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Feb. 18, 2014, 11 a.m.

In Connecticut, the Independent Media Network tries to succeed where Patch couldn’t

With 80 members and growing, a news network in Connecticut tries to help local news scale.

AOL’s Patch was perhaps the most noteworthy attempt to network local online news. It was built around hundreds of locally focused sites, yes, but it relied on a common technology back end and a shared ad sales staff. Part of the idea was that local-at-scale might work better if key non-reporting parts of the business could be centralized.

Patch, having just laid off hundreds of employees, hasn’t worked according to plan. But we’re seeing some interesting attempts at that shared backend model in a smaller scale.

One example’s in Connecticut, where Lon Seidman and Doug Hardy have slowly and cautiously been connecting the dots between small, independent digital publishers throughout the state.

Their Independent Media Network is a pragmatic and, financially at least, unambitious group of around 80 Connecticut websites — from parenting blogs to religious conversation sites to hard news outlets. Membership in the network is free, and flexible; revenue is shared between a salesperson, the sites, and the network.

For some members, the main draw is IMN’s ad network, through which Seidman has built relationships with advertisers by offering an ever-increasing number of impressions. Others rely on IMN for tech support; Hardy has designed a few WordPress templates specifically for members, and their team tries to answer any technology questions members may have, no matter how rudimentary. Recently, the network has started to offer other perks as well, including a daily email blast with the day’s Connecticut-relevant headlines.

Seidman and Hardy are an unlikely pair, having met through a series of side projects. Seidman’s primary business is The Safety Zone, a glove company founded by his father. (“Which, by the way,” Seidman says, is not dissimilar to the news sales business because “it’s a commodity product, and content has become commoditized.”)

After a brief stint in politics, Seidman embarked on a digital video project with Connecticut journalists Anna Sava and Steven Kapsinow called LocalOnlineNews. In the process of building that company, he came to know Christine Stuart, who runs a popular Connecticut news site, CT News Junkie. Her husband, Doug Hardy, manages the business.

“One day in late 2010, Doug called me to say he had some political campaigns looking to buy more advertising than he had available inventory to sell,” says Seidman. “So we decided to call up all of the other local independent content producers we knew to see if they’d be interested in splitting some of the buy. I installed an OpenX ad server and, by the next evening, we delivered almost triple the impressions we thought we’d serve. That idea hatched the Independent Media Network.”

“Overhead should be zero”

Both founders are very clear that the network is more a labor of love than anything that will make them rich. “I’m under no illusion that Doug and I are going to be tying our yachts up together in Nantucket,” Seidman says. They have no personal financial investment in the company, nor have they sought outside investors. The goal is simple: to turn local reporting into something a good journalist can survive on.

Seidman thinks that Connecticut is uniquely fertile ground for hard-nosed, independent journalists to build beats. “We don’t have a county government system,” he says. “What happens is, every town has a school, every town has a town government and a town budget. You have very small units. Economically, it’s very difficult to cover as a newspaper.” In addition, the state’s relative proximity to the New York City metro area and well-off demographic tend to increase the price of the network’s average ad placement.

What makes local a unique challenge, Seidman says, is how expensive it is on a per-reader basis. “[A reporter] has to go to the town meeting and sit there for four hours. It doesn’t scale well. The economics of it don’t support a middle management structure.”

That’s why the IMN encourages members to use free platforms like WordPress, though not all do. “There’s a lot of redundant services and stuff out there that people don’t need to be paying for,” Seidman says. “Their overhead should be zero.”

Local business caters to local business

In the years since the network’s founding, Seidman has found that national brand campaigns are not as profitable for local news sites. “BuzzFeed might make a couple million bucks a year, even though the CPM is low, because they have so much traffic volume. If somebody is getting 1,500 pageviews a day, they’re not going to be able to live off of that,” Seidman says.

National advertisers are looking for the greatest number of impressions, while local advertisers want — and are willing to pay for — genuine engagement with a specific and attentive audience. By reporting reliably on town issues and generating quality, local content, IMN members can offer advertisers just that.

Many IMN members have experimented with using Google AdSense before teaming up to sell premium content to local businesses. Steve Mazzacane, who has a background in politics, runs Branford Seven and The Guilford Atticus full time. “AdSense is filler,” he says. “I can make $15 a month with AdSense. I only use that if I have empty space to fill.”

