Community News and the Long Game: An ‘Indie’ Makes a Case for the ‘One-Off’

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New CanaaniteCommunity news has a decade-plus of digital publishing experience, but it’s not yet clear which kind of community platforms will be winners in the long game. Will it be a corporate network that can scale nationally, like the new Patch; or regionally, like Daily Voice; or an independent that clusters its sites in its metro market? Will “pure plays” prevail or will it be “legacy” sites that have morphed from declining print newspapers?

Michael Dinan has many perspectives on the issue. He is a former senior regional editor at Aol’s Patch who founded, publishes and edits the independent one-off New Canaanite in suburban Connecticut — and he competes against giant corporate legacy Hearst. Here’s how he sees community news today and tomorrow:

You’ve been publishing New Canaanite since you left Patch in January 2014. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
For someone like me, the single most important part of developing a sustainable business model is keeping all costs to myself, which basically means learning how to do everything — sales, design, development, marketing and editorial. All of it.

As far as advertising goes specifically, I would say three things: creating the right ad packages — with appropriate tiers and pricing; diversifying ad options so that there’s something right for volunteer-run nonprofits as well as anchor businesses; and finally — and I credit fellow ex-Patcher Tran Longmoore of The Saline Post with this nugget — spending as much time on business development as editorial work.

Ratko Vidakovic, director of marketing at SiteScout, a self-serve ad platform powered by real-time bidding technology, says community sites should avoid playing “the CPM game.” Your thoughts?
The reason community sites should avoid “the CPM game” is because that focus doesn’t translate into useful eyeballs for prospective advertisers. In other words, a news site that wants advertisers to measure the value of an ad campaign by calculating CPM — a news site that looks at raw traffic as the digital equivalent of print subscribers, say — very quickly will start clickbaiting, aggregating nonlocal news and otherwise focusing editorial output on the low-hanging fruit of easy-to-grab, high-traffic content: arrests, obituaries, weather bulletins and property transfers. The site itself no longer reflects the community, and as the value proposition of that editorial content is diminished, the brand association for an advertiser loses value.

Though we are an online traffic leader, and I readily share data with advertisers when we hit a new high-water mark, no advertisers have prodded me about pageviews or unique visitors. So yes, we as community news sites should sell ad packages whose value is calculated by a formula that aims higher than raw traffic alone.

Gordon Borrell told Street Fight recently that community sites don’t need to invest in deep analytics about their users, but he does say “smart hyperlocal site managers… will wean [local businesses] off old advertising methods and bring them brilliant new opportunities.” Reaction?
I agree with Borrell. I would add that there is value for an advertiser in a local news site that commits to strong editorial content for reasons that are not necessarily tied up in that advertiser’s business. Doing business in a small town often means making connections with local people outside of your business.

If you live and work locally, chances are you’re involved also in a municipal or nonprofit board, social club, faith group or youth sports league. To have stature as an advertiser and even real direct ability to give a nod to some group beyond your own business — through an editable ad, say — is a huge boon and advantage.

In addition, people who are not necessarily living locally may check in regularly with a community news site that serves a town where they grew up or lived in for a meaningful period of their lives in the past. And that may serve an advertiser well. I have one Realtor who advertises and was reached by someone out-of-state that saw her on the site, someone she had known in the past that reconnected with her, and took her on to sell a property. Beyond what I would call often awkward “contextual” advertising, it isn’t clear how geo-specific advertising helps create that type of dynamic.

You’re suspicious of raw traffic — why? What kind of traffic do you think is most important to the successful development of New Canaanite?
I am suspicious of raw traffic as a measure of the success of an ad campaign. And the reason is that as traffic becomes a goal in itself for a local publisher, things tend to start happening on the editorial side that ultimately diminish the news value of the site. In the CPM calculation, the denominator — traffic — drives value for an advertiser. What I see happening on the editorial side is click-baiting, “localizing” national headlines, aggregation from other news sites and in some cases, regional or statewide news stories that have zero value to a person who wants to read about his or her own town.

For us, the “important” traffic is coming in every day, from originally reported news and feature stories that meet these standards: 1.) If you are not living or working in New Canaan or otherwise tied in a very strong and specific way to this town, you should have zero interest in reading this article; and 2.) This story would appear absolutely out-of-place on a news site serving any other town. Take a look at our top-14 stories of 2014 to see what I mean.

You compete against Hearst Media’s New Canaan News. Can your entrepreneurial one-off “indie” win against a site owned by a powerful legacy publisher?
The short answer is “Yes.” It’s been years since Hearst dedicated a full-time reporter to New Canaan. For as long as has been up, Hearst’s reporter has split time with neighboring Darien. Again, news outlets (primarily for business reasons) settle in their individual ways along a spectrum that is hyperlocal at one end and, say, 100 percent “aggregated” on the other. Hearst is somewhere in the middle. I would imagine that they, like Patch, are able to get some footing in the ad market by having a “presence” in multiple communities and offering packages that try to leverage that.

How strong that foothold is, editorially, I can’t really say. An example of us “winning” on the editorial end would be when, a couple of weeks ago, a fire erupted in the box of a Salvation Army truck​ downtown and the Hearst team posted a story that aggregated from our site and gave us attribution and a link.

Patch has returned to what it says is a “strictly local focus” in editorial content, but in advertising it no longer goes after local merchants, aiming instead at regional and national advertisers. You compete against Patch. Do their new editorial and ad strategies make sense?
The proof of Patch’s business model, like any other, will be whether they’re taking in more money (mostly through ads) than they’re spending (mostly on staff).

What I really think is that we need to develop a better vocabulary to describe what’s under the larger umbrella of “hyperlocal,” because there’s a huge spectrum there. Patch, because it has smart people and is not burdened by the institutional inertia of a legacy media outfit (such as a newspaper that has an online version of itself) has always been really good at answering very tough questions. When I look at Patch, I see them answering this: How lightly can we touch a town editorially so that we’re reaching local people enough to appeal to a non-local advertiser? I think that’s a hugely important question for our field to answer, and I also think it’s not the same question I’m answering in a news site like mine. Patch is peeling back on layers of data reporting and efficiencies in “localization” that are interesting, but would be out of place on a website like the one I am running. I think their strategies make sense for Patch.

Some community news sites have grown into mini-networks in their metro areas. Last June you talked about such expansion yourself.  Can “one-offs” in community news succeed, or is some level of expansion necessary for sustainability?
I had put my toe in the water at the start, and what I realized very quickly is that—though I happily share content on rare occasions with nearby Greenwich Free Press—I don’t want or need to expand into a network of sites. Not only do I think “one-offs” such as can succeed, I think we are at an advantage both editorial- and business-wise and that we are in the most exciting part of this field.

Where are you in reach (unique visitors/month, pageviews)?
For the month of August, we hit 11,622 unique visitors and 41,340 pageviews. For January, we hit 24,484 UVs and 76,984 PVs.

Your target was to be profitable by the end of 2014? Did that happen?

Are you more or less optimistic about the future of community news today than you were when you launched New Canaanite?
I’ve moved beyond optimistic and I’m completely confident in the future of community news. We hit one year on Jan. 31 and the model works: it’s profitable, truly local and I am living my dream job.​

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 last year.