On Connecticut’s ‘Gold Coast,’ a local news incubator

Fairfield County is swamped with hyperlocal experiments that hold broader aspirations

Unlike other communities around the country, the suburban towns comprising the Fairfield County, CT “Gold Coast” aren’t suffering a void in local news coverage. It’s quite the opposite. More than 100 media outlets currently deliver local news and information to the area’s residents and businesses, almost all supported by local advertising.

The pack includes 47 hyperlocal news websites operated The Daily Voice, Patch, and HamletHub; four Hearst-owned daily newspapers, 27 weekly newspapers, 15 lifestyle magazines, and a county-specific local cable news channel run by Cablevision.

What the layers of local news in this affluent New York City suburb reveal is an intensifying media scramble for American towns, “among everyone who recognizes that community news is a durable human need, and that newspapers are moribund,” said Carll Tucker, CEO of The Daily Voice. Tucker describes the news scene in the suburbs as “a giant scrum.”

That scrum isn’t limited to the 23 municipalities in Connecticut’s wealthy southwest corner. The 30-percent decline in newspaper newsroom staff since 2000 left suburban media markets open for hyperlocal startups. To gain and retain possession of those audiences and advertisers, digital news entrepreneurs and established media organizations are going head-to-head, starting in elite suburbs and media markets filled with “affluentials,” such as the northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs of metro Washington, DC, suburban “Chicagoland,” and suburban New Jersey.

Patch’s grandiose experiment—originally hatched by Fairfield County resident Tim Armstrong—to populate similar towns across the country with profitable hyperlocal news sites may have crumpled under the weight of its missteps, but it hasn’t deterred others from pushing forward into the same spaces. And the features of well-to-do suburbs like those in Fairfield County—engaged audiences; thriving local businesses—create vibrant testing grounds for local news ventures.

At stake are journalism jobs, altruistic motivations to strengthen communities with reliable information, and, of course, money. For-profit players in this local news game want a share of the burgeoning online/interactive local advertising market, expected to grow to $17.7 billion by 2017, according to November 2013 data released by research firm BIA/Kelsey.

“Somebody is going to discover how to do [hyperlocal news online] and capitalize on that market,” said Tucker, whose Daily Voice network narrowly survived its own mistakes. After burning through $20 million, shuttering 11 sites in Massachusetts, bankruptcy, and a name change, Tucker said his 41 sites in Fairfield County and Westchester County, NY, are narrowly turning a profit.

Maximum capacity

When Patch first launched online in 2009, its founders added five Fairfield County towns to the hyperlocal network’s initial roster of 12 sites. The Daily Voice targeted Fairfield County, too, picking Norwalk as the network’s original online outpost in 2010, when the company was known as Main Street Connect. In the past month, at least three ex-Patch editors who lost their jobs during the January 2014 mass layoffs launched independent hyperlocal news websites in the Fairfield County towns of Greenwich, New Canaan, and Monroe.

“Fairfield County is a very interesting place to be a journalist. There is a combination of local and sophisticated; parochial—in the best sense of the word—and cosmopolitan,” said Barbara T. Roessner, the executive editor of Hearst Connecticut. “People here are local and global. They are wired in. This is a kind of populace that can’t get enough information about its community.”

Fairfield County is a suburb of New York, the nation’s largest city. And big-city suburbs are better suited to the local news business than small cities or rural areas, according to Pew.

Suburban residents possess the highest education and income levels. They are most likely to have a college degree and a household income of $75,000 or more, and are most confident in their ability to positively impact their communities. People living just outside the nation’s beltways also have the highest rate of internet and social network use, are most likely to own a tablet, computer, and/or mobile phone, and tend to be the most engaged in digital and local news.

Connecticut is unique from other states in that each of its 169 towns elects its own political leaders and oversees its own town budget, schools, and infrastructure. With no county government here (“Fairfield County” is really just a cluster of municipalities), most civic news in Connecticut is locally specific. Comparable demographics exist in nearby Westchester County, NY, for example, but the municipal structure isn’t as provincial. And since Fairfield County gets lumped into the New York Metro designated market area, its local presence on broadcast TV news is trumped by New York news.

“People here are very engaged in the life of the community,” Roessner said. “In Greenwich, for example, they have a very old-fashioned town meeting form of government. People who are world famous sit on town boards and commissions. There is a sense of civic pride and identity.”

Thomas B. Nash, group publisher of Hersam Acorn Newspapers, which produces 12 print weeklies in Fairfield County, echoed Roessner’s observations.

“Areas of Fairfield County’s Gold Coast always had a lot of media competition, even pre-Web,” said Nash, whose news organization has published in the county since 1876 and recently launched a streaming hyperlocal online-only radio station called HAN Radio. “There is a huge appetite for content. It is an intensely interested community that fuels that thirst for local news.”

