Up Close and Personal: Ex-Patcher Tells How He Went Independent

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Michael DinanMichael Dinan was senior regional editor for Patch in suburban Connecticut when he — along with hundreds of other editorial staffers — was terminated in January as part of Aol’s deal to sell most of the community news network to Hale Global. Though Dinan had, in his words, “zero business experience” in community news publishing, he was able to set up the independent site New Canaanite in New Canaan, Conn., within days and expand to a collaborative network in suburban Connecticut shortly thereafter. Here, Dinan tells Street Fight how he did it:

When you were terminated from Patch, what was your initial reaction?
My very first reaction was concern for two of our dogs. We had three dogs (we have four now) and two of them are 9- and 10-year-old golden retrievers, and they have severe arthritis. There’s no generic substitute for the medication that Wilbur and Russell need to be comfortable and have their meds.

In terms of the job,  I thought I had a very good track record at the company and that they would want me to stay on. But one emotion I did not feel was bitterness or resentment, and that’s only because I had experienced all of that the prior summer, with the May and August layoffs and restructuring. That period was very, very difficult.

What made you think you could succeed as an entrepreneurial publisher on the community scene with no business or publishing experience behind you? 
The idea of starting NewCanaanite.com was my brother Terry’s. He’d been watching Patch — because he’s my brother and he also was a very active blogger and even paid contributor for a time on New Canaan Patch. He often had the most-read posts on the site, and it was a high performer. Terry works full-time at The History Channel which is based in neighboring Stamford and he has a degree in communications from Newhouse up at Syracuse, lots of journalism experience, great writer, and he had this vision of the two of us covering New Canaan.

I think it was maybe a week or two before the layoff that Terry started telling me the New Canaanite.com domain was available and I should buy it. My wife and I have a house, and I figured I would get a position in PR or a vertical market, but not news and certainly not a print newspaper. Then two days after the Jan. 29 layoff, on that Friday, I met with another ex-Patcher, a hard news guru named Bill Demarest who had separated from Patch the prior May and was running his own news site down in Rockland County, N.Y., the Nyack Free Press. His advice was that if I was going to do it, don’t wait. It was great advice, so I bought the domain that day and Terry posted our first article after midnight (on a varsity basketball game).

What did you learn at Patch that’s proved valuable to you at your new site?
Absolutely all of it. I couldn’t have asked for or purchased a better education than Patch provided. There’s a laundry list of skills that I could name — video, photography, social media, marketing, working remotely, interactive widgets, insight into the work of a sales team.

The major thing I walked away with was an understanding of how we have to report and present community news differently on the Web than we all did as legacy media reporters. The other thing that I learned from that whole experience was how important it is to have controls on comments so that people understand your site is a safe place to go and so they know someone is at the controls watching it.

You were able to launch New Canaanite within days. What was absolutely crucial to that happening?
I bought the domain from GoDaddy for whatever it is, $10 a year, and then I had that redirect to a free WordPress blog page, and we lived on that for about three-four weeks until I migrated to the Blargo rapid set-up theme from Kenny Katzgrau and John Crepezzi at Broadstreet. The really critically important thing, was hooking up with those guys. What Blargo offers is essential for someone like me, making a go on his own, because it has a built-in ad server and some functionality for advertisers that sort of differentiates the offerings.

What about start-up funding — how much did you need and where did you get it?
My start-up funding was my severance from Patch, the required two months plus another couple of weeks for signing a non-disclosure agreement, which I happily did. My plan always has been to get to the point between months three and six where I am supporting myself (or my share of the household bills, say) through the website alone. We’re about four months old now, so I have two months to achieve that goal and it looks good.

How costly is your editorial per year? Do you get any of it free, like, in the form of articles by public officials, etc.?
Everything is written by me or Terry. The expenses are mileage and then things like Web hosting, Office 365 email service, some plugin upgrades and one-time costs such as trademarking or hardware. In terms of content not from us, we’ve had maybe three or four letters to the editor come in, that’s it. We do absolutely no aggregation, don’t believe in it. It’s important to me that there is absolutely nothing on NewCanaanite.com that a reader can find anywhere else.

How do you use social media, especially Facebook, to build traffic and engage users?
Two ways. I post about 75 percent of our content to Facebook and in giving a couple of sentences to let the page’s fans know what it’s about, I can be a little looser than I normally am in reporting a straight hard news story. The second way is that if a piece of content comes in that I know all the other news outlets that cover New Canaan are getting and that it’s not anything I’m treating differently, I’ll post it to Facebook instead of to NewCanaanite.com.

What is your audience metrics (UVs, PVs, time on site)?
Google Analytics says we’re hitting 35,000+ page views per month (37K for the past 30 days) and 10,000+ users per month, usually up around 12K. Average time on site is 1:40.

How important is your newsletter?
First, it’s been very important for us to build awareness of the website through word-of-mouth. We’ve done an effective job of that. We know the town, its people and how it works. So that means we could be targeted in getting the site in front of community influencers The newsletter runs seven days a week at 6 a.m. through RSS feed on Mailchimp. Our newsletter open rate is 70%, click-thru rate 30%, which are about 3x and 9x the industry average, Mailchimp tells me.

Secondly, the way I’ve built my advertising tiers includes visibility in the newsletter as a feature of the higher-level package. So there’s a great business reason, beyond the purely editorial goal of getting the content in front of as many locals as I can, for having the newsletter.

In your 120+ days, how many ads are you carrying, and what’s your revenue annualized at this point?
Right now we have 12 local business that advertise, and they’re on different types of agreements, where some only wanted to commit for a few months to try it out and others are in for a year. We also have had double-digit numbers in Selfies and short-term ads for things like special events. My business plan calls for me to start modestly: three to five advertisers in our top-tier ($500 per month), five to seven in our middle tier ($350 per month) and 10 to 12 in our entry-level tier ($200 per month) by the end of six months. That at a minimum will be around $60K a year revenue (after 3% sales tax in CT), does not include Selfie ads or income tax, which I predict will wash each other out.

When do you see New Canaanite making money?
By the end of year one, I will have built out the business to where I’m earning more than I had been at Patch.

Do you have expansion plans with the Fairfield Gold Coast or elsewhere?
Yes although they’re not yet in HD focus. I have two sister sites, both run independently by ex-Patchers — in Greenwich and Stamford (Greenwich Free Press and Stamford Buzz). Leslie Yager in Greenwich and Chandra Johnson-Greene in Stamford are people I worked with as a direct manager at Patch. The big question is, “What do we all need to agree on in order for a reader or prospective advertiser to jump from one site to the other and say, ‘OK, this looks like this town’s version of that other thing in New Canaan (or Greenwich or Stamford)'”?

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.