Unlike other communities around the country, the suburban towns comprising the Fairfield County, CT “Gold Coast” aren’t suffering a void in local news coverage. It’s quite the opposite. More than 100 media outlets currently deliver local news and information to the area’s residents and businesses, almost all supported by local advertising.
The pack includes 47 hyperlocal news websites operated The Daily Voice, Patch, and HamletHub; four Hearst-owned daily newspapers, 27 weekly newspapers, 15 lifestyle magazines, and a county-specific local cable news channel run by Cablevision.
What the layers of local news in this affluent New York City suburb reveal is an intensifying media scramble for American towns, “among everyone who recognizes that community news is a durable human need, and that newspapers are moribund,” said Carll Tucker, CEO of The Daily Voice. Tucker describes the news scene in the suburbs as “a giant scrum.”
That scrum isn’t limited to the 23 municipalities in Connecticut’s wealthy southwest corner. The 30-percent decline in newspaper newsroom staff since 2000 left suburban media markets open for hyperlocal startups. To gain and retain possession of those audiences and advertisers, digital news entrepreneurs and established media organizations are going head-to-head, starting in elite suburbs and media markets filled with “affluentials,” such as the northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs of metro Washington, DC, suburban “Chicagoland,” and suburban New Jersey.
Patch’s grandiose experiment—originally hatched by Fairfield County resident Tim Armstrong—to populate similar towns across the country with profitable hyperlocal news sites may have crumpled under the weight of its missteps, but it hasn’t deterred others from pushing forward into the same spaces. And the features of well-to-do suburbs like those in Fairfield County—engaged audiences; thriving local businesses—create vibrant testing grounds for local news ventures.
At stake are journalism jobs, altruistic motivations to strengthen communities with reliable information, and, of course, money. For-profit players in this local news game want a share of the burgeoning online/interactive local advertising market, expected to grow to $17.7 billion by 2017, according to November 2013 data released by research firm BIA/Kelsey.
“Somebody is going to discover how to do [hyperlocal news online] and capitalize on that market,” said Tucker, whose Daily Voice network narrowly survived its own mistakes. After burning through $20 million, shuttering 11 sites in Massachusetts, bankruptcy, and a name change, Tucker said his 41 sites in Fairfield County and Westchester County, NY, are narrowly turning a profit.
When Patch first launched online in 2009, its founders added five Fairfield County towns to the hyperlocal network’s initial roster of 12 sites. The Daily Voice targeted Fairfield County, too, picking Norwalk as the network’s original online outpost in 2010, when the company was known as Main Street Connect. In the past month, at least three ex-Patch editors who lost their jobs during the January 2014 mass layoffs launched independent hyperlocal news websites in the Fairfield County towns of Greenwich, New Canaan, and Monroe.
“Fairfield County is a very interesting place to be a journalist. There is a combination of local and sophisticated; parochial—in the best sense of the word—and cosmopolitan,” said Barbara T. Roessner, the executive editor of Hearst Connecticut. “People here are local and global. They are wired in. This is a kind of populace that can’t get enough information about its community.”
Fairfield County is a suburb of New York, the nation’s largest city. And big-city suburbs are better suited to the local news business than small cities or rural areas, according to Pew.
Suburban residents possess the highest education and income levels. They are most likely to have a college degree and a household income of $75,000 or more, and are most confident in their ability to positively impact their communities. People living just outside the nation’s beltways also have the highest rate of internet and social network use, are most likely to own a tablet, computer, and/or mobile phone, and tend to be the most engaged in digital and local news.
Connecticut is unique from other states in that each of its 169 towns elects its own political leaders and oversees its own town budget, schools, and infrastructure. With no county government here (“Fairfield County” is really just a cluster of municipalities), most civic news in Connecticut is locally specific. Comparable demographics exist in nearby Westchester County, NY, for example, but the municipal structure isn’t as provincial. And since Fairfield County gets lumped into the New York Metro designated market area, its local presence on broadcast TV news is trumped by New York news.