When Mazzacane was launching Branford Seven, he thought the ideal business model would be to sell expensive ad packages — around $700 a month — to a handful of major brands. What he found was that getting as many small businesses to advertise as possible created a more reliable revenue stream.

“We’re a local business. We want to cater to local business,” he says. “Once you get above $300, $400, $500 a month, small businesses can’t afford you.” Mazzacane is currently putting together a special offer for companies that want to pay less than $200 a month; he’ll be launching a new website in a third Connecticut location this spring.

Solving the ethical dilemma

That each member has the independence to sell ads to whomever they want for however much they want is an essential part of the Independent Media Network’s structure. “We don’t want to collide with our members,” says Seidman. “Part of what we do is trust. People don’t sign a contract.”

For example, although the network doesn’t sell sponsored content on behalf of its members, members are free to sell it independently. Hardy is wary of sponsored content, saying “It makes you look like you’ve been bought — and it’s bad.” But some members, like Mazzacane, have given it a try and are satisfied with the result.

“There’s a lot of companies that want to pay for content,” says Seidman. “We’re leaving a lot of money on the table there.”

Even selling traditional ad placements can be problematic for lifelong journalists who have recently struck out on their own. Mark Chapman helps his wife run Nancy on Norwalk, a local political site. Chapman says, in selling ad space to political campaigns, he’s had to tell multiple people: “You’re buying ad space, not editorial space.” One candidate even threatened to pull their ads based on “editorial treatment.”

With the Independent Media Network, journalists don’t have to worry about the ethical conundrums of both producing news content and selling it. Patrick Scully runs The Hanging Shad, an IMN member site for which he writes statehouse news from an insider’s point of view. “I’m not an advertising person. I’m a writer, I’m a reporter, I’m a commentator, an analyst,” he says. “I prefer to keep a firewall between myself and the advertising. I don’t want to sell it. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

A whole bunch end up doing karaoke

Different members rely on the network for different things. For some, Hardy’s technical expertise is the main draw; for others who are just starting out, like The Wolcott Whisper’s Christopher O’Brien, content sharing and traffic through external linking are some of the biggest benefits. In the end, the most valuable tools for the members are the basics, not, Seidman points out, buzzwords like big data, geolocation, or SEO.

Of course, not everyone is thriving. Chapman and his wife, who use their son as technical support for their site, collectively have more than 60 years in journalism experience. Chapman’s wife left her last job as a reporter in Norwalk in order to focus on reporting corruption in local government. Today, he says their site gets more engagement than the local daily, and many community members credit her work with the election of a new mayor for the first time in eight years. “We hit a nerve,” Chapman says. But so far, it’s not enough to pay the bills.

Before starting the site in Norfolk, Chapman and his wife ran an independent news site, the Englewood Edge, in Florida. They used Google AdSense to generate revenue, meaning a check would arrive whenever they earned more than $100, usually every few months. Since opening up shop in Connecticut and teaming up with the network, however, Chapman says money has been coming in much more regularly. “I am a believer in the network. I’m a believer in that we may well have the answer here,” says Chapman. “We’re not going to get rich because of them, but I think it will be sooner rather than later — by spring or summer, we could be at least paying the bills and breaking even.”

But, as Chapman — who used to sing cabaret — points out, it’s anything but easy. “As American Idol and The Voice show you, you have a whole lot of really talented people, but only .001 percent of them seem to become stars,” he says. “Then you’ve got a whole bunch who make a living, and you’ve never heard of them. Then you have a whole bunch who wind up doing karaoke.”

These days, breaking even is the primary goal of many independent local news reporters. The role of networks like Seidman and Hardy’s in simultaneously reducing overhead and increasing revenues for such sites has the potential to make possible journalism that, as Patch’s decline shows, is increasingly challenging to finance. Though it’s not clear whether IMN is sustainable for the long term — or whether its success is replicable in less monied states — for now, at least, Connecticut residents, be they cigar aficionados or Red Sox fans, are getting content that, without the network, might struggle to exist.

Image by UConn Libraries MAGIC used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2014, 11 a.m.
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