Launched in Greenville, South Carolina in 2016, 6AM City now operates in seven cities in the Southeast, from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Charleston, South Carolina. Co-founder Ryan Heafy (pictured above), who studied mechanical engineering and previously worked in aerospace, joined Ryan Johnston, whose family has owned the South Carolina-based media company Community Journals, to create a venture focused on delivering curated local news via email. With the state of local news being a topic of increasing interest, 6AM co-founder Ryan Heafy speaks with me about his company's approach, their focus on advertising, and their relationship to the communities in which they operate.
Erich Prince: There has been a recent focus on the potential economic engine of mid-sized American cities, as evidenced by, for example, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett's book The Next American City. You operate in many of such cities. Can you talk about the experience of working in these types of cities—and how your company fits into the types of economic climates each city has?
Ryan Heafy: Whoever said you couldn't build a successful startup in the Southeast hadn't met those of us who are building "The Next American Cities." We did it in local media, an industry that some have all but been deemed on the way to extinction. You just have to have the right product, people, strategy and economic climate. We were lucky to be able to take advantage of the economic climate in our cities, as they were primed for growth. Our cities have put in the work to develop a collaborative network of resources to support and develop the rising creative class. We were further supported by the amazing community that makes up these mid-sized American cities. These cities have recognized the need to punch above their weight, and they have made the investment and commitment to supporting the small businesses that drive their economies.
Prince: What makes the Southeast region so far particularly apt for your business model, and do you have plans, at this juncture, to expand to cities such as say New York or Chicago?
Heafy: While 6AM is positioned to expand across the country, we were lucky to get started in Greenville, SC where the community's "pride in place" (a term we use to evaluate what cities we go to next) was ripe for the product when we launched. 6AM's local brands are designed to educate and activate our community, delivering local news and events via an email newsletter at 6:00 a.m. each morning. When we hit the inboxes of our community, we are kicking off the watercooler conversation each day. We are facilitating our communities' ability to come together to support local businesses, nonprofits and events; we are talking with—not at—our readers. We're positioned to expand to Atlanta (through a strategic partnership), as well as other larger cities. We believe that each city has its own unique "pride in place" that we can tap into.
Prince: What sorts of relationships does 6AM City have with more traditional media companies in these cities, whether it be Raleigh's News & Observer or Charleston's Post & Courier?
Heafy: 6AM initially started as a product innovation of a local print media company and, thus, was designed from day one to be non-competitive with traditional media models. As we've expanded, this has allowed 6AM the ability to develop excellent working relationships with the traditional media companies in all of our cities. As we aren't focused on longform content and investigative journalism, our peers see us as a distribution partner, rather than a competitor. In fact, many local journalists and news desks send us their top stories each day to include in our email newsletter. Additionally, as distribution is constantly changing, not all members of the community may be aware of the great content these organizations are creating. As such, we help to drive our readers to their sites and paywalls, helping to convert our readers into their subscribers. When it comes to revenue, we've developed a unique model that allows 6AM to be profitable with fewer advertisers—and with a slightly different product mix. So, we're more complimentary when it comes to the local ad dollars that traditional media is pursuing.
Prince: In an age of many media companies looking to subscriptions for revenue, what makes you stick 100% with advertising?
Heafy: Subscription revenue only works if you have a large addressable market, as well as a unique value proposition and niche content. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have had some success because of this, as have models like "Trends" by The Hustle.
On a local level, readers aren't used to or willing to pay for the value of local content, especially when paired with the fact that many nationally-owned, local newspapers have been continuing to decrease local content creation. We see an opportunity to continue driving our audiences' attention to their content—and serving as a partner in their subscription efforts.
Prince: Can you discuss what a typical newsletter of yours features when it comes to content?
Heafy: Each of our local newsletters delivers the most relevant need-to-know local news and events daily. We blend a mix of lifestyle content to capture the reader's attention with civic content designed to educate and activate the community. We break down the content filters that drive the content delivered via typical social media channels, and we open up our readers to a diversity of content in the communities we serve. As part of our packaging, we lead with a topic designed to drive conversation, insert modules to drive user engagement, integrate social content, and narrate the local news and events of the day. We've designed the product for the consumer, to be in conversation with our readers, and they seem to be paying attention.
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