It takes two jobs and 21 hours a day to run a hyperlocal news site

Franklin Tucker and fellow Belmontonian Mitt Romney at a community event. (Courtesy of Franklin Tucker)

At 7am Tuesday morning, Franklin Tucker has been awake for nearly 21 hours. And in a few short hours, he’ll start another 21-hour day. Tucker is the editor in chief of the Belmontonian, a hyperlocal news site for the Boston suburb of Belmont where he lives. A journalist for 25 years, Tucker also serves as the site’s sole reporter, as well as its publisher, marketer, copy-editor, and social media manager. It’s only one of his two full-time jobs.

By 7:30am, Tucker has fired off several posts to the Belmontonian’s Facebook page: a friendly nudge to residents about the weekly Story Time at both Belmont libraries; a reminder that quarterly taxes are due that day; and two posts that mention Groundhog Day. Like this one, which doubles as another reminder, this time for the Planning Board meeting scheduled that evening:

 

It's Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, and it's only appropriate that Cushing Village dominates the Planning Board's agenda as it…

Posted by The Belmontonian on Tuesday, February 2, 2016

 

Belmont is a suburban wonderland, the kind of place where the local police department hosts “Coffee with a Cop” the first Tuesday of every month, residents heatedly debate dog-leashing laws, and the most recent adversarial issue was a proposed Dunkin Donuts that threatened to blemish the corner of a street actually named Pleasant Street. People move to Belmont for the good schools; its proximity to Boston; and, perhaps subliminally, because Mitt Romney lived there for decades.

Belmont, with its politically engaged community, is also fertile ground for hyperlocal journalism, the kind of news that’s interesting only to those who live there. But in today’s media environment, with print journalism in decline and the internet offering no economically viable alternative, communities like Belmont are journalistically underserved—unless someone like Franklin Tucker picks up the slack.

“Franklin is everywhere,” says Charlie Brietrose, who runs a similar site for neighboring Watertown. When Tucker’s not at high-school athletic meets, zoning board hearings, school committee meetings, and town halls, he’ll be at his “office,” the local Starbucks. 

At 11am, after three hours’ sleep, Tucker will launch into the day’s tasks. On the agenda is completing last week’s story on the town’s new trash contract (“That’s not the sexiest thing,” he says, “but the town deserves to know”), interviewing the town prodigy who will be playing in a wind quartet at Carnegie Hall, and running back and forth between the aforementioned and interminable Cushing Village  meeting, and a school committee meeting, both at 7. Oh, and the biggest story of the week: an upcoming parade for local hero Becca Pizzi, who ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.

Tucker’s devotion to the Belmontonian comes at a price. Though his work is appreciated in the community and the site generates some ad revenue, it is not self-sustaining. And so Tucker supplements his role as a journalist with an additional 40-hour-a-week job as a security guard on the night shift, which is why his days are so long.

Tucker’s endeavor highlights the conundrum of hyperlocal news. Local journalism at scale, as Patch attempted in its day, lacks community connections and loyalty. But at the independent level, the economics rarely work. 

Tucker began his career in journalism in 1989, working as a reporter at the South End News and serving as the editor of two community weekly papers in Wilmington and Tewksbury. Before starting the Belmontonian, he spent four years as editor of the Belmont Patch, until Patch imploded in January 2014. Then Tucker, along with hundreds of other Patch employees, was unceremoniously dumped.

A day after he was fired, Tucker was brooding at the Starbucks when Paul Roberts, an acquaintance who was active in local politics, came in and noticed Tucker’s mood. Roberts encouraged Tucker to keep doing exactly what he’d been doing at Patch. The only part of the equation that had to change, he argued, was Patch itself. After all, Tucker knew the town and had relationships with business owners and potential advertisers. With such little overhead, what was the risk? 

So after a short primer on WordPress, Tucker launched the Belmontonian. Two years later, it’s a staple for many of the town’s residents, and partially supported by ad revenue from local businesses like the Belmont Savings Bank, along with several realtors. Its Facebook page recently reached 2,000 likes, outpacing the area’s only print paper, the Citizen-Herald, by nearly 1,000. Tucker expects the story on Becca Pizzi (“It’s going to be huge, a monster”) to rack up between 10,000 and 15,000 hits on Facebook and maybe reach 3,000 views on the Belmontonian’s website. Not bad for a town of 25,000.

 

Tucker’s endeavor highlights the conundrum of hyperlocal news. Local journalism at scale, as Patch attempted in its day, lacks community connections and loyalty. But at the independent level, the economics rarely work.

 

The competition (as Tucker consistently refers to the Citizen-Herald) is a weekly paper with a circulation of about 2,500. It’s one of more than 100 weekly papers in the metro Boston area owned by national news conglomerate GateHouse Media. The Citizen-Herald has one full-time reporter devoted to Belmont, and much of the paper’s online content is shared across GateHouse’s network of sites. Tucker finds the reporting lacking. “Our competitor is not a local paper. They’re based in New York State,” he says. 

“It’s harder for me to imagine life without the Belmontonian than it is for me to imagine life without the Citizen-Herald,” says Roberts, who subscribes to the Herald and occasionally writes a column for the paper.

Before heading to the school committee meeting at 7pm, Tucker posts a report on last night’s zoning board meeting regarding what could be the suburb’s first hotel. “Vote on Proposed Hotel Delayed Until March Due to Paperwork Snafu,” the headline reads. 

Tucker’s style of reporting reflects both his experience and his personality: It’s thorough, but ultimately personable and lighthearted. On Monday, Tucker scooped the Citizen-Herald with an obituary for a legendary Belmontonian who died at 88. Tucker’s write up is 1,000 words, contains quotes from several community members who knew and loved the man, and was published within hours of his death. 

At 11pm, Tucker heads to an eight-hour night shift as a security guard, where he’ll do much of the writing he won’t have time to do during the day. He might finally get a chance to do that tongue-in-cheek story about the fire chief who referenced Shakespeare twice in a humdrum statement about a fire, for example, or get to his weekly column on real estate, “Sold in Belmont,” in which he enjoys poking fun of some of the uglier houses around town. “He’s isn’t afraid to get a little jokey,” says Breitrose, the Watertown editor, “or to call people out.”

Tucker considers the Belmontonian a business venture, and starting a new business is challenging. Although he gets most of his traffic through Facebook, which is difficult to monetize for a publication as small as his, Tucker hopes to get enough steady advertisers on his site to grow the micro-outlet. When it starts generating enough income, Tucker will hire an intern and continue working his second job.

He points to the Fayetteville Flyer, a hyperlocal online news publication in Fayetteville, Arkansas, as a model. The Flyer was launched in 2007 by two partners—one reported while the other took care of the business side. If he could start over, says Tucker, that’s how he’d do it.

At 7am Wednesday morning, he’s finishing his security shift and heading home for a few hours’ sleep, but not before posting a notice to Facebook inviting Chenery middle schoolers to the Assembly Room for hot chocolate and homework at 1pm, courtesy of the Public Library. 

When asked why he does it, Tucker is almost perplexed by the question: “These are things a town needs to know.”

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Belmont is a town, not a city; Pleasant is a Street, not an Avenue; and the zoning board meeting was scheduled for 7, not 2pm, as originally stated.

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Chava Gourarie is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa