The publisher of Scarsdale Network tells how he established a new online news medium, gained readership, and fought to be taken seriously by both news media and local government.
About two years ago, I realized there was no reliable online source of information for my community. There was no place to find out about the great organizations we have, the recreation programs available, or even a good directory of phone numbers at our government and school offices. Having studied and worked on Internet sites for some time, I realized that with just some time and effort and a couple of free cgi-scripts, I could put together a website that contained an online calendar of local events, a bulletin board for residents to write their comments, local classifieds, and information about the services and organizations available in our community.
I live in Scarsdale, NY, an affluent community by any standard. Its demographic profile tilts heavily toward educated people with computers who are concerned about their community. I figured that there was an excellent possibility of getting enough traffic to at least cover the cost of the site with local business advertising. If this high-profile project led to more business for my private consulting company, even better.
And so began my journey into Internet publishing. Now I was no longer building sites for clients; I had become a publisher of online content, Editor of The Scarsdale Network - Online Home to Scarsdale, NY
The Village of Scarsdale had a feeble website at the time. The schools had none whatsoever. Here I came out of the blue ready to provide everything that was missing from the Internet for my community - local content.
Well, to say the least, I was treated with suspicion or ignored. The Scarsdale Network was not going to be an example of cooperation between myself, the schools, the village, or local businesses. That I was NOT a non-profit organization didn't help. Everyone thought I was out to make a buck.
The village had a poor website, but was not willing to voluntarily provide me with content they felt was "their own" - board agendas, rec program listings, anything. So whatever showed up in my home's mailbox I put online-- even the entire 30-page Recreation Department quarterly program listing, I'd go to Village Hall to pick up Board agendas, and I'd publish them. One fall I wanted the leaf pickup schedule from the sanitation department so I could notify my readers when their leaves would be picked up. The Superintendent told me he had them in his hand and NO,I could not have them--because they belonged on the Village website.
That's when I slapped them with a Freedom of Information Law request--and got promptly invited to Village Hall so we could get reacquainted. I basically told them I was not going away. They have since improved their behavior, but I wouldn't go so far as to say they're cooperative. Nowadays they put their Board agenda online at their own website and if I want to republish it (and I do) I have to go there to get it. Some cooperation!
The school system was little better. I was ignored by the Public Information Officer for a year before I threatened to start showing up at Board of Education meetings and flaming her during the public comments period. Now I am assured equal access to school news and press releases and things are much better. "Equal access" means the same access as provided to the local newspaper, the Scarsdale Inquirer.
And speaking of the local newspaper, if your community's local paper isn't online yet, expect them to ignore you totally. For a whole year I sent them press release after press release and I got nothing more than a small squib or one-liner in their tiny business section. I offered free webpages to local organizations and residents - ignored. I offered free web-based email addresses to all residents - ignored. Finally I stopped sending them press releases. I thought the idea of a local resident singlehandedly building one of the largest websites in Westchester County and dedicating it to his own very community was a newsworthy story. Don't you?
Well, the answer is NO. Not if your very presence is perceived as a threat by the local newspaper.
There is no greater incentive than being ignored, in my book.
So I decided to start reporting the news in my community. Fight fire with fire, I always say. The past two years, our town has been rocked by a divisive downtown development plan and a new local political party, so there's been a lot going on. I figured if I could tap into these controversies and provide the news online during the week before the Friday release of the weekly Scarsdale Inquirer, I'd have a strong competitive edge. After all I know how to use the Internet to all its advantages and I wanted to use them from the start. I started an email newsletter that alerts readers to news they could read during the week, instead of waiting until Friday.
Well, traffic increased dramatically. I really felt there was an unmet need for online local news coverage and I was filling that void. Word of mouth has spread the news about The Scarsdale Network and monthly increases in traffic and newsletter subscriptions continue. A new Mayor was elected last year and he has turned into a good friend. My weekly coverage of local news and events had turned me into the Matt Drudge, so to speak, of Scarsdale.
As time progressed, I called many of the local organizations, government offices, and politicians and now receive a regular stream of press releases that help provide content. Weekly, I plough through the Scarsdale Inquirer and make calls to replicate its network of news sources. Weekly, I publish 6-20 articles, send out email news alerts whenever events call for it, send out the Board of Trustees agenda without any asking for it, and send out a weekly newsletter of 5-6 pages detailing the coming week's events at all organizations, the results of the latest online poll, and new articles posted online. The Scarsdale Network is now recognized as a true news media organization in my community. The site is recognized as the top regional web site in New York State at PlanetClick.com, rating a 9.67 out of 10. Visitors rank the sites; I had nothing to do with it.
