New England independent news

September 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

During the Spring 2011 semester, I wrote for the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s e-Bulletin about independent online news sites around New England.

Disclosure: After I submitted this story to the e-Bulletin, I secured an internship with Anne Galloway at VTDigger.org. No plans were in place for that internship prior to or during my reporting for this story.

The story:

As newspaper budgets have decreased and news outlets cut their staffs, a small but growing number of reporters have taken their careers into their own hands, establishing their own online news sites in New England.

Local news sites such as Boston’s Universal Hub, VTDigger, based in Montpelier, Vt., and CTNewsJunkie, based in Hartford, Conn., are competing with well-established local newspapers by offering alternative forms of coverage to their audiences.

“I’m not trying to re-create The Boston Globe,” said Adam Gaffin, who founded Universal Hub as a hobby, then decided to work on the site full time when he was laid off from his job as Web editor for Network World, based in Framingham, Mass., more than two years ago.

Universal Hub gets between 5,000 and 5,500 unique visitors a day, Gaffin said. Although that is only a fraction of the traffic to Boston.com, Universal Hub has an even smaller fraction of the staff — Gaffin is the site’s only paid staff member.

Universal Hub survives on posts from Gaffin and an unpaid intern. Gaffin attends meetings at City Hall and occasionally makes trips into the field for a story, but spends much of his time on the computer listening to an online police scanner and monitoring Twitter, where Bostonians tip him off to breaking news. Although it’s not traditional news gathering, Gaffin has clearly found an audience.

“There is a market that’s beneath the Boston Globe,” Gaffin said, noting small-scale news events the Globe seldom covers.

In Vermont, Anne Galloway is running VTDigger.org with a staff of two: Galloway and a Web developer. While Gaffin’s site depends on advertising to pay the bills, VTDigger runs on a nonprofit model. VTDigger was launched in 2009. Its money comes from grants and sponsors.

Unlike Gaffin’s Web-based Universal Hub, which strives to be different from traditional newspapers, Galloway is working to provide depth of coverage that is getting harder to find in a state where newspapers don’t have the same deep pockets they had before ad revenues fell. Galloway hopes to form collaborative relationships between VTDigger and other news media outlets, as she has already done with the South Burlington-based Vermont Business Magazine, Vermont Public Radio, based in Colchester, and a small number of other outlets.

With 1,500 to 2,000 unique visitors a day, VTDigger has not reached the size of Universal Hub, and Galloway was only able to begin paying herself a salary in January, after more than a year of full-time work on the site. Despite that beginning, Galloway said she is optimistic.

“I’d like to see us get 10,000 (unique visitors) a day eventually,” said Galloway, who said she hopes to have a newsroom with two or three full-time reporters in coming years.

The reporting is done now by Galloway herself and a group of freelancers. She said the site uses a total of 13 freelancers.

Galloway operates from a small office in Montpelier, the state capital, and does most of her reporting from the Statehouse. Galloway said she got the idea after she was laid off from her job as Sunday editor for The Times Argus of Barre and Montpelier and its sister paper, the Rutland Herald, both in Vermont.

The pressroom in the Connecticut Statehouse might be empty on some week days were it not for Christine Stuart, owner of CTNewsJunkie.com. Stuart left a full-time job with benefits at the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn., to buy the site in March 2006.

“Why not?” Stuart said when asked why she made the decision to leave her old job. Between her work on the site and a part-time job reporting for the California-based Courthouse News Service, Stuart usually works 16-hour days, she said.

“It’s been kind of chaotic,” Stuart said.

But the chaos has never made her want to stop, she said.

Stuart’s husband, Doug Hardy, co-founded a company to help sites such as Stuart’s. His venture, the Independent Media Network of Windsor, Conn. solicits advertising on behalf of various blogs and independent news sites around Connecticut, small outlets that might struggle to sell ads on their own. Collectively, the network’s affiliate sites generate 2.5 million page views a month, Stuart said.

CTNewsJunkie’s revenue comes from ad sales by the Independent Media Network, its own advertising, and a monthly stipend for serving as the capital correspondent for the New Haven (Conn.) Independent, a not-for-profit hyperlocal news site. The New Haven Independent republishes Stuart’s work at CTNewsJunkie and pays her to write some exclusive stories about Connecticut politics.

Although Stuart’s workload is heavy, CTNewsJunkie has a part-time independent contractor, who works three days a week for the site; four paid columnists, who contribute on a rotating basis; and occasionally has had interns and used freelancers as well.

The site hasn’t always had enough income for so many contributors, though.

“In the first two-and-a-half to three years, there was basically no ad revenue,” Stuart said.

The site didn’t have enough traffic to make money from advertising, she said. A turning point was the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver; the site had 30,000 page views in August 2008 — a high at the time — as Stuart covered the convention from a Connecticut angle.

Since then, things have only improved.

“In March 2011, we were just shy of 140,000 views,” Stuart said.

Stuart said the site could support her as a sole source of income, although she doesn’t plan to quit her part-time job.

Stuart said she has been surprised at how much revenue is generated by simply having good quality content on the site. When she bought the site, the previous owner had not been posting every day, so after Stuart began doing that and launched an email edition, traffic to the site tripled.

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