When Bill Bittar was considering a name for his new hyperlocal news site covering the town of Monroe, he had a problem. He briefly ran a similar site in 2014 under the name All About Monroe and wanted to revive it, but he neglected to renew the corresponding URL that now belongs to a makeup company celebrating screen icon Marilyn Monroe. He then decided to christen the new endeavor as the Monroe Sun, but there was another issue: the name Monroe Sun also belongs to a bluegrass band in Nashville that claimed the MonroeSun.com domain.
Bittar’s solution: the news site was named The Monroe Sun.
“I sort of like the ‘The’ in it,” he laughed.
The Monroe Sun is the latest chapter in Bittar’s association with Monroe-based news coverage.
“I grew up in town and the very first article I wrote outside of school was as a freelancer for the Monroe Courier,” he said. “I went on to freelance for the Courier after college. I was the Monroe-Easton reporter for the Connecticut Post and later became the Courier editor.”
Bittar also started the Monroe Patch in 2010 when AOL operated that hyperlocal news network, but was laid off in 2014 with nearly three-quarters of the Patch staff. His All About Monroe startup was shelved when he received a full-time job offer from the Waterbury Republican-American, but he still rued his site’s too-early demise.
“I always thought, ‘Man, if I had more time, I could’ve made this work,’ ” he recalled.
Although Bittar enjoyed being a reporter at the Republican-American, he found himself feeling “sad about the way the industry was going.” He was particularly unhappy last October when the HAN Network announced it was shutting down the Monroe Courier.
“My town that I grew up in wouldn’t have a paper anymore,” Bittar complained, voicing his concern to his wife Jennifer, who reminded him of All About Monroe. “My wife and I are in a better place now financially and she told me, ‘pursue your dream — go for it.’ ”
The Monroe Sun went live on July 15, with Bittar announcing its debut in a YouTube comedy video where he played a journalist who is found near death in a “news desert” — actually, a local quarry — and resuscitated with the launch of the new site. That video generated more than 1,000 views in its first week online. The Monroe Police Department added its own PR push, highlighting the news of Bittar’s project on its Facebook page.
And speaking of Facebook, Bittar posted his own photograph as the profile picture on The Monroe Sun’s Facebook page.
“I want it to be more of a personal relationship where they know who I am, and have it as an ongoing community conversation,” he said. “I am in a good position. It is helpful that I know the town and people know me.”
While Monroe has approximately 20,000 residents, Bittar insisted that maintaining a town-specific news source was important despite its small population.
“A daily newspaper like the Connecticut Post covers some things, but the staff is more skeletal than it used to be and they have to make choices over what is the big story,” he said. “You lose the everyday news that people want to know. They want to read about their neighbors and what the kids won academically and in sports. That small-town local reporting is lost as the newspapers close.”
As a one-man operation, Bittar works seven days a week on all duties, from writing to site maintenance to setting up email updates for readers. Local residents provided him with breaking news — word about a Sunday night house fire came via a Facebook connection — and he has arranged to meet every Monday morning with First Selectman Kenneth Kellogg.
One thing Bittar does not have is advertising, noting that he wanted to focus on building content and readership.
“People have come forward to help and make recommendations for ad sales,” he said. “I hope to have ads up by September or October, but I am not sure how long it will take to start bringing money in.”
In its first week online, The Monroe Sun chalked up 6,805 page views with a 62.8% bounce rate and an average session duration of 1 minute and 23 seconds. “And I haven’t had a real huge story happening,” Bittar added.
As this endeavor progresses, Bittar wants to bring in collaborators to help keep Monroe residents in the know.
“I hope to give myself a break and, if it brings in money, get some freelance help,” he said.