NEW YORK, NEW YORK — When husband and wife Ed Litvak and Traven Rice started The Lo-Down, a hyperlocal news site reporting on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, it wasn’t with the intention of creating a business. Litvak, a television news producer, and Rice, a filmmaker, took the site live in January 2009 after two years living in the neighborhood, and thought of it more as a way to channel their interests rather than as an outlet for any latent entrepreneurialism.
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To get started, Litvak attended and reported extensively on community board meetings. This became the focus of the site for its first several months, and gave him a core level of knowledge on which to base future reporting. Within a few months, Litvak, who had recently left his job at CNN, decided to devote his full attention to the site.
The Lo-Down gradually expanded coverage to feature stories on crime, housing and urban development, civic issues, health concerns, and gentrification—a hot-button issue in many places, but a defining one for the Lower East Side.
“We were determined not to be the gentrifying blog,” Litvak says, by which he means that the site intends to serve more than just the relatively well-to-do components of the neighborhood. He adds that he and Rice want all residents to see issues they care about being covered from a perspective they can relate to.
He points to a recent Lo-Down story about youth violence as a piece mainstream media probably couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do. The piece, which is notable for its sincere and concerned tone, features extensive anonymous quotes from three youth counselors. “It’s not like you don’t see anonymous quotes in news coverage,” says Litvak, “but you wouldn’t necessarily see it as the main component or the sole component in a story.”
For the first two years, Litvak and Rice spent little time trying to earn revenue of any kind. That changed in January 2011, when, with a firm presence in the community established, they decided that selling ads to local merchants might be feasible.
Rice handles the bulk of the marketing and advertising in addition to her role as the site’s arts and culture editor. She and Litvak, who’s the primary editorial director, are the only full-time staffers.
Ads for local businesses run down the right side of the site. “We focused on annual contracts [with advertisers],” says Litvak. “It’s better for us to deal with the contract once during the year and it’s always what businesses want.” Litvak estimates 80 percent of advertising on the site is done via annual contract, for which they currently charge around $2,900 a year. The site currently receives about 35,000 unique visitors a month, says Litvak, citing internal Google Analytics figures.
In covering the neighborhood and reaching out to businesses, Litvak says Rice has found many people in the neighborhood still aren’t using the Internet for information. “Now she goes around with an iPad and shows people the site and gives them the hyperlocal 101,” he says of her business outreach. Some businesses are younger and tech savvy, says Litvak, but many use computers minimally and might not be immediately inclined to take the leap to online advertising.
In addition to ads running down the right rail, the Lo-Down has branched into running a limited number of sponsored, advertorial-style posts. “It’s part of a larger contract we have with [certain] advertisers,” says Litvak. “The one we do most regularly is with a real estate firm. They’ll have a featured apartment [each] week and that’s labeled as an advertisement.”
He adds, “That’s only the regular weekly sponsored post we do. It’s a delicate balance. We certainly don’t want it to overcome the rest of the editorial content.”
Recently, the Lo-Down has found that local businesses want its help in devising broader marketing campaigns. “That’s been a revenue stream as well,” says Litvak. “It creates a potential for a conflict of interest but we’re navigating as we go along.”
They’ve also been helping several nonprofit organizations redesign their websites and helping them with proposals for content and design. “I wouldn’t want to overstate the extent to which we’ve been successful, but we’re at the point where we’ve broken even—covering our business expenses and our personal expenses—and we’re confident we’ll start to make money next year,” says Litvak.
Rice and Litvak incorporated the site in July 2009. When The Lo-Down was new, they lived off their savings and invested their own money in the site. These days, Litvak says, their biggest investment is time, with revenues covering most of the site’s expenses. They don’t pay themselves salaries at this point.
The Lo-Down employs a part-time associate editor two to three days a week, depending on workflow. There’s also a dedicated group of six volunteer contributors. Litvak says there are another dozen volunteers who contribute occasionally. And in the past six months, the Lo-Down has begun working with CUNY’s journalism school and its Center for Community and Ethnic Media. “We’re one of three websites that are part of the pilot project,” says Litvak.
For 2012, Litvak says they want to expand the site’s editorial reach. For example, “The largest undeveloped city-owned plot of land is in this neighborhood and it’s been a bone of contention for over forty years,” says Litvak. “We have covered that blow by blow in great detail. The Times has been down a couple times to do stories and they’ve been good. But it wouldn’t be possible—or desirable for their readership—to dwell on it the way we have.”
“We want to be able to serve as much of this neighborhood as we can,” he continues. “That means the big civic issues get the attention they deserve.”
The Lo-Down Data
Name: The Lo-Down
City: New York
Principal Staff: Ed Litvak, co-founder and editor-in-chief; Traven Rice; co-founder and arts & culture editor.
Affiliations: CUNY’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media