Founded in 2008, The Alternative Press (TAP) was kicked off after Mike Shapiro's one-year-old son survived a risky open-heart surgery. As a result, Shapiro decided to leave his job as an attorney in Manhattan to build a career promoting social good. The site was born later that year, aiming to be a community resource that provides "high quality, objective, non-partisan, hyperlocal news and information." It has been attracting readers and expanding into New Jersey communities ever since.
The site allows some community involvement: readers can submit guest columns, community events, and press releases. However, freelance journalists produce the bulk of its content. They are paid from $25 to $60 for their contributions, and TAP now boasts nearly 200 of these journalists spread amongst its 15 communities.
In some communities, TAP has some competition. Patch, AOL's hyperlocal news network, has over 80 sites in New Jersey, some of which overlap with The Alternative Press' locations. eMediaVitals reported that last year, TAP spent $0.28 per unique visitor. By comparison, Patch spent $1.39 per unique. By that account, The Alternative Press is at least keeping costs down while managing to attract advertisers - the current site average is 6 per page (with $2,500 annual contracts). At a recent MIT Enterprise Forum, Shapiro said that ad sales were growing by about $100,000 a year.
Although the future looks promising for TAP, Streetfightmag raised concerns about the site's tendency to include advertorials. Publishing advertorials, a practice where advertisements are made to look like editorials, risk compromising journalism's credibility. The fears may not be unfounded: the top news story of Chatham Township concerned the Third Annual Lexus Men's Open that kicked off over the weekend. Although Lexus was not mentioned again in the article, the picture accompanying it showed two men standing in front of a large Lexus banner.
Bart Brouwers from Dutch hyperlocal site Ditchtbij.nl cited the technique as a way to monetize stories at the 6th WAN-IFRA Summer University in Paris. Brouwers explained that advertisers, shop owners, or event sponsors can be included in articles relevant to their businesses for extra revenue streams, as long as this is transparent. However, this technique treads a fine line between advertorials and news stories. TAP editors should ensure that the news is always worthy to publish, not just to sell to advertisers.
The Alternative Press has become quite successful both with audiences and advertisers. By 2013, it expects to pull in a $100,000 profit. This kind of achievement is rare in a niche still searching for a sustainable financial model. Judging by TAP's example, perhaps promoting social good has a price tag after all.