Still, The Scarsdale Network only targets a community of 17,000. Monthly traffic exceeds 3,000 unique visitors and over 18,000 pageviews. This is tiny by any measure. Market penetration remains tough when you're on a limited budget and the local newspaper refuses to recognize you, even if you are in a different medium altogether (Would they reject me if I were a radio station? I think not.)
Still I am laying the groundwork for what I believe to be the successor to the local newspaper. As more residents connect to the Internet through their computers, TVs, or handheld devices and become more accustomed to using it for news, Scarsdale residents in particular, because of their high sense of cohesion and identity with their community will look for Scarsdale news online. Already now, The Scarsdale Network is the premiere site for Scarsdale information. The traffic will come. I have no doubt.
Revenues are miniscule and The Scarsdale Network remains in the red. The revenues of my consulting practice have been keeping it afloat. Local small businesses are still NOT ready to get online. Many of them simply do not understand web pages, search engines, and Internet marketing. They are used to direct mail, newspaper ads, and the Yellow Pages. Small businesses that populate small towns and villages cannot rationalize throwing a couple of hundred dollars away on a new medium that has no definite payback. I spend most of my time trying to educate them about how it all works. And it's difficult.
Still, time should correct that problem as well. What I plan to do is hire a marketing person who works part-time on commission to follow up on this. Once some revenues come in, then I'd like to hire some part-timers to do some of the reporting on school board meetings and the police blotters. I think The Scarsdale Network has excellent growth potential.
The Scarsdale Network remains committed to providing free community services to the Internet to the Scarsdale area. To this end, I have built free websites for the Scarsdale Historical Society, the Alumni Association, the New Choral Society, a few neighborhood associations, other non-profit groups and more. Because the local newspaper refuses to mention us by name, these donated sites are a crucial means of spreading the word about The Scarsdale Network than originally intended. In addition, I provide webspace to those organizations that want their own dot-com address at the lowest possible cost. After all, the more local organizations online the richer the Internet experience for our community's residents. And that's what I had set out to do in the first place.
This high profile project, The Scarsdale Network, has indeed increased my number of clients. I have put more than a few local businesses and organizations online since I started. That helps with the costs involved.
It has also made me some enemies. Last year, the local and regional newspapers endorsed candidates for local office. I thought The Scarsdale Network had the same right to do so and issued my own endorsements in an editorial. In all of 1999, I issued 3 editorials and each of them was poorly received by the established and recently besieged local party that has run things here since 1930. The local elections are coming up in March and already I know I do not want to endorse 2 of their 3 candidates for Village Trustee. I have to wonder how much in the way of traffic and readers The Scarsdale Network might lose if it does not tote the official party line here (which it won't, but I have to take that into account anyway).
I think it's instructive that building a community site is not always a work of cooperation, nor is it always tale of happiness and success. Unless you are not-for-profit organization working in a land where no government, school or business entity is online already, someone will object to your presence.
Still, I believe in giving back something to the community where you live. Each organization I work with (and the ones I don't) are all suffering from decreased membership. People are now busier than ever, buffeted by work and societal forces our parents never knew, often working two jobs to support their families, etc. It is just not possible for parents and concerned citizens to get to PTA meetings, join civic-minded organizations and associations, and donate their time to causes that often make our communities richer and more enjoyable places to live. It is not that these people do not want to be involved, it is that it is now more difficult to do so more than ever before.
It is my pledge to bring these organizations, who do such good in our community, right to local residents' PCs so they can still stay in touch with what is going on in the community, still know what is going on at their children's school, still know that people do indeed still make a difference in the lives of others. I want to give these people every chance I can to say "Yes, I do want to participate and enrich my community." That is my particular mission; perhaps it will spark some of you to think about volunteering your time and efforts in some way to the betterment of your community.
Sean P. Cover is Editor of The Scarsdale Network: Online Home to Scarsdale, New York http://www.ScarsdaleNet.com Scarsdale Technologies, Inc. - Changing The World One Computer At A Time. This article originally appeared in I-Sales , January 21, 2000
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