The theme for the homecoming parade was board games, and Denise Civiletti, the publisher of RiverheadLocal.com, moved into the street to get a shot of the senior class’ Candyland float as it rumbled along Osborn Avenue in Riverhead, N.Y.
She had photographed the khaki-clad ranks of Riverhead High School’s Navy Junior ROTC, leaned into the window of a fire department rescue vehicle to greet the driver, joshed with the Riverhead Town Board as its members walked five abreast toward the high school. She stopped to chat with two little girls in blue-and-white pleated skirts, their hair tied up with matching ribbons, two specks in the stream of cheerleaders and fans heading north to Coach “Mike” McKillop Memorial Field for the Riverhead Blue Waves home opener.
At the field, Civiletti met up with her husband, Peter Blasl, with whom she started RiverheadLocal in January 2010. The hyperlocal site had been his idea. The couple had worked together for years at a group of weekly newspapers covering Riverhead and Long Island’s North Fork, Blasl shooting pictures and Civiletti co-publishing the group’s four papers and its website. They left those jobs in 2009, and Blasl had been freelancing, running around town shooting sports and fires and community events.
He saw an opportunity for a hyperlocal site that would, as Civiletti put it, offer a “through-the-lens view” of Riverhead.
“We argued about it for four months,” Blasl said. Civiletti, who’d taken a PR job at the local hospital, was resistant, knowing, she said, that she’d get sucked in. But she was getting bored at hospital meetings, and the pull of journalism was just too strong.
“On Dec. 29, we got into a big argument about it,” Blasl recalled. “The next morning, I got up and she had the whole site all designed and ready to go.”
Blasl, it turned out, had been spot-on about what Riverhead, population 33,500, was waiting for. The site attracted an average of nearly 20,000 unique visitors a month from January through August of this year, almost five times more than the same period in 2010. August was especially big, with just over 200,000 page views, almost 92,000 visits and nearly 38,500 unique visitors. Civiletti noted that the site had had a two-day exclusive on a Verizon picket-line fight, with a photo.
RiverheadLocal began running ads in March 2010. “We had to fight people off” while they got the site up and running, Civiletti said. “It kind of sells itself.”
After a year, site revenues began covering the couple’s monthly expenses. “A good thing, because we’d wiped out our savings, so…whew!” she wrote in an email.
Comparing notes at Block by Block
This week, Civiletti is taking a break, heading to Chicago for the second annual Block by Block Summit. Block by Block, a project of the Patterson Foundation’s New Media Journalism initiative, is an “ongoing network of independent, digital-native, born-on-the-Web news publishers,” said Jessica Durkin, its community manager.
On her blog, Durkin has indexed about 70 for-profit hyperlocal sites that look, she said, like they might be sustainable based on the newsiness of their posts, their geographic scope, the breadth of advertiser support, the attractiveness of their layout and the sophistication of their content management systems. When RiverheadLocal was brought to her attention, Durkin said, she thought it looked good.
“I thought, ‘This looks like she’s really getting in there in the community,’” Durkin said. “Lots of informational tabs, seemed like the depth of information was good, the breadth was good.”
The two-day summit is intended “to get these like-minded publishers in the same room and let them share ideas in person and understand where they might be in their business compared to others,” Durkin explained.
It is followed by an invitation-only, four-day “supercamp” where rising stars of independent hyperlocal sites will explore how to take their businesses to the next level, whether that be adding staff or expanding territory. Civiletti will be one of the 12 supercampers.
“It’s really the advanced class” in for-profit, online local journalism, said Michele McLellan, a former newspaper editor turned digital-media adviser who founded Block by Block and invited Civiletti to the supercamp.
Looking for lessons in sustainability
Civiletti said she’s eager for “a recipe for long-term sustainability because people are, by and large, all in the identical situation – that is, working constantly.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to take a shower,” she said, not quite joking and sounding like a new parent.
For example, she said, she’d like some insights into “how to tweak ad rates” to capitalize on the site’s most desirable spots, hoping to raise enough for “a somewhat larger newsroom.” Her current newsroom is a converted bedroom in her Riverhead ranch house next to a horse farm, set back among trees. She gets up at 3:30 a.m. most days to post the latest news.
There have been some tough lessons along the way. Civiletti said she’s rebuilt the site three times: once when it was hacked, again when she switched to Joomla, a more sophisticated content management system than the one she started with, and once when she accidentally deleted the entire site.
And when she moved from a shared to a dedicated server for faster page loads, she said, she resized all the images on the site and optimized them for the Web.
Immersed in the community
At the homecoming game, Theresa Drozd, a community activist, said she starts and ends every day with RiverheadLocal. Town Councilman John Dunleavy said the site keeps him informed with enough depth and immediacy that he sometimes forgets to buy the 168-year-old Riverhead News-Review, Civiletti’s former employer, when it comes out on Thursdays.
Christine Shay, who teaches creative crafts at Riverhead High, said, “The kids are addicted.” Cheerleaders warming up nearby agreed, saying they go on RiverheadLocal’s Facebook page every day.
“Pretty much everybody is ‘friends’ with them,” Kristen Gevinsky, 17, said.
Joanna Messina, 14, said she mostly follows school and sports news, adding, “and the new bond the school board is trying to pass.”
In a phone interview, Janine Nebons, general manager and marketing director for Tanger Outlets of Riverhead, a sprawling mall on the edge of town, said “the little site that could” was as effective as Tanger’s national site in driving consumers to download a Tanger voucher last winter.
While she doesn’t place digital ads with the News-Review, Nebons said she buys a lot of print ads and inserts in “the real, traditional newspaper.” The local Patch, less than a year old, offers an overview of the business community through its free directory but can’t compete journalistically with RiverheadLocal, she added.
Civiletti and Blasl seem to be enjoying their immersion in Riverhead, where Blasl grew up and where Civiletti served as a councilwoman before becoming a journalist. The keys to their success, she said, are their hometown roots and their journalism backgrounds: “knowing what’s important to the community because you live there,” she said. “There’s no substitute for that, and that’s what we have.”
Barbara Selvin is an assistant professor of journalism at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. She blogs about teaching journalism in the age of the Internet at www.jrnteaching.wordpress.com.