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State of the Site: How ARLnow is faring in the current downturn

Sunset in Ballston, near ARLnow’s office (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

ARLnow and its sister sites celebrated another year of hard work, journalistic achievements and client service at our holiday party Monday night.

One change: the venue. Rather than eating and drinking at a local restaurant, as usual, we had beer, wine, soda and pizza in the common area of our coworking space in Ballston. It’s one example of the belt tightening underway over the past couple of months, amid a downturn in the economy and among media companies in particular.

Round after round of layoffs have been announced at U.S. media companies this fall, including at CNN, Buzzfeed, Tysons-based newspaper chain Gannett, and email newsletter company Morning Brew. The Washington Post is set to undergo more layoffs early next year, its publisher announced today, while Rosslyn-based tech publication Protocol shuttered last month.

ARLnow and our sister sites are no exception to the pain felt among advertising-supported news outlets. After a torrid start to the year, which brought about plans for additional hiring, our company’s revenue is down in the quarter to date.

Chart showing quarterly revenue change at ARLnow’s parent company from 2021 to 2022 (as of Dec. 14, 2022)

We started to see the slowdown, as did other media companies, in July. October and November were particularly bad months. The good news is that we’ve seen a pronounced recovery in December.

That does not mean we’re out of the woods by any means, however. Many are predicting a recession in 2023, though projections for how deep and prolonged it will be vary to a significant degree.

Despite the economic challenges, we have committed to our nine full-time employees that no layoffs are planned and we will do whatever is needed to avoid them. Instead, we have cut back on some technology expenses, non-essential spending and our freelance budget.

You can also expect to see ALXnow editor Vernon Miles helping out with ARLnow, to offset some of the freelance cuts.

We are fortunate to be operating in a market that is bolstered economically by federal spending and to have a loyal adverter base and a growing roster of paid members. Other local news outlets are not as lucky.

Still, we can use your support. If we can add 200 new ARLnow Press Club members (less than 0.1% of our monthly readership) between now and the end of the year we should be able to keep ARLnow’s freelance budget at current levels. If you’d like to support our reporting while getting an early look at the next day’s news, please consider subscribing.

The media business is always evolving, but now seems like a particularly volatile time. In the interest of transparency, we wanted to discuss some other factors that are affecting our business now and into the future.

Artificial intelligence and automation

We have spent much of the past year working on no-code automations that allow our editorial and business teams to operate more efficiently. For instance, most social media posts are now automated and we can publish events, announcements and other user-submitted content with a single click.

More recently, as you might have noticed, we have started experimenting with artificial intelligence via DALL-E 2 image generation and the GPT-3 writing AI. It’s still early in the development of such technology, but we’ve arrived at some initial conclusions from our experimentation.

  • Only rarely does DALL-E 2 imagery make sense for our articles in place of original photography or even stock photography.
  • GPT-3 is actually quite good at summarizing material that it’s provided.
  • GPT-3 is not replacing reporters any time soon. It can write passably on very general topics but frequently gets facts wrong when asked about more niche and local topics.

While it might not be writing full articles for us, we are currently using GPT-3 in several ways.

  1. It’s helping to write headlines for articles based on press releases on ALXnow.
  2. It’s summarizing the day’s articles in our new nightly ARLnow Press Club newsletter, The Night Note.
  3. It’s suggesting social media posts to our business team for promoting advertiser content.

ARLnow will continue to monitor the evolution of AI large language models like GPT-3 for potential future applications.

Facebook, Instagram and email

When Facebook’s parent company scaled back its Meta Journalism Project, laying off some of its local news program managers, it was not exactly a shock to us.

For much of the year Facebook has been sending significantly fewer readers our way compared to 2021. Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, traffic to ARLnow from Facebook — our largest single outside traffic source besides Google — was down more than 50%. Meanwhile, other sources like Twitter and Newsbreak were up between 20-90%.

With Facebook threatening to ban news altogether from its platform (if a bill that ARLnow strongly opposes passes in Congress) it’s clear that we need to plan for a post-Facebook world.

As our primary means of addressing the Facebook drop off, ARLnow is preparing several initiatives to get more subscribers to our daily email newsletter. Expect to see new things soon, like a referral campaign that will reward people who recommend the newsletter to friends with prizes like posters or even trendy local apparel.

Additionally, for those who enjoy Meta’s suite of apps, we are posting more of our headlines on Instagram these days.

Twitter and other social networks

It seems like everyone on Twitter these days can’t stop talking about Twitter. And who can blame them, when its owner, formerly the world’s richest man, can’t stop tweeting controversial things.

As you might know, we have a long-standing beef with Twitter. ARLnow has a large following on Twitter — more than 55,000 followers — but that has not translated to a verified account, like we have on Facebook. That’s despite numerous attempts to get Twitter to verify us.

Given that ongoing frustration, you’d think we would be a candidate to either get verified via Twitter Blue or, on the other end of the spectrum, to exit the platform altogether. We’re not doing the former for now and we’re definitely not doing the latter unless something dramatically changes.

The main thing we care about is getting our local reporting out to the widest possible audience. While Twitter’s current owner may be saying and doing things that are highly questionable, ultimately we have not seen a change in the functionality of the platform that would lead us to believe it no longer has value for us and those who follow our account.

Thus, we’ll keep tweeting out the news for the foreseeable future. As for that blue checkmark, it would be foolish for us to not consider paying a mere $8/mo should Twitter start boosting the algorithmic reach of those who do. For the time being, we’re experimenting with Twitter Blue on our FFXnow account, which was launched earlier this year when we effectively merged our Tysons Reporter and Reston Now sites.

As for other social media sites that some are decamping to from Twitter, including and Mastodon, ARLnow has always been a slow follower of trends that don’t seem to have an immediate positive ROI. That has served us well over the years, so we don’t chase ephemeral trends (sorry for never offering any ARLnow NFTs).

Should Mastodon or continue to grow their user communities, and should our social media management system add support for those networks, we could eventually launch accounts there. But for now if you want to see our stories the minute they’re published, Twitter or RSS are the best options.

Thank you

If you got this far, we appreciate you reading and caring. There’s a lot of talk nationally about the importance of local news — in part due to the bad-for-independent-outlets JCPA bill that’s still floating around Capitol Hill — but here on the ground level there are no white knights carrying bags of cash riding to the rescue of an ad-and-reader-supported, locally-owned site in Arlington, Virginia.

We are here because you are here, reading. And because local businesses and organizations want to reach you with their messages. And thanks in party to the generosity of readers who opened their wallets and supported us and our local reporting mission.

The bottom line is that we would not be here, 12 years later, but for the community placing value on local things, including the part we play as a connector and informer. So thank you for that — and here’s to another year of everything local in 2023.

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