FULTON, NEW YORK — When Mayor Don Bullard lost his bid for re-election as chief executive of the small city of Fulton, N.Y. in 1998, he and three members of his city hall team set out in search of a way to continue working for their community. In the waning years of the last millennium, online news was still a young industry, but the former mayor (who has since died) decided to venture into this new territory along with his executive assistant, the city administrator, and a public relations consultant who opted to follow the mayor into the private sector. Oswego County Today—which publishes local news for the cities of Fulton and Oswego and surrounding areas—is the product of that leap of faith.
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Before the 1998 election, the city had hired Dave Bullard (no relation to the late mayor) to help disseminate information about city policies and programs because of a frustration over a perceived lack of coverage by local news media, and that frustration didn’t disappear after the mayor’s unsuccessful election bid.
“We liked the fact that we were making some news in town that wasn’t being covered,” said Dave Bullard, now Oswego County Today’s co-owner and managing editor, of his time with the city. “We were getting news out, albeit through public relations.” After the election, the foursome, which also included the mayoral executive assistant Monica Mackenzie and city administrator Joe Aiello, considered buying a languishing local weekly newspaper, among other options. But it was an international tragedy—the death of Princess Diana in 1997—that led the fledgling newsmakers to opt for online news.
Bullard recounted the late mayor’s experience as a multi-tasker who was watching television on the night Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris. An America Online user, he saw news alerts pop up in his inbox, saying first she had been in a car wreck and then that she had died. Meanwhile, the news channel he was watching hadn’t caught on to the story.
The mayor and Bullard discussed the incident over breakfast the next morning and began to think about using the Internet for news. When they were ready to step into the news business more than a year later, that’s exactly what they did. “We decided it was fast, cheap,” says Bullard. “We didn’t have to buy ink by the barrel and paper by the ream, and we didn’t have to pay thirteen-year-olds to throw it in the bushes.”
The foursome began with a site focused solely on the city of Fulton, with Bullard running the news side of the business. “Had we been rational people, we wouldn’t have done it, because certainly nobody was doing it in 1999 in a city of 11,000 people.”
The following year, the group started a site for nearby Oswego, N.Y., with editor Steve Yablonski, and subsequently merged the separate entities into the countywide site that exists today. “Twelve years later, we’ve survived everything, including our own stupidity,” Bullard quips.
Over the course of those years, Bullard’s staff has grown and shrunk along with the economy. At its highest staffing level, Oswego County Today employed three full-time news reporters, one full-time sports reporter, two full-time salespeople, and a full-time webmaster/graphic designer. When the recession hit, the company lost some key staff members and founding partner and former mayor Don Bullard, who died in an accident. The company’s webmaster, Fred Reed, replaced Bullard as a fourth partner and returned to the company to take charge of sales and maintain the website. With two part-time sales staff and the help of part-time working owners Aiello and Mackenzie to handle office work, Bullard keeps the news coming with Yablonski as the only other full-time editorial employee.
Two staffers can handle the workload partially because of the way Oswego County Today regards community submissions, of which they receive as many as forty per day. “We committed very early that we weren’t just going to be about what we thought was news,” says Bullard. Aside from obvious sales pieces, he added, “if somebody in the community thought this was news they wanted to share, we were going to share it, and we were going to share it pretty much unfiltered.” Staples of the site include publicity for community events, police blotters from local police departments and the county sheriff, updates from the Oswego County Health Department, and “Milestones”—birthday, anniversary, wedding, and other announcements from readers.
Some of this submitted content plays a key role in keeping revenue coming, with the site’s primary funding streams coming not only from display ads, but also sponsorships in which local businesses and institutions get prime display real estate alongside related content. For instance, two local funeral homes sponsor the site’s obituaries section, and a local health care center sponsors a Newborns section of the site, where readers can submit birth announcements and photos of new additions to their families. “We’re more than willing to chop up those sections and give them sponsorship play,” says Bullard. “These folks pay a pretty significant portion of the freight, so they are very important to us.”
This ad-related revenue amounts to about 80 percent of the budget for Oswego County Today, but the its early place as a hyperlocal news site also meant other, smaller revenue streams. When they began selling ads to local businesses in 1999, they found a large group of merchants without a web presence. To help boost traffic and presence for these customers, and sales for themselves, the company began to offer business directory pages, which they began to grow into full websites. A legacy business from another era, the company has about forty domains under the website development arm of the company and offers varying degrees of content publishing for the businesses.
As a small site (with unique visitors ranging from 15,000-20,000 per month over the last year), they’ve found it hard to compete with larger entities for the attention of their hosting servers. When they’ve had the best news days of their tenure, says Bullard, they have often found their site taken offline by overwhelmed hosts. Within the past year, the company made the switch to self-hosting, with one dedicated server for their own site and another for those they host for local businesses. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Bullard says, but adds that the staff is now “on the short end of the learning curve.”
Today the site is profitable, but barely. “We crashed like everyone else during the recent mega-recession, but we crashed very hard,” says Bullard. “We lost more than half of our income, which is why we’re much smaller than we used to be. Oswego County, where we’re located, had peak unemployment rates of 12 percent and we’re still hovering around 10 percent. That’s obviously not good for business.”
At the end of 2010, the company edged into a slim profit based on the cost controls partners had implemented. “Lunch money, really,” says Bullard, though things seem to be looking up. This year, by continuing to hold the line on expenses, he added, the company has become lightly profitable because sales have begun to rebound.
As Oswego County Today looks ahead, it’s not with the intention of being cutting-edge, because no one really expects it, says Bullard. With a content staff of two, there isn’t time in the day to have people constantly updating social media or cutting audio and video. Although he is exploring ways to add a multimedia component to the site, Bullard says, “we’ll roll things in quietly, cautiously, and one at a time.”
Oswego County Today Data
Name: Oswego County Today
Principal Staff: Dave Bullard, co-owner, managing editor, Fulton editor;
Steve Yablonski, Oswego editor.
Affiliations: Business: Google ads; ValueClick Media.
CMS: WordPress - Multi-User (latest version).