Trying to scale community news has many pitfalls. Sites that go for scale can end up publishing glorified “bulletin boards” as they seek to spread budget-limited journalistic resources across multiple communities. The end result can be bottom-fishing remnant CPMs that can be as low as $1. Six-year-old Daily Voice, which recently expanded from suburban Connecticut and New York into North Jersey, says its scaling model has produced average CPMs that “hover a few pennies under $8,” CEO Carll Tucker told me.
The journalistic cog wheels in the Daily Voice model are not humming perfectly in North Jersey. The sites serving Passaic and Bergen Counties are publishing some pure press releases, like the recent “Closter Instructor Brings Yoga to Library” squib in the Cresskill-Closter site in Bergen County. But more often, PR gets editorial attention that enhances handouts, like the recent article “Bergen County PBA Toy Drive Draws Record Number of Volunteers,” which also appeared on the Cresskill-Closter site.
In this Q&A, Daily Voice CEO Tucker explains how his New Jersey “pod” makes scale work:
You put a lot of planning into North Jersey Daily Voice. What’s been the biggest surprise after your first three months of publication?
The astonishing popularity of our product took us by surprise. After three months, we had more than 250,000 monthly unique visitors and just under one million monthly pageviews in a geography that had never heard of us before September 8.
What do readers want in community news?
They want to know what’s going on in their towns right now. Daily Voice gives them local information, lots of it positive. It’s urgent news, traffic, weather, real estate, food, schools, and neighbors, neighbors, neighbors. It’s information they can’t find anywhere else. Businesses and government officials welcome a venue that is eager to get their message out.
Your Englewood and other nearby sites recently led with a story and dramatic video of a drive-by shooting where one young man was injured. You posted the video not long after it was made available by the police. Did that require fast footwork?
Our Bergen/Passaic managing editor, Jerry DeMarco, is, I believe, the best urgent news reporter in the region and has been for many years. Law enforcement and emergency services know him and respect his ethics and civic-mindedness as well as his keen news judgment. Our whole network is learning from his expertise.
You had a story last week on an alleged shoplifter returning $60 worth of stolen toys to a charity bin in the middle of the night, and apologizing in writing for what he did. How did your reporter get this contemporary version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”?
Neighbors used to call Jerry all the time when he owned and edited the Cliffview Pilot in North Jersey. Now they call the Daily Voice.
For your 22 North Jersey sites, which cover 85 communities, how many reporters and editors do you have?
Six stationed in the Ridgewood office: managing editor, assistant managing editor, two community editors, and two reporters, aided by 100-plus community advisors. Many of the stories that editors and reporters source are written by our Content Creation Center, which serves our entire network. Other stories are developed at the network level. We create about 800 stories a week for the pod, give or take.
You aggregate important political and other statewide regional stories from the Newhouse chain’s long-established NJ.com, like this article on the Port Authority and the possibility of higher New Jersey-New York City tolls and another one on the annual state bear hunt. NJ.com stories are usually more detailed than Daily Voice’s. Does this send any kind of message to your readers?
Our users — and studies show the same is true of most web users — are source-agnostic. They want to know ASAP; they don’t really care where the information comes from. Our mission is to tell neighbors the most interesting stuff that’s happening as quickly as we can. We don’t suppress information because somebody else reported it first; we are always transparent about where our information came from.
Since 70 percent of our users access Daily Voice through a mobile device, we’ve got to keep our pieces short, otherwise users click away. Any story that looks as if it will “take time” they tend to skip, much the way you might skip a lengthy email. We might lament our epoch’s abbreviated attention span, but that’s the world we live in. If our readers clicked on longer stories, we’d be happy to run more of them, but they don’t. We give them what our analytics tell us they prefer.
You have a pop-up promotion for your email newsletter that some readers may find annoying. Is it paying off with subscriptions?
We don’t share that kind of data. However, as a general rule, about 10 percent of our monthly uniques subscribe to the eblast, which they receive four to six times daily. Others who visit regularly opt not to be swamped with breaking news bulletins.
How has expansion to North Jersey affected your news model, especially in how you leverage reporters and editors across multiple communities?
Our aim is to be a 4,000-plus site system covering all of the non-urban U.S. within a few years. Bergen/Passaic was our first virgin pod. I could write a book about all we’ve learned and are still learning. The “nut graf,” I’d say, is that our model is eminently scalable and the bigger we get the better the news coverage of our communities. With each new pod, we’ll learn and improve.
I don’t see a lot of ads in some North Jersey Daily Voice sites, compared to your Connecticut and New York suburban sites. How is North Jersey Daily Voice doing in that department?
Ad sales are doing great — better than forecast — but there’s a big difference between serving a territory four years and four months! Keep watching and you’ll see more and more NJ businesses on the sites.
Is your North Jersey pod profitable yet?
That’s proprietary info, but I can say that all of us here are a) dazzled by our traffic and revenue ramps, and b) very, very pleased.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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.