Thick media competition motivates local journalists to find more and better stories, Nash said. Businesses get their pick of venues to spend their ad dollars. And with so many watchdogs, local officials may find themselves held more accountable, or at least, forced to be more media savvy. Before news websites came along, Nash said, there might be just one or two reporters from the daily or weekly papers at the New Canaan police weekly briefing, for example. “Now, there are five, six, seven reporters there,” he said.

Not that Fairfield County has been immune to downturns in the economy. Instability on Wall Street tends to hit the region hard—many bankers live there. But it hasn’t suffered as harshly as other parts of the country. Greenwich is still the hedge fund capital of the world. And some of the country’s largest companies—General Electric, Xerox, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and NBC Universal—call Fairfield County home. One Fairfield County media insider remarked that it’s easy to be a local journalist in a place where “the people love themselves.”

Beyond Fairfield County?

Recognizing the region’s competitive pressure, local media players are making strategic moves to grab more territory. HamletHub is aggressively recruiting new part-time local editors to expand its hyperlocal network into three more Connecticut counties and Putnam County, NY.

Kerry Anne Ducey, a freelance writer and former elementary school teacher, started HamletHub in 2009 as a blog documenting “positive news” in her affluent Fairfield County town of Ridgefield. She grew it into a brand with 50-plus sites in many of the same suburban towns covered by The Daily Voice and Patch.

HamletHub’s business model doesn’t include costly overhead that contributed to Patch’s undoing. It’s run like a franchise. There are no salaries or equipment for local editors. Instead, each part-time editor is the proprietor of his or her own site.

“Our editors are entrepreneurs,” said Ducey, HamletHub’s editor in chief. “They want to enhance their communities and make them a more vibrant place. They own their sites and have the opportunity to put their own town stamp on it.” New editors get 30 days of training, the HamletHub brand name, and access to its Joomla-based content management system, Ducey said.

A HamletHub editor generates revenue by selling display advertising or “sponsored blogs” to local businesses, a practice some Connecticut journalists approached by Hamlet Hub found ethically murky. To make a living off the site, a local editor must potentially sell ads to the subjects of news stories. But that blurred line between editorial and advertising is an increasingly common facet of running an entrepreneurial news site. Local editors keep all profits from their local advertising sales, while HamletHub’s main office—with four full time employees—supports the network by selling the banner ads at the top of each ‘hub.’

ItsRelevant.com is another homegrown Fairfield County news outlet readying for expansion. The video news network currently offers hyperlocal coverage of three communities: Stamford, Norwalk, and Greenwich.

“We are not a newspaper on the internet,” said Jonathan Krackehl, the company’s co-founder and president. “We are your local TV news on the internet and on mobile devices.”

It’s Relevant boasts six full-time backpack video journalists who produce 40-50 broadcast-quality news stories a week. The two reporters assigned to each town provide local video news coverage 365 days a year, Krackehl said.

The company, which launched in 2011, is now beta testing five more local video news sites in neighboring towns. But It’s Relevant won’t hire any more reporters unless enough people in each targeted community show interest by signing up with a verifiable email address, Krackehl said.

“We are very reasonable about our expenses. We have to be. Video costs more to produce,” he said. “Part of the battle of making any advertising work to sustain a business is to make sure the business doesn’t cost too much money.” Krackehl said he didn’t want to expand “like crazy if we weren’t sure it made sense… If it works here in Fairfield County, it doesn’t mean it is going to work everywhere.”

Winnowing the scrum

Nash said the media saturation in Fairfield County may be at its peak right now, but he’s doubtful the region can keep supporting this many local news outlets long term.

“There is more supply than demand,” he said.

Hersam Acorn’s digital advertising revenue “doubles every year,” Nash noted, but he’s quick to point out the company’s main source of revenue is still declining print advertising. And lest we forget the January Patch layoffs that thinned the ranks of its paid full-time editorial staff in Connecticut to just six people for 67 local sites; at its height, each site had its own editor.

Success in a coveted media market like Fairfield County is no guarantee for other markets, now or in the future. The industry learned from Patch that large-scale hyperlocal doesn’t work. The local news landscape, its sources of revenue, and its fickle audiences are in constant flux. “Winning” may only be possible through the deliberate tailoring of news to smaller areas and the acceptance of more modest profit margins.

For now though, Fairfield County news consumers and advertisers get to reap the benefits of all this media experimentation.

“I would argue there only appears to be room for everybody,” Nash said. “Call me back in a year and we’ll see.”

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Marie K. Shanahan is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut who researches trends in online commenting and local news engagement. She worked for 17 years as a reporter and online editor at The Hartford Courant and one year as a regional editor at Patch. Contact her at marie.shanahan@uconn.edu or on Twitter @mariekshan. Tags: , , , ,