An Ex-Patcher Competes in Tim Armstrong’s Town

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Greenwich Free PressGoing entrepreneurial in community journalism is scary anywhere. But when you decide to do it where the mastermind of the publication where you used to work lives, that could be like parachuting into enemy territory with a Swiss Army knife and a crystal radio. But that’s exactly what longtime journalist and public relations specialist Leslie Yager did.

Yager, who in three years rose from freelance writer for Aol’s Patch in suburban Connecticut to local editor of the network’s Norwalk and Wilton sites, was terminated in January. Her pink slip was part of Patch’s massive cutback in corporate and editorial staffing that was a precondition of Aol’s sale of majority ownership to Hale Global, which specializes in turnarounds. But very soon thereafter Yager created The Greenwich Free Press, which competes with the Patch where Tim Armstrong, CEO of Aol (still a minority owner of Patch), lives, and also with Hearst’s print and digital daily, Greenwich Time.

In this Q & A, Yager talks with Street Fight about how she is pulling off her big transition from editor to entrepreneur in community news:

What convinced you that you were ready to start your own community website after you left Patch?
Post-Patch, I slept for three days. I loved my job at the Norwalk and Wilton Patches and had a boss, Mike Dinan, who was there when I needed him, but mostly just let me get on with it.

From there, starting Greenwich Free Press was almost seamless, except now I cover the town where I live and know people.

What kind of help did you get to make the transition to running the whole show, including advertising, editorial and business?
After my three-day nap, Mike helped me set up a WordPress blog. It was up in an hour and I started posting stories right away. I thought it might just be a hobby, but I went with Mike to a workshop at Montclair State University on starting a news site. It was a room full of a hundred ex-Patchers. We all left there energized.

In April, I hired a tech person to pull all my content off WordPress and set me up on an independent host. He helped me with MailChimp for a daily newsletter that pulls from my RSS feed, so I’m not a slave to a newsletter like I was at Patch. Also, since leaving WordPress, Greenwich Free Press has the ability to accommodate advertising on the homepage. My first few ads landed in my lap, but recently I found a salesperson who will sell ads for me. We’re getting her up to speed right now.

The local high schools organize editorial internship programs and I had two seniors with me for six weeks this spring. Now I have a summer intern from Greenwich Academy, which is a private girls high school in town and a new Greenwich High School grad who is headed to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in the fall. I spare my interns the grunt work, and get them started writing right away. They remind me to have a sense of humor and they are masters of social media.

How did you fund The Free Press?
Start-up has not been expensive. I’ve spent about $2,500 of my savings on graphic design, tech help and on great cameras. My pet peeve is a grainy photo sliver shot from a cell phone. A nice photo gallery from a hyperlocal event like Relay for Life, or GHS graduation can often tell the entire story.

At Patch we multi-tasked, juggling pads of paper, recording devices and cameras constantly. That was fine. I wouldn’t want to just be the photographer, or just the writer. My favorite technique, which I just used at GHS graduation, was to put my iPhone on my tripod and record voice memos and transcribe them later into the story. It lets me keep my hands free to use the camera. It’s brilliant, especially since I cut my hair short recently and can’t stick my pens and pencils in my ponytail.

Leslie Yager
Leslie Yager

What was your biggest surprise?
The power of Facebook. We always shared our Patch stories on Facebook, but we junked it up with sponsored content and pieces that weren’t hyper-local.

The dog rescue community is mostly on Facebook and it’s rewarding when shelter dogs I write about find homes. The best was a Cane Corso who belonged to a drug dealer in South Bronx. My Greenwich rescue friend brought him to Greenwich, where I photographed him in the park and pet shop kissing the ladies. Someone who read about him from Greenwich Free Press adopted him and now he has a fabulous home on five acres.

Women have become major players in running community sites. Do women bring special talents to community space?
As a mom who volunteered in the public schools for many years, I can walk into the high school student center and spot tons of kids I know. My news mix is heavy on school news, and teens are involved both as writers and subjects for stories. I interviewed the GHS junior class president last week and he talked about how the urinals in the boys room are too close together and need dividers. My GHS intern took a compelling photo and the story was a huge hit.

What’s your editorial model — the type of news you produce and pay for?
The mix includes hard news, human interest stories and in-the-moment surprises. Occasionally I write in first-person.

Often I’m the only reporter at town meetings. That was the case at a key Zoning Board of Appeals meeting for a proposed house of worship in a residential neighborhood. An important vote was taken after midnight, and I was there.

What’s it like going up against your former employer, Patch, and in the community that’s home to Tim Armstrong, who, as CEO of Aol, put the community network together?
Our numbers are soaring and will soon eclipse Greenwich Patch’s. Their editor is busy putting content on a dozen other Connecticut Patch sites. Their local coverage is skimpy. Readers notice. Patch has five or six editors for 70 sites in Connecticut, so it’s just impossible. They may become profitable, but they are not providing hyper local news coverage.

I learned so much from the  Patch job and enjoyed it. I met Tim Armstrong once, back when I was in charge of recruiting bloggers for user-generated-content. He was affable and I left the meeting feeling appreciated. If he has taken a peek at my site, I hope he knows it’s modeled on his original vision: Nimble, in-the-moment coverage by reporters who live in the town where they report news.

As for Hearst’s Greenwich Time, which is a daily paper, people don’t want to pay for a paper. They want their news free. GT staffing has been decimated. But of course they are competition for Greenwich Free Press. That said, at meeting after meeting, I find myself I’m the only reporter there. I am building my audience with a quality product.

This is my town. I live in Greenwich. I go out and talk to people every day.

One of your major stories last week was the arrest of the former control staffer  that appeared in Hearst’s The Hour. Do you aggregate many stories from the competition?
I seldom aggregate, but I don’t rule it out. That particular story I had already written about and wanted to confirm the arrest. I aggregated, with credit, news of the arrest. Everything else in the story was produced by The Free Press.

What are your traffic numbers like?
We had 20,086 pageviews in the last month and 9,354 unique visitors. Users visit an average of 1.54 pages per session and the average session lasts 1:20 minutes. And I’m thrilled that our June 30 coverage of the rally in support of the Stamford animal control manager who was fired got 575 “likes” on Facebook.

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.