A Decade Old, iBrattleboro Keeps Journalism First, Profits Second

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ibrat_i_300I love iBrattleboro.com, and I’ve never been to its 260-year-old Vermont town. It’s not hard for a distant observer to love the site, which had its tenth birthday yesterday.

One example — this comment on the anniversary posted by annikkee:

“Congratulations you guys! This is truly amazing. It’ll be a while before my head stops spinning but holy cow! So much to learn and explore in a shiny new site full of many more things! Woohoo!! Thank you!”

That’s the kind of comment any site would die for. The amazing thing about iBrattleboro.com is that there’s so much other community feedback that’s just as endearing, and often packed with interesting, important and vital local information that begets even more valuable feedback. And all, mind you, on a continual basis, day after day.

This level of engagement has been going on for the 10 years the site has existed. I first took a look at it in October 2005, when it was in its third year. This is what I wrote then, in Online Journalism Review:

“…founders [Chris] Grotke and [Lise] LePage, through words and action, gently prod users to put the site to its highest and best uses. ‘We’ve … tried to set a good example on the site and demand excellence from people,’ Grotke says. The site could do a better job of showcasing content, but it’s working. It has more than 900 registered users and thousands more unsigned visitors. Each week, the site gets 3,000 to 4,000 unique visitors — in a town of 12,000. Pretty good.”

Today iBrattleboro has 2,500 registered users who go to the site at the rate of 1,000 to 2,000 a day, according to Grotke and LePage, and open several pages on average during each visit. They do this in a town that has the same 12,000 population it had in 2003.

IBrattleboro recently converted to a new look and publishing system — based on Drupal — that included many new features, among them a secondary homepage (“News and Information”) to provide more inventory for higher-priced advertising. New features also include classifieds, groups and a “Skills Cloud” where users can look for or promote special talents.

iBrattleboro.com co-founders Chris Grotke and Lise LePage
iBrattleboro.com co-founders Chris Grotke and Lise LePage

Grotke and LePage produce their own share of content, but rely on a stable of community residents to contribute “citizen journalism” that has been a staple on the site since its beginning.

Since its launch, iBrattleboro has published 22,000 stories from contributors, an average of about six a day, counting Sundays. It’s also received over 100,000 comments from readers.

Brattleboro is and always has been a definable place with a community of purpose, going back to its status as a fort during King George’s War that pitted the ruling British against the French in the mid-1740s. IBrattleboro capitalized on that legacy from the get-go. “It really is a community site for a community that is actually a community,” LePage said.

But what, besides frequent and copious comments and articles, does all of iBrattleboro’s engagement with the community produce?

“Results,” says Grotke. He cited a story from last year on the local police fatally shooting a stray dog at a local elementary school. IBrattleboro’s detailed story — written by LePage — drew many comments and was picked up by regional media, including the Boston Globe. The upshot was that police now receive better training on how to deal with animal incidents, including coordinating with the animal control and the local humane society. The police department also made improvements in its Citizens Police Communications Committee.

Grotke also cited the results of the “pay-as-you-throw” controversy over imposition of a fee for trash pickup that wasn’t included in town taxes. Grotke and other contributors objected to the fee because it didn’t include more frequent recycling pickups to encourage fewer throwaways. The end result here was more frequent pickups.

The story of iBrattleboro.com on its tenth anniversary is not an entirely satisfying one (at least from the sustainable-business-model perspective that Street Fight looks at hyperlocal from). LePage and Grotke do make a profit from the site, but it’s not enough to be the couple’s only source of income. Their majority of their comes from their MuseArts web design company.

Brattleboro is one of 10 small “Art Towns” in the U.S. Its Gallery Walk includes 40 stores and galleries, but the more than $11 million in economic activity that this asset generates hasn’t brought that much ad revenue to iBrattleboro.com.

“Where we were disappointed was in small businesses,” LePage said. “They never really came through.”

IBrattleboro also has to compete with a  print daily-website, the Brattleboro Reformer, which is part of the MediaNews Group that owns papers across the U.S., including four other papers in New England.

Grotke says he and LePage are working on a “native” ad strategy where local businesses can buy several lines of copy at a budget price and would run in a dedicated column on one of the front pages. (The Village Soup’s three papers in Maine have been doing that very successfully online with weekly prices of $24.95 for for-profit businesses and $14.95 for nonprofits and individuals.)

But for both Grotke and LePage, the bottom line is not what’s found in the last entry on a profit-and-loss statement.. “Journalism is a little more important than money,” Grotke says. “If you’re doing this to make money, I suggest you not do it in a small town. Go to a big city.”

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.