisers are showing interest. The Rover Today website and daily news blast kicked off in April. From May through August, 22,000 monthly copies of the Rover newspaper were direct-mailed to Green Hills and Belle Meade homes.

Mary Ella Hazelwood, Rover’s executive director, a newspaper veteran with three decades of experience in the greater Nashville area, admits she was caught a little off guard by the reaction.

“In all my years at this, I have never launched a new product that received this kind of positive feedback,” Hazelwood says. “Ever.”

Universal truths?

Most people are aware that the newspaper industry has been steadily nose-diving for the better part of two decades. All too often, longtime publications are closing or cutting back staff to try and stay alive. In that time, Nashville has seen the departures of the Nashville Banner (1998) and the City Paper (2013), while continual layoffs have left The Tennessean with a much smaller staff.

So, why would anyone want to start a newspaper, albeit one that incorporates mobile and digital components, now? It’s because newspapers have been doing the community news thing wrong for years, Dennison says, adding people still care about reading local news.

“I think there are universal truths about content,” he adds. “Then there are things you have to customize about community. We constructed Rover based on past experiences and knowledge, including what I learned from the most in-depth newspaper study in history.”

Dennison is referring to the Northwestern University 2001 Readership Institute study “The Power to Grow Readership.” Started in 1999 and sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the impact report examined 100 newspapers and analyzed data from a 450-question survey completed by 37,000 newspaper readers from across the country.

What the research showed was a “strong reader appetite for news that is intensely local and personally relevant,” the authors concluded.

Newspapers, the study found, had in recent years focused more and more on “local news,” but the research showed they needed to tap into “intensely local, people-centered news.” Things like community announcements, including weddings and events, obituaries or stories about ordinary people. It was the type of news that reporters scoffed at covering.

From reader survey results, the study ranked topics that would potentially boost readership numbers. The top three:

-- Intensely local people-focused news

-- Lifestyle news (including health, home, food and fashion items)

-- How we are governed

Business, crime and sports news – the staples of most daily news outlets – ranked at or near the bottom.

“I think newspapers struggled for years because they kept falling into these traditional traps of covering city council meetings or this bond measure happened or this or that thing happened,” Dennison points out. “It wasn’t explanatory, it didn’t answer ‘what’s it mean to me?’ Readers didn’t understand why they should care.”

He is no stranger to those sentiments, spending much of his career in traditional newsrooms, including a stint at the Chicago Sun-Times before moving into management with Gatehouse Media, one of the country’s largest publishers of locally based news media. He resides in Illinois and joined AHP in 2015.

“I pounded it out in newsrooms for a long time. But I’m not buying daily newspapers,” Dennison continues, adding that he can’t rely solely on digital subscriptions and websites for news, and he struggles to believe there’s life left in print.

“Somewhere in the middle there is a balance, and I think it’s harder to bond with a digital product than with a print product. The trick is it’s got to be a great product that connects with people. I think that’s what we have.”


Rover, more than anything else, is hyper-focused on what is happening just outside readers’ homes, workplaces, where they shop, where they eat, the roads they drive on, the greenways they walk on.

The coverage team of Hazelwood, reporter Dylan Aycock and graphic artist Brian Goins focus on an individual community topic loosely based on the questions ‘What is that being built over there?’ or ‘What’s happening to this intersection?’ and publish, in Dennison’s words, a “kind of utility content while creating a digital presentation that’s really a beautiful experience for people.”

If envisioning what that looks like is tough, which it is, then look at a copy of Rover or visit RoverToday.com. The look and feel of both are similar, unlike many newspapers and their websites. Dennison says that’s intentional. He sees most news websites as “contrarian about print to a fault that it’s absolutely 100 percent dead when it comes to bonding with readers,” and he says people bond with a print product they really like.

“So, our idea was really first to make a digital presentation with the type of content that you can’t just go on Google and find. You might think you can, but try it...,” he adds. “And we have to write for today’s reader. People don’t read like they did 10 or 20 years ago, or like I did when reporters went to a meeting and wrote 25 inches.”

When it comes to content, Rover’s staff keeps it simple, both in print and on mobile devices. Labels lead the way, such as ‘Things to Do,’ ‘5 Things to Know About,’ ‘Free Time,’ ‘5 to Go,’ along with a few other more standard government news and business news headings. Presentation is lively and colorful on both platforms.

The text tends to stay close to the surface without a lot of a background information or extraneous quotes from officials. Dennison insists that readers already know their community and don’t need a history lesson. Staff goes in-depth on a monthly cover story with information graphics, extra photos and sidebars. For the 24/7 crowd, it’s a mix of new business openings, traffic and construction updates, school calendars, restaurant news, real estate sales, free events and additional content.

Picked it but hated it

Storytelling has changed because communication tools have changed, Dennison says. He can text his wife, email the staff and reach his kids by SnapChat. He recounts how he told his wife that he’d been to a new restaurant, showed her a photo of it and of the entrée he liked, and saw that exchange as the basic scenario for Rover: here’s what happened, here’s a photo.

“That’s what we wanted, words and visuals working together,” Dennison says, for both the web and for print. “We needed somebody to tie it all together.”

In February, he traveled to Columbia University in New York City to see noted design guru Dr. Mario Garcia, now an adjunct professor and senior advisor on news design there. Also founder of Garcia Media and author of a dozen books on media, he has been involved in the design, or redesign, of more than 700 publications worldwide, including the Wall Street Journal.

“When we went to him with the concept, he said, ‘I have to do this; I don’t care what you pay me,’” Dennison recalls with a laugh.

It was a major coup for AHP with Garcia immediately working on design ideas, eventually asking Dennison what the venture was named. There were 100 names. Dennison had spent months trying to come up with one, spending up to four hours a day on Thesarus.com trying to find a name that wasn’t already a ‘dot com,’ but couldn’t settle on any one.

“Finally, Rover popped into my head late – like a roving reporter, roving around town... I hated it, but I put it on the list,” Dennison recalls. When the list was pared down, Garcia took it to his journalism classes at Columbia and in a landslide the students overwhelmingly chose Rover. “I was stunned,” Dennison says. “I had picked it, but I still hated it.”

It wasn’t until Garcia came to Green Hills and showed the news team what he’d designed that Rover clicked with Dennison. “The way people talk about it, the name Rover, it just breathes some life into the identity of it. People talk about it like it’s a pet almost,” he adds. “I thought we would get a ton of letters saying it’s a stupid name, but we didn’t. Now I’m digging it.”

Rover’s success is going to depend on more than a cool look. Hazelwood, the veteran advertising executive, is out pounding the streets to attract advertisers and says the positive reception to Rover has her optimistic about generating ad revenue. “When people love the product you’re selling, it makes your job so much easier,” she says.

If AHP’s first foray into hyper-local media is successful, it is likely to be replicated elsewhere in the greater Nashville region. In fact, the company recently posted job openings for reporters and designers for an unnamed venture that matches Rover’s description.

If the zip-code philosophy, tied to household income and a burgeoning business sector, is the playbook moving forward, there are obvious destinations south of Nashville. Dennison won’t tip his hand but did say he thinks Rover will be replicated in the region.

“Right now, we are hyper-focused on getting the one we have right,” he says. Dennison maintains he is doing nothing new with Rover and is just lucky to be given this opportunity.

“There are dozens of folks like me – hundreds probably -- trying to do the same thing as Rover. Look at all the independent news sites out there; that’s just a bunch of jilted journalists trying to make it on their own,” he points out.

“I’m just trying to build a cool media business. I’m making a bet on myself and what I think. I’m doing it my way.”

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