While news organizations contract and struggle to monetize their Web-based coverage, Cambridge Day editor Marc Levy has begun an online experiment he believes will preserve local news in his community.
At 34 years old, Levy worked in the New England media for 15 years and watched from an executive editing position at the Journal Register Company in central Connecticut as executives sold off paper after paper in the mid 2000’s, hoping the sales would keep the company afloat until readers returned to the traditional print format.
Those readers never came back, but the loss in circulation to local bloggers was an inspiration for Levy to try something new.
“There had been a lot of talk at the time about hyperlocal news coverage, covering the stories in your neighborhood and telling your neighbors what had happened,” Levy recalled. “I decided that if that’s where all the news was going, I wanted to understand it and be a part of it.”
Levy turned to the neighborhoods surrounding his longtime home in Cambridge, a city he believed deserved continuous independent coverage that other blogs and traditional news outlets had failed to provide. Following a short stint in 2005 as a printed monthly paper, Levy turned the Day into an online presence to cut costs and quickly pass information to his growing readership.
Levy has carved a niche for himself in Cambridge, most notably with parents who circulate his continuous coverage of Cambridge School Committee meetings through email lists the night they hit the Web.
Because it only takes a single parent to begin a long chain of emails, Levy said he no longer struggles to find his audience; his audience now comes to him.
“Because I’m online, my readers do all the promotion work for me,” Levy said.
Despite his site’s growing popularity, Levy maintains a full–time job and sees his work at the Day as more of a learning experience as he gets a handle on what Web-based readers want to see most.
Boston-based blogger and media critic Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub has followed Levy’s site develop and notes that the Cambridge Day’s recent partnership with Watchdog New England, a Northeastern University-based investigative reporting project, reflects a shift a larger trend in which bloggers shy away from news aggregation and instead provide coverage of a caliber previously reserved for traditional newsrooms.
Author’s note: I have worked with Watchdog New England at the Dorchester Reporter, though not at the Cambridge Day.
“This is a relatively new phenomenon driven at least in part by the collapse of traditional media outlets,” Gaffin said. “For better or for worse, you have all these excellent reporters looking for work and some are going to turn to their own neighborhoods.”
The numbers back up Gaffin’s assertion. A recent Pew Research Center report says newsrooms have shrunk 30 percent in the past decade, swelling the ranks of potential citizen journalists.
Despite making some promising gains in his online readership, Levy is quick to point out that the Day is still a non-profit experiment. Despite taking a newspaper website format, stories are displayed chronologically, which he worries makes tracking down the most important news labor-intensive compared to more developed Web pages.
Levy is wary of running advertisements on the Day in what he considers its unfinished form, but Gaffin believes a future network of local bloggers could garner enough online readership to attract large advertisers that still rely on printed ads.
“There are a number of folks like Marc trying to do very similar things,” Gaffin said. “There are issues [they cover] that go across neighborhood lines…if you have 20 to 30 blogs working together, you are now making a serious offer to potential advertisers.”
While there has been a growing effort to cover life in Boston and Cambridge through blogs, citizen journalists looking to make a profit from their work face new competition at the hyperlocal level through AOL’s Patch network, The Boston Globe’s Your Town sites and GateHouse Media New England’s Wicked Local websites, all of which have dedicated advertising departments, not to mention name recognition for potential advertisers.
GateHouse Media New England was one of the first local news companies to make the shift online, and with 18 weekly papers and hyperlocal sites in the metro Boston area, including the Cambridge Chronicle, the company has maintained a considerable online presence despite the growing number of independent blogs.
Greg Reibman, GateHouse Media New England vice president and Cambridge Chronicle publisher, said that while the Chronicle maintains a print presence, the paper operates as a “week in review” supplement to the daily updates provided online.
Despite this increasing reliance on the Web, Reibman said the presence of independent news bloggers is not a detriment to online circulation, but rather evidence that the paper covers a community willing to take part in an ongoing conversation about current events.
“I don’t think [blog coverage] is a threat,” Reibman said. “All ships rise with the tide and if you are a talented blogger or Twitter person, we want you to join that conversation.”
For Levy, maintaining that conversation is one of the driving forces behind continuing his work at the Day. When asked what communities lost when local papers were forced to make cuts, Levy was quick to point to the arts and events sections that have fallen by the wayside, and sees the Day as an important way to ensure residents don’t find themselves bowling alone.
“It used to be you wanted to know what was going on in your town, you would turn to the day’s paper,” Levy said. “We need to be online telling people what is happening in their neighborhoods, get them out and involved in their communities again.”