Life After Patch: Finding Success in Community Publishing as a One-Person Operation

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Two years ago, the convulsive changes at Patch and Aol’s sale of its long-troubled community-news network to Hale Global prompted a number of Patch editors and reporters who were let go to found their own independent local-local operations. One of them was Michael Dinan, who had held major Patch posts in suburban Connecticut. In June of 2014 I spoke with Dinan about his brand new community publication in New Canaan, Conn. In this Q & A, we see how he and are faring today:

What are the biggest changes with you and since the last time we spoke?
I’m increasingly familiar with the people and storylines of the town. And also, because I have an office and the site has become well-known enough in New Canaan, news tips are coming to me far more frequently than when I launched. In the bigger picture, I find myself deeply involved with the town through the site. For example, I’m on the Board of Directors of the New Canaan Chamber of Commerce, I’m on the steering committee for an internship program out of New Canaan High School, I’m a member of the local Kiwanis Club and my summer internship program has gained a lot of traction, to where I have six high school and college kids this summer.

How has your editorial model evolved? Are you still not aggregating any news whatsoever?
I am introducing types of content that involve lots of leg work at the front end and then become permanent and permanently relevant to the community. One example of this is the Street Name Database. There’s an old annual of the local historical society, from 1960, where one article lists the history of how each street in town got its name, a few sentences on each one. It’s fascinating history, and I approached the historical society about creating a searchable database out of it that could be embedded on both of our websites. It’s been up and running for almost a year now and every day we have dozens of readers using it. I try to link to it on the first reference of any street name in our stories. Finally, still no aggregation.

You’re using a lot of charts and other visual material with text stories. What’s your goal here?
If it helps with storytelling, I do it. A recent example is a dramatic plan to rebuild an apartment complex downtown with far greater density. Together with the site plan and permit application, the architects of that project are putting in for an entirely new zone in the local Zoning Regulations. I created a table (it’s at the end of this story) which details just how the proposed new zone would compare in a number of categories to the existing Apartment Zone it’s designed to sort of supplement.

Are town government and planning still the top coverage choices?
Land use is definitely a major coverage area for us. Government – yes, in the sense that I try to cover quality-of-life matters for local people. I am not interested in getting deep down in the weeds of local government.

There’s a new category of news emerging that really speaks to local people. I’m not sure what to call it except it revolves around the community’s identity and sense of civility. Our biggest story so far this year — involving a woman who yelled at the workers in a local ice cream shop and then threw her sundae behind the counter — is one example. A more recent story about the need for parking enforcement officers to wear body cameras after a number of unpleasant run-ins with ticketed motorists is another.

How are you doing in advertising?
I have 97 advertisers, with 23 of them on six- of 12-month campaign contracts.

Your revenue range, according to Michele’s List, is $51,000-$100,000. Are you happy with those numbers? When do you expect to rise to the next bracket?
Since last fall, I’ve been running trial ad campaigns in the leaderboard ad slot of the site. You’ll see the local car dealership, Karl Chevrolet, in there now. My plan is to continue gathering data about ad performance through Q3 or even Q4, and then to sell that zone. It could take us into that threshold, depending how it goes.

What about your competition, especially Patch?
Patch is not a competitor on the news side or the ad side, and I think that’s by design. The company doesn’t seem to target the local businesses whose advertising forms the core of my recurring revenue. New Canaan also is covered by two weeklies — one very local to the town, the other owned by a larger company. We are the go-to local news source online, from what I can make out.

How many unique visitors do you have?
We’re safely over 30,000 uniques now. I’m pleased with that number, and it continues to grow. This chart shows our growth since 2014.

You hit profitability in your first year. Still profitable?

NewCanaanite's Michael Dinan and Russell
NewCanaanite’s Michael Dinan and Russell

In June 2014, you said you made your entrepreneurial move into community news publishing at the right time. In today’s digital community news climate, would you say it’s still a good time for startups to do what you did back then?
I think it’s only getting better for digital community news online, and especially for this one-person model. With tools like Blargo and Broadstreet, and a single person to pay, like in, it’s a great profession and just a joy. I honestly pinch myself. This is a reporter’s dream.

I can’t neglect to ask about Wilbur and Russell, your two golden retrievers who had severe arthritis when you made your big transition from Patch to starting two years ago. They doing okay?
Yes, both the boys are on Deramaxx still and going strong. A few months back, we added our fifth dog, Dexter. So our lineup is Wilbur, Russell, Louis, Marvin and Dexter, and are everything to me and my wife, Marie.

Tom GrubisichTom 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.