Westchester’s Hyperlocal News Market Is a Four-Sided Shootout

Prestigious, affluent Westchester County, just north of New York City, is on the verge of becoming a hyperlocal version of the  Gunfight at OK Corral – squared.

Within months, four major-media companies will be competing community by community for dominance in this prized media market. Three have already holstered up and are blazing away — Gannett, AOL’s Patch and MainStreetConnect. And now Cablevision/Newsday is planting a flag in the county, joining this one-of-a-kind digital shootout.

Westchester is a high-contrast mix of storied suburbs (like Sleepy Hollow, the inspiration for Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Ossining, the home of Mad Men’s Don Draper and his family) and financially challenged cities (White Plains, Yonkers, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon). The county’s population of 941,000 spends $17 billion annually on retail. Poverty is below the national average – 9% vs. 15.3%. But Westchester is not white-bread: 21.8% of the population is Hispanic, 14.6% is black, and 25% is foreign-born. All this adds up to the potential for a steady, rich flow of news from 48 well-defined cities, towns and villages whose colonial heritage sits side-by-side with the headquarters of IBM, Pepsico and six other Fortune 500 companies.

If any of the four big-media competitors in Westchester becomes dominant or gains a distinct edge, the victor could have a template to do the same in scores of other top markets up for grabs in the still-emerging local/hyperlocal digital space. The ultimate prize for a workable, scalable model could be the lion’s share of the billions of dollars of ad revenue that are steadily migrating from “legacy” media – print newspapers and local TV – to community-centric digital space.

Gannett was in Westchester first. It acquired nine independent papers in Westchester and neighboring Putnam County in 1964, and in 1998 consolidated them and one additional purchase into the new daily/Sunday Journal News. But the consolidation came as the new post-baby-boom generation – the millennials – was turning away from print newspapers and toward the then-new Internet for its news. Five years ago, responding to a steady decline in its circulation, the Journal News launched a Web version – LoHud, for Lower Hudson Valley – that presents news tailored to 25 communities in Westchester.

If any of the four big-media competitors in Westchester becomes dominant or gains a distinct edge, the victor could have a template to do the same in scores of other top markets.

LoHud had a lock on the Web in Westchester, but that didn’t last long. Beginning in 2010, Patch and MainStreetConnect both launched competing “pure-play” hyperlocals. These sites, not constrained by the “legacy” traditions of print newspapers, were among the initial building blocks of digital networks that AOL and MainStreetConnect plan to extend nationally. MSC has 32 sites in Westchester and Patch, 22. They go head to head with LoHud in 17 communities.

(There are several other community-based sites in Westchester, but they don’t have the resources to compete with the four major-medias. The four-year-old independent TheLoop, which covers Larchmont, Mamaroneck and lower Westchester, says “we are more interested in the issues that surround them and what you are talking about.” Seven-year-0ld Westchester.com, another “indie,” runs press releases as its content.  Its story on the Westchester County Board of Legislators adopting the 2012 budget was a virtually verbatim press release from the BoL. The American Towns network covers Westchester with mostly press releases.)

Newsday – the division of Cablevision that will operate the Westchester sites – has parceled out selective but telling nuggets of information about what it will bring to the competition. It will, for example, cover Westchester communities on multiple digital platforms – the iPhone, iPad and Android apps as well as the Web. LoHud and MainStreetConnect have only websites; Patch has an iPhone app, but no tablet apps.

Newsday also said it would utilize Cablevision’s Channel 12 – whose service region includes Westchester  – and Cablevision’s MSG Varsity network featuring coverage of Westchester school sports, arts and other activities, as well as Newsday’s amNewYork, the free-circulation paper handed out to New York City-bound commuters. Newsday will be able to mix and match these three sister multi-media products with its new Westchester digital network as a potentially attractive triple advertising cross-sell – print, TV and digital – in Cablevision-Newsday’s broader metro market of Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey as well as Westchester and the Hudson Valley.

Perhaps most important, Newsday announced that its Westchester market entry will be overseen by Debby Krenek, who heads digital operations for Cablevision-Newsday’s Local Media Group. Krenek – a 1955 baby boomer – advanced to the highest editorial ranks of top metropolitan newspapers in both the print and digital eras. She was editor in chief at Newsday and, earlier, the New York Daily News. It was under her editorship that Newsday adopted a 100% paywall where subscriptions were ingeniously baked into the fees that Long Island cable TV subscribers pay to major metro system provider Cablevision. (Critics scoffed that early on only 35 customers signed up for the $5-a-week-Newsday online fee, but more than 112,000  Cablevision subscribers opted for their baked-in, no-additional-charge Newsday Web sub, giving the paper one of the largest paid [depending on how you define “paid”] Web circulations nationally.)

Krenek has named an editor to manage the Westchester sites, Diane Goldie, editor of amNewYork.  But as head of all Cablevision-Newsday’s digital operations, Krenek will undoubtedly be making the strategy calls for this big move.

