Ex-Patcher Uses ‘Local Language’ to Succeed in Crowded Suburban Market

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I recently had my periodic check-in with Mike Dinan, editor and publisher of NewCanaanite.com in suburban Connecticut, which he founded in 2014 after his job as regional editor at Patch disappeared during the wrenching period when Aol was downsizing its money-losing community network and preparing to sell it to Hale Global.

In this interview, Dinan tells how, despite a crowded local media market, he’s made New Canaanite succeed as a community force and independent business:

Local news is a fast-evolving business. What has happened to you as publisher and editor of NewCanaanite.com  in the last year that has you still running to catch up?
I have a wish list of features and upgrades for the site — updating my local business directory, for example, and migrating some of my advertisers over to Broadstreet’s “Instant Facebook Ads.” This ad, I think, will in time replace Broadstreet’s “Editable Ads,” which advertisers can update. But to be honest, this past year has been one of steady growth on the traffic and business sides, both.

You don’t believe in aggregating news. Producing original news can be costly. Have you perfected that process to stay ahead of editorial expenses?
The answer is “Yes” because apart from letters to the editor – and we’re getting a lot of those just now, as this is a local election year in New Canaan – I write most all of the stories myself, and then I have several people who step in at various times.

I get a New Canaan High School intern each year who contributes from mid-May to mid-June, I have a short list of trusted freelance contributors that I call on for specific news or feature assignments, and I have a few people that I can tap to oversee things when I’m away. I’m very targeted with my editorial budget, so I think the key for me has been getting the most out of all those contributors.

Here’s the contributor page for my NCHS intern, Sam Stoner. You can see that, as a high school senior, he wrote a wide variety of high-quality news and feature stories. When I send a freelancer to cover a government meeting or something similar, I pay them a flat fee for going and producing the first story, and then an addition per-story fee for anything else they can get out of it. It works for both us – I get multiple stories and they get more money.

You say on your site that “traditional hard news coverage on New Canaanite  is delivered in our local language.” What does that mean?
First off, I think as reporters we’ve all witnessed these cringe-worthy times when a paid consultant or newbie to town takes to the podium during a public hearing and gets the name of a local street or landmark or prominent person wrong. The opposite of doing that is describing those same things, even informally, in words and context that indicate to the reader that you as the writer are “of the town.”

When I say “local language” I also mean that a local news site should be attuned not just to the residents’ sense of what has news value, but also the sensibility of its readers in terms of how it’s delivered. So, for example, I almost never publish the names of people who are arrested. I also think “local language” means that you as the local news publisher are attuned to story mix on a daily basis, and the pace at which readers consume news about their town.

A regular feature is “Local People,” which spotlights residents doing interesting things, as well as boldface locals in entertainment, the media and the literary world. How popular is it?
Most of the installments there are something called “Faces of New Canaan,” which is really a transcribed Q & A with a local person. I started that feature back at Patch and it was popular, so I picked it up again for the New Canaanite.

The idea was to put a spotlight on people who are not necessarily well-known because they’re prominent elected officials or business owners or celebrities, but rather the kind of people that you associate with your town because you see them around all the time and they sort of make things tick. The kind of person who, if you were to go live in another country for a year, would make you feel truly back at home to see them on returning. These stories are well read.

If there’s anything in town that’s not going well, like the quality of public schools, the extent of opioid and other drug problems, the availability of affordable housing, do you report on the issue candidly?
Absolutely. Within weeks of launching the site, I published a three-part series about the problem of heroin in town, and New Canaanites often are divided on major local issues.

Michael Dinan

What is, unquestionably, the No. 1 category of news that local folks want to know about and do you heed what the public says it wants?
While high-profile arrests or investigations often are widely read, the most consistently high-traffic category of news is land use. So, that would be coverage of the town bodies that make decisions on applications to erect or alter buildings – or otherwise use private land – in ways that require one-off decisions.  Our land-use coverage also includes violations regarding how property is used.

Are local merchants spending more, less or about the same today on advertising in the New Canaanite?
They are spending more. I have 125 advertisers and 37 with active campaigns – more than any previous year. You can hear from some of them in a testimonial section that I recently published. Our retention rate among those long-term advertisers – businesses that sign up for six- or 12-month contracts – is very high. I would put it at about 95%. So there’s a nice baseline of recurring revenue from advertisers, and when a new one comes on for a big campaign, it can be the equivalent of a 4% or 5% increase.

What are you offering merchants today that’s new in how they can reach customers, especially new ones?
I can help them reach new customers to the extent that I bring on new readers, and so it’s hugely important for me to take a very hard line on what I cover. It has to be absolutely local, otherwise I’m reaching readers who are not prospective bodies in the door for brick-and-mortar merchants on Main and Elm Streets in downtown New Canaan.

My two criteria for deciding whether to cover any story are that 1) it has to be so specific to New Canaan that a reader would need a very strong connection to the town to want to read it and 2) it would look out of place on a news website covering any other town, even the one next door.

I use Broadstreet’s XPRESS advertising platform. Its major strengths are that it’s a flat fee, ad formats are very attractive to businesses and organizations seeking to accomplish different things and for whom the old standard static banner feels sort of blah, and its detailed reports are hugely useful to advertisers.

New Canaan is a relatively small community – hovering around 20,000. But it has a lot of local new operations. Besides the New Canaanite, there are the New Canaanite Advertiser, which goes back to 1908,  New Canaan Hamlet Hub and New Canaan Patch. How would you rate New Canaanite competitively?
What has surprised me is just how pervasive New Canaanite is now. I hear residents tell me all the time that they start their days with our 6 a.m. weekday newsletter. I think that, together with the weekly paper you mentioned, we are right there as a go-to news source in New Canaan. We had our highest-ever traffic month in May with 134,891 pageviews and 34,358 unique visitors, and then we had our second-highest-ever traffic month in June, with 126,040 pageviews and 31,043 unique visitors.

Still consistently profitable?
Yes, absolutely and the profit margin this year is actually growing at the highest rates I’ve had in these three and a half years.

My Q & A’s with Dinan last year and in 2015 are here and here.

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.