by Wesley Ratko

Mel Taylor

The board of directors of the Chestnut Hill Community Association voted overwhelmingly April 28 to hire a media consultant to support the development of a Web portal for the community.

By a 20-5 vote, the board approved a motion to retain the services of Mel Taylor Media, with a budget line item of $3,500 as a retainer to Mel Taylor, and with an additional $1,250 due upon completion of a detailed business plan, a marketing overview, and 12-month revenue projection.

Taylor, a former media personality now specializing in online revenue and strategy for hyperlocal news media, was introduced to the board by board member Miguel Castaneda, who said transitioning the Chestnut Hill Local’s current online presence into one that can compete with other Web portals (like WHYY’s NewsWorks and AOL Patch) for ad revenue presented “operational concerns” that require the expertise of a professional. Taylor, Castaneda said, will provide that expertise.

Taylor began by explaining that his business uses real-world experience to help small businesses and organizations “sell the Web” and survive in the digital age.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” he said, a sentiment he repeated several times throughout the evening.

Taylor praised the traditional print version of the Local as the community association’s “ace in the hole,” which provides an advantage other competitors don’t have. He explained that the paper has the potential to be bigger, and is an asset upon which to build and grow the digital platform of a website, while ensuring the future of the print version.

“Local ad money is the life blood of news,” he said.

He explained that outsiders like NewsWorks and AOL Patch want local ad revenue – the same money that the Local depends on to stay afloat – but that journalism is not their primary concern.
“Everything here is to protect the integrity of your journalism,” Taylor said, “because if you lose that, then you become just another dot com.”

Taylor was insistent that the Chestnut Hill Local’s website was a vital element in the plan to bring a profitable portal to the neighborhood, explaining that a separate website would weaken, not strengthen the community’s asset. His plan was not a separate portal entity but a new look and functionality of the paper’s existing website. A separate element would draw ad revenue away from the Local if it is at all successful.

“If [a separate website] has any success, it’s going to chip away and hurt the mother ship, which is Chestnut Hill Local – the paper and its website – and that cannot happen,” he said. “The Chestnut Hill Local, the paper and dot com, can never go away.”

Taylor explained that he’s worked in situations where the paper and the website have gone separate ways, and said that approach was counterproductive.

“I can assure you,” he said, “on more than one occasion, the newspaper and the website have tried to kill each other internally.”

Board member Jay Valinis asked whether Taylor would provide assistance to the Local’s staff to integrate his recommendations into the existing framework of the Local’s website. Taylor said yes, that his services are all hands on and would include training.

He followed up on that by addressing concerns from board members that the Internet potential for the existing site was limited by the existing framework. Taylor said he would work with publisher Larry Hochberger to “max out” the current platform and do as much as possible with it until its limits are reached, at which point, he said, they could pursue options for the development of a “more robust platform.”

Taylor emphasized that his job was not to tell the board what to do but instead to provide options and help them to make the right decision.

“I’m not suggesting you hire someone to be the portal manager,” he said. He added that there isn’t a reason to bring in an outsider if an internal person could do the job.

“I’m here to identify three options, show Larry the pros and cons of each option, and help him make the right decision,” Taylor said.

Board member Richard Snowden suggested that the Local was not a typical newspaper, and, given that uniqueness, asked whether Taylor’s business model would have the same effectiveness that it has had on his other clients.

“There’s extreme division between the owners and management as to how we go forward,” Snowden said. He added that he was in favor of the concept but wasn’t confident that there was unified buy-in from the community.

“I want to make sure we’re all 100 percent behind this,” he said.

Lisa Howe expressed her support for hiring Taylor by comparing his services to those of Midge McCauley, the retail consultant hired last year by the Business Association. Howe said that McCauley’s hiring had proven to be a huge success and well worth the expense. Art Howe echoed that sentiment, emphasizing that the decision to hire her has resulted in “20 times the money spent.”

Taylor said he wasn’t dismissing the concept of the portal – just assigning the functions of a Web portal to the Local’s website.

Board president Walter Sullivan asked Taylor how he thought the CHCA would pay for the initial start-up costs. Taylor suggested the current sales force be “leveraged,” and that the Local staff create something “saleable” on the current website – something that can be developed into “premium inventory.”

“You do everything free first,” Taylor said, “then sell it better to your current clientele as simple ad packages.”

After this initial setup, Taylor suggested training the sales force to better approach advertisers.