Husband-and-wife entrepreneurial team Peter Blasl and Denise Civiletti founded and manage the suburban Long Island, N.Y., hyperlocal news site Riverhead Local. It is one of only five sites on a recent list of independent sites with annual revenues in the $251,000-$500,000 range. Longtime journalists Blasl and Civiletti are co-publishers, with Blasl being the one salesperson and Civiletti heading up editorial.
Some local media observers say display ads don’t work anymore. But don’t tell that to Civiletti. In this wide-ranging Q&A, on which she collaborated with her husband, she shows why display continues to be the major revenue source for Riverhead Local.
What’s the biggest factor in your revenue performance?
It’s not any one thing. Top-quality, original, fresh content is what keeps people coming back to our site. Peter, who’s in charge of sales, likes to say our site sells itself. But having a salesperson like Peter — someone rooted in our community, someone who loves our community, and someone who believes in what we’re doing and the content we produce — is absolutely essential.
Some experts say display ads don’t work anymore. What’s the case at Riverhead Local?
We believe display advertising does work, and we have customer testimonials to back up our belief. It’s important to know what your customers want from their ads, which means it’s important to know what makes their business tick. It’s critical to make sure people change up their ads frequently — and they usually have to be pushed to do so. Ads are content too, and they need to be fresh in order to be effective.
What about regional and national ads, especially those that seek to identify consumers based on their behavior, including what they may be doing “right now”?
Our appeal is that we are local — from our ownership to our content to our advertisers. We actually think having national advertising would detract from that appeal. National chain stores are part of what’s put a hurting on the local small businesses that are the backbone of our local economy and our community. Hosting national ads would feel like a betrayal of our core values and mission. How could we ever set foot in our favorite pub-restaurant — Digger’s on West Main Street in Riverhead, a loyal advertiser from the very beginning — if we had an Applebee’s “Neighborhood” Bar & Grill ad on our site? Ain’t happening.
Who do you have working under you as editor?
I have a full-time reporter and several stringers who report and write.
How do you use social media?
We use Facebook and Twitter to inform our followers about stories we post, with links to our site. We also use these tools to post breaking news, traffic alerts and live scores for big games.
Facebook is an important way to engage our community in conversation. I try to start conversations instead of just posting links, wherever possible. It’s also an important way to learn about what’s happening in our community. Monitoring Facebook is akin to monitoring the police scanner: it gives us the pulse of the town. We also run contests and sweepstakes on the platform. Facebook generates about 30 percent of our site visits, so it’s definitely an important tool for driving traffic.
Our Facebook page has had a “spinoff.” We started a group called “Remembering Riverhead” last year. I attended a “Remembering Riverhead” session set up by a local historian, for which about two dozen people showed up. I wondered what would happen if we tried to use social media to as a forum for “remembering.” It took off and now has almost 2,000 members. The group is very active and always has a conversation going.
Our live blog coverage of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath (including the ensuing gas crisis) was recognized by the L.I. Press Club with a second place award for Best Social Media use. We incorporated Flickr and Quik video into the live blog, allowing our reporters in the field and site users to share photos and video. We had round-the-clock coverage for the duration of the storm, “camping out” in the hospital lobby after we lost our own electricity and internet. People loved the coverage because they could stay connected via their mobile phones after they lost power and internet. We logged nearly a half-million “engagement minutes,” according to Scribble Live, the platform we used for the coverage.
I’m the first to admit I don’t use Twitter the way I should. It’s often and afterthought for me. I have to improve my Twitter IQ.
Based on your success in Suffolk County, can you expand to other parts of the county or possibly to bigger Nassau County to the west — or might network-type expansion be a mistake?
We think it might be possible to expand to nearby towns, but we’re not ready for that. Expand too much — such as attempting to form a LI-wide network — and you’ll meet the same fate of other news sites who thought they could “roll it out” all over the place. It doesn’t work — local doesn’t scale.
What advice would you give to a start-up to get on the path to sustainability?
Pay attention to sales and please pay attention to your business. It won’t run itself. Set aside portions of at least two days a week to manage business tasks. Set goals. Figure out how much you need to earn to survive, then how much it will take to thrive. Make sure you have enough sales inventory to meet those goals. Create a media kit and make sure it tells your story: Who you are, why you do what you do. Make sure it has basic metrics for your site as well as a rate sheet. Write it all down. By all means, hire a good accountant. And be prepared to work harder and longer than you ever have at anything ever before. We’re talking 16-hour days, seven days a week, 365 days a year for a long while — not too different from any other small business start-up. We believe this works best when there are two partners, one who handles editorial, the other who handles sales. While Denise helps with marketing and Peter covers breaking news, having two people with distinct areas of concentration has proven extremely helpful.
With you and Peter as independents with no corporation standing behind you, do you ever feel alone?
The fellowship and support of other indies via the Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers has been of immeasurable value. [Civiletti is on the LION board of directors.] I worked at this for a good year before I came up for air and realized there were other people out there doing what we were doing. Connecting with them, first on Facebook via the LION group and then in person, at Block By Block in Chicago and through the newly formed LION, has helped us more than I can say. One thing about doing what we do the *way* we do it is that you can feel very alone. For me, coming out of a newsroom with a couple dozen journalists, starting Riverhead Local was a very big change. Having others to talk with, seek advice from, bitch to, and share success stories with has been huge for me.
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.