Rover sniffs out unlikely partners in Nashville venture

Friday, September 28, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 39
By Vince Troia

The birth of Rover, a new, hyper-local news product, was the result of several happy accidents.

It also involved unexpected moves by people not known for deviating from business as usual.

However, the common denominator is Brad Dennison, the man behind Rover.

When American Hometown Publishing hired Brad Dennison as its chief executive officer in 2015, it was a company that since 2005 has published community newspapers, websites and magazines in five states, including Tennessee.

AHP tends to buy free-distribution newspapers and community shoppers, but also manages Hometown Digital Solutions, a digital marketing services business.

Taking what he learned as a company executive at GateHouse Media, one of the largest publishers of locally-based media in the United States, Dennison led a successful turnaround of AHP’s revenues.

This spring, GateHouse’s website boasted that it was publishing 145 daily newspapers and 340 weeklies across 37 states. Among those are the Columbia Herald and the Spring Hill Advertiser News. GateHouse is also where Rover COO Clarissa Williams honed her leadership skills.

GateHouse’s markets may dwarf those of AHP, but the company didn’t have a hyper-local news entity like Rover. Dennison did. Or rather, he would have after a meeting with West End Holdings managing partner Lyle Beasley.

Nashville-based West End Holdings LLC acquired American Hometown Publishing in July 2017 and immediately added additional media properties, but it was WEH’s first-ever media buy, and the meeting happened as a favor from a third party.

“I was talking to more traditional buyers, and then I found myself flying to Nashville to talk to some guy I don’t know,” says Dennison of Beasley. “We just hit it off. It just felt like there’s no doubt this is a guy I can work with, although he hated the industry.”

Beasley and West End Holdings primarily focused on technology businesses and may have been impressed with Dennison’s digital marketing arm. Nonetheless, the deal found AHP debt-free, and the push for creating digital revenue was on.

Rover’s launch in Green Hills was fortuitous in another way – many of the WEH folks live in the area. It was “a perfect scenario,” according to Dennison, for them to be able to see the product and understand it. “It wouldn’t be abstract because they live there, and they understand the issues and see the growth and construction,” he says.

“Rover is an accurate reflection of their view of the world of Green Hills.”

Dennison recognizes the Rover story as serendipitous timing, though he adds that his journalism experience played a role. Being in newsrooms and conference rooms gave him a broader sense of what journalism could be, and he called GateHouse the “world’s biggest test tube of community newspapers.” Chance meetings and chance-taking make for an interesting career, he says.

“I didn’t invent print, I didn’t invent mobile, I didn’t invent this type of content... but like bands, they have their influences, and I have mine,” Dennison adds.

“I have had the good fortune of having an interesting career, starting with community papers and working for a lot of different companies.”

Dennison explains AHP is pushing Rover not with a newspaper mentality, but more with a venture mentality that it’s going take as long as it takes to make it work.

He says he is glad that WEH doesn’t expect profits right out of the gate, but reports that early analytic data show bumps in audience and page views with every monthly delivery and each daily news blast.

“We do want to be profitable, but you don’t know when you don’t already have a presence in a market how people are going to take to it,” he says.

Asked if he feels lucky at the way all the pieces have fallen into place so far, he shrugs.

“The public reception to Rover has been positive, so it definitely feels like the wind is at my back and not in my face,” Dennison says.