EVANSTON, ILLINOIS — As a native Evanstonian, Bill Smith remembers a time when the small suburban municipality just north of Chicago had only one paper to its name, the weekly Evanston Review. “For the latter half of the century there had been a few start-ups, but those mostly failed,” he says. Today, that field has expanded, thanks in part to Smith, who logs around sixty hours a week as publisher of the local news site Evanston Now.
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Founded in 2006, the daily for-profit outlet hit its first stride keeping residents updated on the mass of condo projects stewing in the area—a touchy subject for development-weary neighbors at the time, says Smith, who also serves as Evanston Now’s lead reporter, editor, and ad man. These days the site covers, among other topics, the efforts to resurrect some of those projects as rental developments in the wake of the widely-felt real estate slump.
With about 75,000 residents, Evanston sits on the outlying territory of two major daily newspapers and is served by a host of other print and digital news outlets like the Daily Northwestern, Evanston Roundtable, the Evanston outpost of Patch.com, and a node of the Chicago Tribune’s Triblocal network. Smith says that he stakes his claim by keeping a focus on local government and school reporting, as well as with some burgeoning coverage of high school sports. “Evanston is a highly competitive micro-niche market,” he says. “There’s now more news coverage here than there’s ever been.” Smith says that his site receives 20,000 unique visitors monthly, according to his Google Analytics.
The Evanston Now newsroom is staffed by Smith and one part-time reporter, with interns sometimes filing in from the nearby Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Smith’s alma mater. In addition to reported pieces (of which Smith alone turns out about four a day), statehouse news service articles, and police blotters, the site’s daily content is topped off with posts from volunteer bloggers and uniquely doodled political cartoons from Junad Rizki, a community activist and former aldermanic and Evanston mayoral candidate.
“We’re locally owned, and the people that write for Evanston Now live here,” says Smith. “They’re much more knowledgeable about the community than somebody who is just parachuting in.”
Smith deals the majority of his ad space to local entities, with occasional sales in more national markets. The site recently switched over from the “CPM” (Cost Per Thousand Impressions) model, in which advertisers pay to have their ads shown a specified number of times during a given period, to the “share of voice” approach, which guarantees that an ad will appear in a specified percentage of the site’s total page views for a set amount of time. (A buyer might, for example, request one in four pageviews, in which case his ad would be shown to 25 percent of the site’s total viewership.) While Smith believes that this method could bode better for the site’s ad revenue, he says that the switch is still too fresh to draw conclusions. “I’m not prepared to say that it’s so much superior to a CPM model, but that’s what we’re looking at,” he says.
That crossover is not the site’s only advertising prospect. Evanston Now recently joined up with a few local outlets to form the ground floor membership of the Chicago Independent Ad Network, an advertising alliance which aims to market blocks of pooled ad space to clients looking to reach a varied viewership among Chicago’s news junkies. Smith says he feels that Evanston Now is well-suited for that model. “There are a good number of businesses that are primarily focused on Evanston, who I can pretty successfully serve,” he says. “But there’s another range of businesses that have outlets more broadly spread across the metro area, and as one site I’m not really equipped to fulfill their needs.” The venture, managed by Center Square Journal publisher Michael Foucher, received $50,000 in startup funding from the Chicago Community Trust.
Smith, who has worked for broadcast and print outlets in markets like Detroit and Atlanta, says that Evanston’s diverse population makes for an exciting backdrop through which Evanston Now is able to tune its reporting on politics, development and social issues to both a local and national pitch. “It’s a very fascinating place to cover because there is a whole lot going on, and it tends to be a very engaged community who want to have their voices heard,” he says.
Evanston Now Data
Name: Evanston Now
Principal Staff: Bill Smith, publisher; Charles Bartling, reporter.
Affiliations: Content: Illinois Statehouse News