RIVERHEAD, NEW YORK — In 2009 Denise Civiletti tried to switch careers, but in the end she came back to journalism. She had taken a job in public relations with a local hospital after working as a publisher and editor for a decade in her hometown of Riverhead in Long Island, New York. Health care, she thought, was a growth industry that would offer better job security. With two teenage daughters in college, that seemed important.
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Meanwhile, her husband, Peter Blasl, was working as a freelance news photographer and exploring a different idea: Why not start their own online outlet covering news in Riverhead? Despite the existence of the print weekly Riverhead News-Review, there was a vacuum in coverage of local issues on the web. “There was definitely a real hunger for online local news here that wasn’t being met by print media,” says Civiletti, “largely because of a very justified fear that the web was going to kill their print product and their revenue.”
It took a little while for Civiletti to warm to the idea of launching a business, but she realized she didn’t like public relations work much; it wasn’t exciting the way news was. “One thing led to another and I just got totally involved,” she says. “Because this is my passion and what I do and who I am, I just totally got sucked right back into it.” Together, Civiletti and Blasl launched a “soft” version of their site, RiverheadLocal.com, in January 2010, with an official launch in March.
The site is comprehensive, covering everything in Riverhead from daily police blotters to sports to real estate. The founders are the main employees, working full-time to report and produce stories. Blasl handles most of the advertising and produces the photography and video on the site, while Civiletti heads up the editing and reporting. The site also employs a photographer and a graphic designer on a freelance basis. At times, Civiletti and Blasl’s daughter, a current college student studying journalism, contributes stories. Starting this January, a former employee of Civiletti’s from her newspaper days will begin working for RiverheadLocal part-time in a number capacities, including production and reporting.
RiverheadLocal has online competition from both the Riverhead News-Review and a local Patch site, but a look at ad inventory across all three sites shows that RiverheadLocal is more than holding its own. Direct sale local ads are the site’s sole source of revenue; rates range from $200 to $950 a month according to size, position, and rotation. If someone wants to advertise an event for one or two weeks, he can purchase ad space starting at $55 per week.
“We’re actually living off of [RiverheadLocal] and turning a profit,” says Civiletti. She declines to discuss specific revenue figures except to say that annual revenue for 2011 was “in the low six figures.”
The real question of sustainability, Civiletti says, is whether the site will eventually support the hiring of another full-time reporter “so that we can have a day off.”
Since RiverheadLocal launched, Riverhead News-Review has taken down its pay wall and is putting more content on the web. Many independent publishers quake at the sight of Patch, but Civiletti isn’t one of them. As she tells it, “We very rarely get beat on anything. People are always telling us we’re their go-to source if they want to know what’s going on.”
RiverheadLocal’s numbers have shown steady growth in the last year. In March 2011, the site received an annual low of 18,700 unique visitors and in August they received a record 38,000. From June to November 2011, the site averaged about 30,000 unique visitors per month, according to the site’s internal numbers. The population of the area Riverhead Local reports on is around 35,000.
One explanation for these numbers is the reputation Blasl and Civiletti have built over the course of long journalism careers. Both are very engaged and entrenched members of the community. Blasl has lived in Riverhead his whole life, and Civiletti is a trusted editor and reporter after working for the TimesReview Newsgroup.
“We were for all those reasons very much embraced by the community,” Civiletti says.
These are the same reasons that Civiletti wonders whether RiverheadLocal is scalable. “I’m not totally convinced that it will scale,” says Civiletti. “Can I start a local in the next town? A lot of what makes us successful in what we’re doing is so tied up in the uniqueness of our situation here. I think it’s a very specific set of circumstances that makes this work the way it does.”
Principal Staff: Denise Civiletti and Peter Blasl, publishers.