SOMERVILLE, NEW JERSEY — When he relocated to New Jersey in 1987, publisher and editor Loren Fisher already had an extensive journalistic résumé. Starting in 1978, he worked at a myriad of newspapers around the country, including the Star-Press and Shelbyville News in Muncie and Shelbyville, Indiana, respectively, as well as at the Marietta Times in Marietta, Ohio. When he moved to New Jersey, he joined the Courier News and worked there as a photo editor for seven years before leaving journalism in 1995 to publish photography books about Pope John Paul II and Branson, Missouri. He started a multimedia production company called Elf Multimedia around this same time.
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When Fisher re-joined the Courier News in 2004, again as a photo editor, the newspaper was in the process of merging with another nearby paper, the Home News Tribune. As part of this transition, the papers merged their websites, forming MyCentralJersey.com, and Fisher helped to create seven or eight (he doesn’t recall exactly) new hyperlocal websites as part of this brand.
Fisher became managing editor of the Courier News and Home News Tribune and digital editor of MyCentralJersey.com before leaving in 2010. By 2011, the Courier News, which is based in Somerville, was down to two reporters with responsibility for covering all news in the paper’s four county circulation area; the Star -Ledger had already shut down its bureau in the town several years earlier.
“In talking to my neighbors who are pretty active, they didn’t know what was going on in town,” he says. “We had a mayoral election this year, and I didn’t want people to be totally in the blind on who to vote for. That’s really what got me going.”
In other words, Fisher saw a news vacuum that needed filling. In late July 2011, he started SomervilleToday.com for just $23—$11 for the domain name and $12 for his business cards. (He already had a hosting plan that covered the new website.)
Fisher hopes to expand one day, but the site is almost entirely a one-man show for now. Fisher works to post a minimum of ten stories per week and attends all Somerville city council meetings. He receives some help in these efforts from a recent college graduate in the area who hopes to start her own hyperlocal site, and in the meantime is pursuing a kind of apprenticeship with Fisher.
SomervilleToday.com—which, according to Fisher, averages about 8,000 unique visitors a month in a town of 12,000 people—covers everything from general news and business to politics and crime. The site also features a police blotter and polls section. In addition to its Facebook page and Twitter handle, the site runs its own YouTube channel, which recently featured a mayoral candidate debate that Fisher not only moderated but also edited for the web.
Fisher is particularly proud of the site’s minute-by-minute coverage of Hurricane Irene, which hit Somerville in August 2011, about a month after he launched the site. As the storm passed through New Jersey, Fisher utilized CoverItLive.com, a free service that allows users to set up an auto-refreshed live blog on their websites. Fisher sat in his house with police scanners running and closely followed the storm’s trajectory, stopping only to take photographs outside and upload them to the website. (He took an additional break to interview Somerville’s mayor about the storm.)
“I got a lot of news out there,” he says. “People had no other way of getting it. I essentially covered pretty much the whole county that day, because I sat there with the scanner, and when something came across I posted it. It really, really boosted my traffic. A few people had heard of me before then, but that’s what really set me off.”
In the future, Fisher, who also works full-time for the local hospital’s marketing department developing its website and teaches a multimedia journalism course at Rutgers University, hopes to incorporate more community contribution into SomervilleToday.com. He also hopes to find enough revenue to sustain the site’s current efforts, as well as to hire additional writers. While he has received two unsolicited requests from local businesses to buy advertisements so far, he is still working on putting the infrastructure together to sell these ads.
“I wanted to get traffic first and then go after advertising,” he says. “Now I am started to go after ads. I’m keeping an eye on other opportunities and watching what other sites around the country are doing.”
Principal Staff: Loren Fisher, publisher and editor
Affiliations: Content: NewJerseyNewsroom.com