Facing three already established and well-financed competitors, her challenge will be to scope out a hyperlocal network that is more than a digital version of a print newspaper. That’s essentially what LoHud, MainStreetConnect and Patch are, despite their digital bells and whistles. MSC and Patch are better designed than stodgy LoHud, but all three networks  mostly do what print versions of community newspapers have traditionally done — monitor police and fire incident reports, cover selected public meetings, repackage press releases, and periodically showcase energetic community doers, preferably the unsung ones. It’s all admirable, but the product is basically “commodity” news that doesn’t engage users sufficiently to keep them on  the site and clicking multiple pages – and ads. If you live, say, in Scarsdale or White Plains and want to know how well your community is performing based on key indicators, like housing, schools and jobs and economy  – especially in these difficult economic times – you won’t find many answers amid the jumble of headlines and images that define LoHud, MSC and Patch’s pages. It’s all a multi-colored blur.

Newsday will bring 25 new editors, reporters and “digital content specialists” to Westchester. Numerically, that’s about the same staffing complement that each of its competitors are deploying. What Krenek will have to do to succeed is disrupt the prevailing journalistic model, leavening commodity news with stickier social content that’s a collaboration between journalists and a fully engaged community. Since Washington Irving’s day, Westchester has never lacked for writing talent.

Will Krenek be the Wyatt Earp of the gunfight at the Westchester corral?  She was born, raised and began her rise in big-league newspapers in Texas, where Earp spent time preparing for his big career move in Tombstone, Ariz., in 1881. That should provide at least a partial answer.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.

  1. editrix
    December 15, 2011

    Let’s not forget those of us who have been doing this  long before there was a “Patch,” such as theLoop (www.theloopny.com) Still going strong after 4 years, with what we consider to be tremendous reach, and dozens of others.
    Polly Kreisman

    1. December 15, 2011

      The purpose of the column was to focus on the four major-media sites, which are the only ones covering all or at least most of the 48 cities, towns and villages of Westchester.  The column does site The Loop, which covers Larchmont, Mamaroneck and Rye, which altogether represent less than 6% of Westchester’s population. 

      1. editrix
        December 15, 2011

        Thank you, Tom.
        theLoop covers Larchmont, Mamaroneck, New Rochelle, Scarsdale and Rye which represents a significant amount of Westchester’s population. Trust us, we know about this stuff.
        And there are significant expansion plans in play.

        1. December 15, 2011

          I guess it depends on what you mean by “cover.”  The only New Rochelle stories I see on your homepage today — Thursday, Dec. 15 — are about a drug raid that was first published on Nov. 18 and a second one about the cat Cheerio who is up for adoption at the New Rochelle Humane Society, which is dated Nov. 16. I don’t see any other New Rochelle news, and only the police blotter for Scarsdale.  Am I missing something?

          1. editrix
            December 15, 2011

            perhaps you are missing that every single event in a given town is not always worth covering. that’s the problem with the McSites. They can’t curate or provide context. They are obliged to cover every kindergarten playground ribbon cutting. Our readers are more discerning than that.

            We live here. We are embedded here.Our communities are interwoven. For example, you can live in Larchmont, send your children to public school in Mamaroneck, pay some of your property taxes to New Rochelle, and go to church/temple/shop in Scarsdale.  Just because the story does not have a specific dateline does not mean it’s not about an aspect of that place.

            When I was an reporter on NYC television, we would not cover everything that happened in a given day for an hour of TV. It’s the same on this scale too. But what you choose to cover should have maximum impact.

  2. December 15, 2011

    After living in Larchmont for a couple of years back in 2007 – 2009, I am not surprised that Westchester is a prime target for hyperlocal coverage. Westchester residents are passionate about their communities and have the money to explore them; many residents are highly educated and utilize the latest digital platforms (especially as they commute into NYC via Metro North each day); and their small business owners tend to be more progressive than other suburban communities. 

    Launched in May of 2011, WestchesterHappening.com was our 3rd hyperlocal digital lifestyle magazine under Happenings Media, an independent licensee network that has since grown to 14 magazines.  While I do believe Westchester is a prime market for hyperlocal coverage, it is unique, just as every community is.  Creating a hyperlocal model that truly succeeds in multiple markets relies on financial sustainability, quality representation of each community (whether it be in news, lifestyle, sports, or any other type of content), and a strategic method to deliver quality branding to local; regional; and national advertisers with integrity.

  3. December 15, 2011

    Tom — here’s a piece I posted nearly 2 years ago about what I saw in the Westchester hyperlocal news market:  http://huff.to/8YfwOX .  There since been some additions  and some departures.  But no one’s really yet been able to create  a compelling digital journalistic product here.  And there continues to be a dearth of deeper, thoughtful journalism — except somewhat suprisingly (and periodically) — some countywide trend pieces coming from the Journal News — which I had previously written off for dead.

    There are also some weekly print newsweeklies that still survive — such as the stable of papers from Hometown News headed by Howard Sturman– and a vibrant offering from upcounty — The Examiner — which has been slowly extending its reach into midcounty communities:  http://www.theexaminernews.com  published by Adam Stone. Their web presence is essentially limited to regurgitation of their print editions.

