How One Community News Project Grew From One Blog to 30 Sites

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PrintWhen Kerry Anne Ducey started blogging in her suburban community of Ridgefield, CT. in 2009, what happened within the several square miles of this 300-year-old community of about 25,000 people was the center of her journalistic universe. But within two years, as her Talk of the Town blog grew a strong audience and attracted and kept advertisers, the former 3rd-grade-schoolteacher-turned-entrepreneur decided to spread her ambitions beyond Ridgefield’s modest dimensions.

Today her HamletHub is a partnership of 30 community websites in the Connecticut-New York suburbs, which she says will soon grow to 45 sites. Here she tells how she and her team make her largely independent sites work as a cohesive but decentralized network:

When and how did you start HamletHub, and how did you decide to go from one site to many?

I loved my town of Ridgefield. There were amazing stories and events that were not receiving the recognition they deserved. I decided to put up a very basic website where I could showcase these local vignettes. The response was overwhelming. My husband was extremely skeptical. But after we installed analytics, and retailers started paying to be on the site, his skepticism did a 180 degree turn, and he wanted to help grow it. We strategized and came up with a way that we could share it, helping me sustain what I had created and helping other communities at the same time. It really is a synergy, where each new hub makes the existing hubs better and stronger.

You’re expanding to 45 sites, and thinking about  going beyond that number. How do you avoid the editorial and business pitfalls that Patch and some other hyperlocal networks encountered as they expanded rapidly?

Our model is different, and maybe because we are a much, much smaller company than AOL, and really a “grassroots” story, our expenses are a lot less, and we are able to pivot a lot faster. When we find a good idea on how we can help a community, we act on it, and get it implemented very quickly.

If your approach to community publishing partnerships can work in suburban Connecticut and New York, why isn’t it being done elsewhere in the country?

We are a built around a community, so I think it works well wherever you have people that are proud of where they live, and want to make it better. Although the content might be a little different depending upon the community, the needs are still the same. They want to know what is going on.

If a would-be publishing entrepreneur wants to join the HamletHub, what does she/he have to bring to the enterprise in terms of money, editorial, sales and business know-how, and community knowledge and commitment?

We only want them to bring their passion for their community. They like the camaraderie we provide, the technology and training, and they like the way they become an integral part of the community. If you just want a job, it is probably not a great fit.

How does your network work operationally? Does each site get direction from you on editorial strategy  and coverage, ad sales and other issues, or can they do what they wish to do as community publishing entrepreneurs?

We do not want the HamletHub corporation to become an arbitrator of what is proper journalism. We carefully screen each editor to make sure there is a fit, and that both HamletHub and the editor share the same goals. Each editor knows their town much better than we ever will, and are proud of their town.  Each hub wants to be the best, and knows that the better they can make their neighboring hubs, the stronger their hub will be. So we have a number of regular meetings, online forums, etc, so that we can keep each other accountable and in check.

We have an training curriculum, and provide resources, including “best-practices” that we have learned from the hubs, readers and contributors.

How does your editorial model work? How do you develop a rich menu of stories and keep costs in line?

There is no lack of stories or events. Because our editors are local, they either know of, or are connected to the active organizations in town. We want to be the best possible venue for them to get their story out. This way we attract the best stories. We’ve won major awards from the Connecticut Press Club last year and in 2012.

You have community contributors ranging from the mayor to educators to the average resident. What makes them want to be part of HamletHub?

Our stories are so local, and so relatable, (and typically not found anywhere else,) that we create an audience of some of the more persuasive individuals in a town. And we have multiple ways that we present the story through a number of different venues that readers interact with.

There are a number of qualified people that are “on the street” already, and by empowering them to share, we are helping them, and helping HamletHub, and helping the community. This is how we have attracted amazing content from the very beginning!

How does your advertising model work? We’re told that it’s hard to get businesses to advertise in the local web publication because they have so many other choices? Is that an issue with businesses in your communities?

It is true local businesses are overwhelmed with choices. We know HamletHub has the audience they want. Our job is to present them with products that effectively reach their target audience and communicate their message.  So far, we have been successful at this, and our sponsors are happy with us, and they spread the word to each other. The more value we provide them, the more they will spread the word. That makes our sales effort a lot easier.

We believe the word “sponsor” better describes the businesses that we work with because most of them are not just bout “advertising,” but joining us on our mission to build a strong and vibrant community. We’re partners. We know we have to be the best venue for businesses to get their message to our audience. We are experimenting with ways in which we can integrate those messages as partof our content.

What kind of traffic numbers do you have for potential advertisers — in unique visitors, page views, time spent on site, etc.? How do you measure user engagement?

We get a lot of hits. Rather than measuring success by traffic, which can be misleading, we measure it with results. We have an 87% retention rate among our sponsors. We know we drive people to act: whether that means helping their neighbor, supporting local nonprofits, attending events, or shopping locally.

Every time we give out a metric, we find it is compared to a number that might be based on a completely different standard, which may make us look better or worse, but either way it is not accurate. What one site calls a “unique visitor” is not what another site calls a “unique visitor”. So rather than play that game, we like to talk about the results.

Does HamletHub — your Ridgefield site and the other sites — make a profit?

As a company we are not currently making a profit, but some of the individual hubs are profitable.

Finally, now that you’ve grown to more than 30 communities, and have more on the way, do you have any time left for the Ridgefield HamletHub, or are you mostly focused on the overall Hub and where it’s headed?

The beauty of what we created in Ridgefield is that it is thriving without my involvement. We have a new editor that I am sad to say has come up with better ideas than I had. My mission right now is to make sure all of our HamletHubs are growing, thriving, and making their communities better.