What do you get when you cross Facebook with the New York Times?
The Daily Westport.
Starting this week, the local news scene gets a bit more crowded. And lively. And — its backers hope — profitable.
When it goes live in a few days, The Daily Westport will join its neighbor, The Daily Norwalk, as a website for local news, sports, and information about schools, entertainment, real estate and health. It will be heavy on “neighbors” and “local heroes.”
Westport will be among the 1st sites started by the parent company, Main Street Connect. Quick expansion is planned into the rest of Fairfield County, plus Westchester, Rockland and Dutchess Counties.
Within 3 years, the goal is to have “The Daily [insert community name here”] in 3,000 communities.
The concept — and company — are the brainchild of Carll Tucker. He’s no stranger to news (the former editor and publisher of Saturday Review, he sold his Trader Publications firm to Gannett in 1999), or to writing (he’s married to Jane Bryant Quinn, the financial writer and longtime Newsweek columnist).
Convinced that newspapers are dying — “young people don’t read them, and they won’t start” — Tucker began researching community news sites. Some — like WestportNow.com — were very good; he said. Many were terrible.
None had the resources to cover news in the way newspapers traditionally did.
It sounds similar to the Patch — as in WestportPatch.com — model. Choosing his words carefully, Tucker says: “We don’t believe you can successfully create a site with a single paid reporter who is not from the area, and a few freelancers.”
His operation has 9 full-time Fairfield County staffers so far. All, he says, are very experienced, with “deep roots in the community.”
To be successful, Tucker says, a community news website must be “organic.” His model includes local advisory boards, filled with “neighbors.” He calls the Norwalk board “a fun, pizza-and-beer outfit.” Among its tasks: critiquing the site’s coverage, and suggesting other people who can help.
“We aspire to be the digital town green,” says Tucker. “What’s on the town green? Churches, public buildings, houses, shops. We want all of those groups to collaborate with us.”
Though gossip is also part of a town green, Tucker prefers an “upbeat” approach. “Newspapers have gotten into the business of community-bashing,” he says. “There will always be bad news. But do you splash a suspected rapist on the front page, or low-key it somewhere else?”
The business model includes offering affiliations (like franchises), in return for 17 percent of ad revenues.
But Main Street Connect doesn’t sell “ads.” They call them “visibility packages.” A business buying a “package” is guaranteed articles about the business, its customers and staff, as well as “salutes” to customers that run on a continuous loop.
The Daily Westport owes its existence, in a small way, to people like WestportNow.com founder Gordon Joseloff.
“He was a pioneer,” Tucker praises. “He created something with a true community feeling.
“But — and I think Gordon would agree — it’s not something you can live off. A website like that, with a small staff, depends on the continued interest of the founder. You don’t want that fragility, over time, as the beating pulse of your community.”
Tucker says he recruited Joseloff “very hard” to be part of his venture. “I certainly respect his desire to remain independent,” Tucker says.
Speaking of independence: How does Tucker’s vision of an “upbeat” site square with the reality that plenty of news is, well, downbeat?
What, for example, would happen if — theoretically speaking, of course — a large local “dairy store” bought a “visibility package,” but the founder of that dairy store was found guilty of tax fraud?
“Hard news is hard news,” Tucker says. “Nothing affects our coverage of it. If someone doesn’t like it, they’re free to cancel their visibility package.”
But Tucker returns to his upbeat mantra. And he uses an example everyone knows to make his point.
“Facebook is larger than all newspapers that have ever existed,” he says.
“Why is it so powerful? It’s a positive experience. When you’re on Facebook you see people you know, in a positive mood. You’re uplifted.”
The Daily Westport, he says, will be “something between Facebook and the New York Times. I want us to be your neighbor, bringing you the news.”