RED BANK, NEW JERSEY — On June 1, 2006, when John T. Ward and his wife Trish Russoniello launched redbankgreen, a hyperlocal news site for Red Bank, New Jersey, Ward says that he had little idea what to expect. With the help of Russoniello, a graphic artist, Ward had designed a bare-bones website on Typepad, and, the morning of the launch, e-mailed a few friends about his new venture. By day’s end there had been a modest 300 hits, but Ward, a former newspaper reporter and freelance magazine journalist, was enthusiastic nonetheless. It was utterly thrilling,” he says of the site’s first day.
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More than five years later, the site now consistently attracts around 200,000 page views per month, Ward says, and commands some respect in this central New Jersey borough not far from the shore. “No one was talking about issues around here and events the way the neighbors were talking about them over the back fence,” Ward says, adding that layoffs at the Asbury Park Press, the dominant daily, also gave him an opening.
Ward’s inspiration early on was Baristanet, a hyperlocal website started in Montclair, N.J. in 2004. But it wasn’t until he read a New York magazine story about bloggers in early 2006 that Ward became convinced that he could make a living as an online journalist. “These upstarts had started to make money,” Ward says, referring to the many examples cited in the article, as well as to hyperlocals like Baristanet. “It was like being struck by lightning. I decided that night I was going to do it.”
Along the way, Ward has come up with a series of scoops that have raised the site’s profile in town, and sometimes beyond. One such story included an item about a Bruce Springsteen-Patti Scialfa sighting in Red Bank that ran counter to break-up rumors circulating at the time; a series of stories in late 2009 and early 2010 about a local fire chief who had drunkenly driven his official vehicle into a telephone pole led to another traffic spike.
The fire chief story, among others, taught Ward the power of web reporting, since it was an escalation of smaller scoops that kept adding to the story’s ultimate impact. “All of these revelations came out piecemeal,” Ward says, referring to an earlier incident when the chief apparently plunged himself into a river. “First there was a guy in the river. Then there was the revelation about who it was. Then there was the revelation about this accident. We’ve had a number of things like that.”
When it comes to fiscal details, Ward says that the site has been his full-time job almost since the beginning. He declines to discuss specific figures, but he says that the site is “capable of generating a modest income for three to five people,” though Ward is the only full-timer. All advertising is sold directly by Ward to businesses, most of them local, and Russoniello also helps by designing some of the ads, which sell for as little as seventy-five dollars. Business has grown steadily since the site’s launch, only declining slightly in 2008 when the nationwide recession hit. “We had to make up for that,” Ward says. Contributors are paid as independent contractors, though Ward doesn’t say how much. One freelancer was eventually hired for a staff job at the Asbury Park Press, Ward says, while photographers are mainly of the aspiring sort who, like nearly all of Ward’s freelancers, have day jobs.
In addition to breaking news, redbankgreen publishes entertainment news and reviews by Tom Chesek, a freelancer who has worked with the site for years. Ward and Chesek previously launched Red Bank Orbit, a companion site, but were forced to shutter it after about a year when ad receipts and traffic didn’t pick up as planned.
But Ward says that the experience hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for further expansion. The local schools, for one thing, are hardly covered, he says, nor is the local sports scene. “We’ve just barely scratched the surface of what this can be,” Ward says. “The key is … to get the right people and work it like hell.”
City: Red Bank
Principal Staff: John T. Ward, publisher and editor; Trish Russoniello, picture person; Tom Chesek, arts and entertainment writer.
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