    There are also a developing plethora of special interest blogs and micro-hyperlocal  postings that endeavor to fill  niches– such as http://www.westchesterlife.wordpress.com which has just embarked on trying to launch an “Occupy Main Street” movement in Westchester to rescue mainstreet mom & pop retail from decline and alleged “greedy” commercial property landlords.

    1. December 15, 2011

      David, thanks for your authoritative look at sites beyond the major-media ones.  As you say, despite a lot of Web activity throughout Westchester, “no one’s really yet been able to create a compelling digital journalistic product here.”  I’m sure that assessment is what’s driving Cablevision-Newsday to become the fourth major-media company to try doing that.

  4. Leslie-Anne Brill
    December 15, 2011

    There’s a difference between local and hyperlocal. The truly hyperlocal sites have a feel to them that the major media ones, however useful, just don’t.

  5. Mark Chmiel, Circle Street
    December 16, 2011

    I still think it’s a black hole–there simply is not enough hyper local content to drive enough of an audience to attract advertisers. Our biz model (circlestreet.com) allows us to use hundreds of national sites but in a geo-fenced area.  We can saturate a local merchant’s trading area with a meaningful audience delivery.

  6. December 16, 2011

    Tom, Thanks for writing such as interesting post and shining a light on what is happening in the Westchester NY market.

    Polly Kreisman, the publisher of the The Loop (www.theloopny.com) looks to have rightly taken issue, though, with one statement that you made that was aimed maybe unfairly at her site: “There are several other community-based sites in Westchester, but they don’t have the resources to compete with the four major-medias.”

    My company BlankSlate (www.blankslate.com) works with local sites including The Loop and we simply don’t see large media efforts like the four you point out as ‘competition’. In fact, sites like Brownstoner (www.brownstoner.com) in Brooklyn and Prince of Petworth (www.princeofpetworth.com) in DC benefit when major-media focuses on their markets. These sites offer unique local voices and both the public and media companies look to them for point of view.

    BlankSlate has recently partnered with The Loop and will be providing tech and sales resources because we see a growing opportunity in Westchester for The Loop. Rather than seeing these companies as competition we think that ‘a rising tide raises all the boats’… big and small.

    1. December 17, 2011


      Thanks for sharing what you’re doing to help Polly and The Loop in technology and sales.  Regarding what I said in the column about The Loop and several other smaller sites — “There are several other community-based sites in Westchester, but they don’t have the resources to compete with the four major-medias” — I meant competition covering the entire county, which has 48 cities, towns and villages.  The Loop focuses on a few communities — Larchmont, Mamaroneck and Rye.  It runs occasional articles, sometimes aggregated, about Scarsdale and New Rochelle, and summary police blotters, but that’s about it.  I would describe The Loop as a niche site that provides selective coverage that emphasizes what Polly thinks matters most.  The Loop has been successful doing this for four years, Polly attests, and, with BlankSlate’s help, I’m sure The Loop can strengthen its special presence and audience.

      1. Polly Kreisman
        December 17, 2011

        There’s no point in saying it again, Tom. But we do far more than what “(I) think is important,” and for far broader an audience.
        But you’re going to write what you want with an arrogant bias. (Aggregated? Special audience?)

  7. Guest
    December 17, 2011

    There’s no point trying to sayiit again, Tom. But we do far more than what
    “(I) think is important,” and for far broader an audience.
    But you’re going to write what you want with an arrogant bias. (Aggregated? Special audience?)
    Our work speaks for itself.

  8. December 19, 2011

    We publish The Rye Record, a bi-weekly newspaper delivered free to every home in Rye, N.Y. With 40 or more pages per issue, in full color, with about 50% ad content, it generates approximately $50 per capita in annual advertising.

    Most conversations about online vs print miss the point. If compelling articles
    about the people you know around town are delivered in a convenient fashion
    (either free in your mailbox or online), advertisers will come. If one
    publishes both the good and the bad news about local government, the schools, and
    other institutions in town, readers will be loyal. If one publishes neither,
    whether online or in print, neither readers nor advertisers will care.

    Our competitors are occasionally in Rye, but they are not of Rye. They have no office for people to drop by in and share stories, photos or concerns. So many of the stories we publish come about because I run into someone while working out at the Rye Y, or standing in line at the Post Office, or buying my groceries at June and Ho, or attending the many non-profit events and giving to them generously.

    Our advertisers, who want to reach the Rye customer, know how intensely Rye our newspaper and website are. That’s why they have stayed loyal through thick and thin

    Most hyperlocal news outlets are “obliquely local.” Until they become intensely local, it’s unclear that what future they have.

  9. Jalcott
    December 19, 2011

    The article is incorrect. If you count sports and life & style reporters, The Journal News (Gannett/Lohud.com) has at least 100 editors and reporters covering Westchester — four times Newsday’s deployment. That’s a fact; check it out. Even at this nadir in the newspaper’s storied career, they’ll easily kick Newsday’s interloping butt. 

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Street Fight Daily: 12.15.11