Pushed to near death two-and-a-half years ago by heavy, continuing losses, the regional community news network Daily Voice has resurrected itself, expanded in suburban Connecticut and New York State and now is about to cross the Hudson River and launch 22 sites in North New Jersey.
With its third “pod” in Bergen and Passaic Counties in the Garden State, Daily Voice expects to grow its readership from 762,000 to 1.3 million monthly unique visitors, according to founder and CEO Carll Tucker.
“In our 43 communities in Connecticut and New York we appear to have more penetration than any digital sites except Google, Facebook and YouTube.” says Tucker.
The Jersey sites, which will launch in September, will be managed by two heavily experienced figures in New Jersey digital journalism recruited by Tucker. The publisher will be Vince Carnevale, who was a regional publisher and later regional sales director at Patch during most of that community news network’s tumultuous final years under Aol’s ownership. After Carnevale left Patch, he was a Jersey-based sales manager for Cars.com, the website owned by Gannett, and most recently was sales director for am New York.
Editorial for the Bergen and Passaic Daily Voices will be under North Jersey community news entrepreneur Jerry DeMarco, who founded, publishes, edits and writes most of the editorial for six-year-old Cliffview Pilot, which covers the county’s 70 multi-racial and -ethnic townships. DeMarco’s paper is replete with coverage of crime, which, judging from Cliffview Pilot’s menu of articles, is a frequent occurrence in the highly urban county, whose population is around 933,000. Cliffview Pilot will continue to publish after the Bergen Daily Voice launches, and then gradually be absorbed by the new sites. Daily Voice is acquiring the name, goodwill and other assets of DeMarco’s site.
Daily Voice will have a six-person editorial team for Bergen and smaller Passaic. Andrea Graziano, who is chief content officer at Daily Voice and a resident of Ridgewood, N.J., will also oversee the New Jersey sites, whose news headquarters will be in Ridgewood.
Carnevale, DeMarco and Graziano, like other Daily Voice managers, participate in stock ownership of the private corporation that owns Daily Voice and which has invested, through its directors, more than $20 million to cover start-up losses and expansion costs.
With its latest expansion, Daily Voice’s network will stretch from existing sites in gritty, blue-collar Bridgeport to highly affluent suburbs like Darien, New Canaan and Westport, all in Fairfield County in Connecticut, to affluent and middle-class communities in Westchester County and exurban Putnam County in the Lower Hudson Valley in New York – and, starting in September, to the working- and middle-class and racially mixed urban and suburban towns of North Jersey’s Bergen and Passaic Counties.
“We have proved our concept,” said CEO Tucker, who took back the Daily Voice’s reins in the late winter of 2013, when it was burning through $500,000 a month and hurtling toward extinction. “We are now making money and our capital [for expansion into New Jersey] is fully assured.”
From anemic display and sponsorship revenues of about $120,000 monthly in 2013 at its then-existing 41 sites, Daily Voice is now reaping what Tucker calls an “explosive increase” in revenue, but he declined to give any numbers.
To reach profitability, Tucker had to throw out his original model for digital community publishing, built largely on assumptions from his long experience in local print publishing going back to 1981, and construct a new model piece by piece, often on the fly, from hard-earned lessons.
This is how the new model at Daily Voice works:
Editorial: The Daily Voice tells its readers what’s going on in their town in articles that are mostly 300 words or less. The stories are produced by a staff that leverages its output with technology that loops in, electronically, hundreds of information sources — everything from police and fire reports to weather to Twitter and other social media to community volunteers who may include the town mayor or county executive.
On a typical day, the current 43 sites in Connecticut and New York produce more than 150 articles. Those articles come from a combination of “feet-on-the-street” reporters, the in-house re-purposing of external information and contributions from the community. With its new Jersey pod, Daily Voice will produce 300 or more articles daily.
This is all done with six reporters and editors per “pod” — less than one-third of the number who were on staff under the old, money-losing model. Tucker said editorial output by smaller staff under the new model is actually “higher quality” than what was previously produced. He gives a lot of credit to his 29-year-old chief technology officer, Travis Hardman: “He has developed technology and processes that make our content providers almost unimaginably efficient and productive.” He also singles out Content Director Graziano, who, like Hardman, left Daily Voice in its dark days and then was recruited back during its recovery.
Revenue: The dollars to pay staff, operational expenses and corporate overhead like analytics, promotion and rent come from direct sales of display ads as well as programmatic ads that mostly pull in, on average, a (low) $2 CPM and content partnerships. The partnerships, introduced in 2013, enable businesses to tell their stories in the news stream of the Daily Voice. “Readers enjoy reading about local colleges, hospitals, real estate transactions and other businesses,” Tucker said, “provided the stories are appropriate to our medium and their source is transparently disclosed.”
Technology: “Travis, our CTO, has envisioned and constructed a machine that enables editors and reporters to spend most of their time in the communities they serve,” Tucker said. “The content teams are supported by community advisers in each town we cover who constantly contribute suggestions and by various corporate content services, which enable us to produce high-quality stories very fast at a very reasonable cost. Travis’s ‘machine’ frees up our publishers and sales reps to maximize their time with customers, while providing management and customers real-time information about the performance of their advertising programs. The platform is built to accommodate thousands of sites as we scale up over the next few years.”
In the first half of 2016, Tucker expects to launch three additional Daily Voice pods – in Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Long Island and in suburban Union and Essex Counties in New Jersey – moves that will complete the sites’ marketing circle around New York City. While Tucker has no other specific expansion plans, he said “we expect to cover 150 million Americans in the next several years.”
The Bergen and Passaic Daily Voices will be publishing cheek-by-jowl with other North Jersey local media, including long-established and omnipresent North Jersey Media Group, including its Record and Herald News digital and print papers. But Tucker stresses: “Daily Voice does not compete against any existing media. We compete for eyeballs, which means we compete against every site on the Web. We believe in community news and we salute any publisher who is attempting to provide it.. Our objective is to build a big enough audience to make money in every market. We do not need to defeat any competition to win.” The new sites will also be publishing alongside many Patch sites in Bergen and one in Passaic, in the Township of Wayne.
As he prepares to cross the Hudson, Tucker is feeling good about this crucial next period for Daily Voice: “We’ve got a great staff. Cracking the code on digital community news has been very hard for everyone who’s tried it, including Daily Voice. We have learned from our predecessors and we expect others to learn from us. For at least a decade, it seemed as if we were going to lose community news altogether. Now, we’re excited to see that community news has a vibrant, profitable future.”
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present and future of Charleston, S.C.