Home Fairfield Hyperlocal news sites reshape media business with Main Street focus

Hyperlocal news sites reshape media business with Main Street focus

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In 2007, Lennie Grimaldi was offered the opportunity to run a Bridgeport-focused hyperlocal news website under the aegis of the Fairfield County Weekly, a publication owned by the Tribune Company. Grimaldi, a former journalist and one-time spokesman for Donald Trump, initially viewed the opportunity with bemusement. “At the time, it was a novelty,” he recalled.

One year later, Grimaldi acquired the Only in Bridgeport site and opted to run it himself. Fast-forward to today and the internet site is celebrating its 10th anniversary while the Fairfield County Weekly is a distant memory and Tribune Company is no longer publishing in the region. “As long as I have an audience, I’ll be around,” Grimaldi quipped.

The past decade has seen a proliferation of hyperlocal news sites covering the cities and towns across Fairfield County. Some of these sites focus on all aspects of their localities, while others aim at specific topics. Grimaldi’s Only in Bridgeport falls into the latter category, with the spotlight aimed at the city’s political environment.

“I could not be all things to all people,” said Grimaldi, who served as an adviser to Mayor Joe Ganim during the 1990s and later served a 10-month stint in a federal prison for his role in the corruption scandal that derailed Ganim’s administration. “I figured that I could give people a glimpse of what political life is like. I try to put people inside the mayor’s office and show how things work.”

According to the owners of the region’s hyperlocal news site, the popularity of this resource is a reflection of the readership’s concerns about their communities. “People who live in these towns care about the towns,” observed Michael Dinan, owner and editor of NewCanaanite.com. “By focusing on government funding and the board of education, I think we’re giving something deeply personal and valuable to them.”

Nancy Chapman, photo by Phil Hall

“When I was working at a newspaper in Florida 10 years ago, they did a survey and they found that people like to read about their own community,” said Nancy Chapman, editor and publisher at NancyOnNorwalk.com. “They don’t want to hear about what’s going on in some other part of the county. People want to read about the people they care about and the issues that affect them directly.”

The local connection is reinforced by having the sites’ owners as active members of the community. “I think that I am the only reporter who covers Wilton that lives in Wilton,” stated Heather Borden Hervé, editor and publisher of GOOD Morning Wilton.

However, the definition of local coverage varies between site. At NewCanaanite.com, Dinan is not interested in what is happening outside of the New Canaan town borders. “We are going to talk about what’s going on in your town, not the county or the state,” he said. “And we are not localizing national stories.”

However, Dan Woog’s hyperlocal news site 06880 takes a different approach, carrying the tagline “Where Westport meets the world.” “This gives me carte blanche to write about anything with a tangential Westport connection,” Woog said.

P.J. Kennedy takes a more specific overview of his city with the Hey Stamford site, offering insight only about the local cultural, entertainment and dining scene. “Hard news isn’t really my thing,” he admitted. “I don’t want to be in an area where I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

One area where the sites share common ground is staffing — or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Some sites rely on unpaid assistance — the Greenwich Free Press has an internship program and Fairfield County Moms taps into volunteer contributors for articles, while GOOD Morning Wilton has Jackson Dill, a high school student and aspiring meteorologist, contributing a weekly weather forecast video. On the whole, however, the local sites are one-person operations that require full-time work.

“This has taken over my life,” said Woog. “I spend six to eight hours a day on it.”

“I just don’t hustle stories — I hustle advertising, which keeps it alive,” said Grimaldi, who monetizes Only in Bridgeport through advertisements. In Grimaldi’s case, the site’s political focus has attracted advertisers with an interest in the city’s future, including gaming rivals Mohegan Sun and MGM Resorts International.

Kennedy noted that local businesses that advertise on hyperlocal news sites appreciate the rates offered by these outlets, which are lower than television and print media. “Local business budgets aren’t huge,” he said. “They are picking where they can spend money and showcase themselves.”

Leslie Yager, owner and editor of the Greenwich Free Press, emphasizes results when dealing with advertisers. “They get a complete report,” she said. “It’s not a leap of faith. They know how many clicks their ads get and where they come from.”

However, Woog’s 06880 eschews advertising completely. “I didn’t want to be beholden to advertisers,” he said, adding, “Websites with sponsors can look really shlocky.”

Instead, Woog welcomes donations from readers and he reports that this approach has served him well. “People have been very, very generous,” he said. “It is like the NPR model — they feel invested in it.”

Also reliant on financial donations is Nancy Chapman’s NancyOnNorwalk.com, which is set up as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and has a seven-person board of directors to coordinate fundraising efforts. Chapman noted a spike in donations in 2016 when Hearst Media acquired The Hour daily newspaper, adding that “people recognized the need” for hyperlocal news.

Looking forward, several of these sites are exploring different channels to further enhance their connection with readers. Hervé has been playing up GOOD Morning Wilton’s Facebook videos, which she said has generated “a tremendous amount of viewership.” She maintains a YouTube channel covering local stories that range from a bear sighting to a tour of the town’s outdated police station.

Over at Hey Stamford, Kennedy is working on a podcast that will bring an audio element to his site. Last year, he coordinated a food festival at Mill River Park that brought in 15 food trucks and 5,000 appetite-driven visitors. “It was one of the most amazing days.”

And, on occasion, the hyperlocal news sites find themselves in the spotlight. Grimaldi’s Only in Bridgeport was the subject of a New York Times profile on his in-depth coverage of the 2015 mayoral race that saw the political resurrection of Joe Ganim. But perhaps the most unusual national attention was bestowed on Woog with his 2009 eulogizing of Marilyn Chambers, the X-rated film icon who was one grade ahead of him at Staples High School.

“It was picked up by every porn site in the country,” he said. “Who knew they had content in addition to pictures and videos?”

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