CARY, NORTH CAROLINA — Founder and publisher Hal Goodtree knew he was onto something with CaryCitizen when The New York Times referenced his coverage of the arrest of a local terrorism suspect on his site’s third day of existence. Although the town had a local newspaper, The Cary News, its coverage focused on other towns in addition to Cary, and Goodtree felt that he could fill a niche by creating a news site with an upbeat and Cary-centric voice. Looking to fill this void, Goodtree launched CaryCitizen in July 2009. One of the site’s first news items was about the arrest of seven alleged terrorists in Raleigh, N.C. Realizing that one of the men arrested was a Cary High School graduate, Goodtree was able to find his Facebook page and include pictures and relevant information from the page in his article. This coverage is one of the things of which Goodtree is most proud, although CaryCitizen has grown exponentially since that time. The site had 250,000 page views in 2010, its first full year in existence. Ninety percent of those visitors are located within a ten-mile radius of Cary, a town of about 140,000 people.
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CaryCitizen is a proud proponent of hyperlocal news. “We just cover one town, but we want to know all about it,” Goodtree explains. The site makes a conscientious effort to be nonpartisan, and also works to ensure a sense of inclusiveness by moderating its comment forums. Goodtree has strong feelings about the importance of this practice: “We adopted a comments policy, which is nothing insulting, gratuitously mocking, or gloating,” he explains. “That’s something you don’t see in major media, because they are encouraging controversy.”
With only a handful of editorial staffers, CaryCitizen relies heavily on its volunteer contributors. Goodtree and his wife Lindsey Chester serve as publisher and associate publisher, Matt Young as managing editor, and Leslie Huffman as associate editor; they are the only full-time editorial staffers. Twenty-five to thirty volunteers, ten of whom are photographers, cover arts, business, sports, news, and everything in between for the town of Cary. “There [are] a lot of talented people out there, and they want a platform,” Goodtree says, explaining that providing opportunities and getting press passes to cover events, in addition to giving proper credit in bylines, goes a long way toward attracting these talented volunteers.
Goodtree calls his volunteers “sophisticated community journalists,” and maintains strict standards to ensure that this high-quality, sophisticated journalism comes through on the site. For example, a picture for every story is one of Goodtree’s non-negotiable rules. In addition to positive commenting regulations, CaryCitizen makes an effort to incorporate positive coverage of education and other local initiatives to balance the negativity that Goodtree feels is omnipresent in major media. He argues that coverage of crime, corruption, and disasters is “polluting the news stream.”
The community’s response to CaryCitizen has been “overwhelmingly positive,” according to Goodtree, especially from community organizations who had never garnered any recognition. CaryCitizen tries to highlight some of the positive things that these organizations are doing in the community, even in a media culture where bad news sells more advertising. The challenge is in making this type of media outlet sustainable, making it “not just a project, but a business,” in Goodtree’s words.
Goodtree’s background is in advertising as a producer. He won a commercial Emmy in 1996 for work with the New York Mets and Sportschannel, and a Lion in 2002 for work with Alabama Tobacco Free Families. He also worked on The New York Times‘s national advertising campaign, and ran his own digital advertising agency, called Goodtree & Co. Thus, Goodtree was well prepared to court advertising dollars for CaryCitizen and manage the site’s advertising business. Goodtree & Co., which is currently considering a corporate name change, became the parent company for CaryCitizen.
Although CaryCitizen is still in the red, revenues are growing every month. Goodtree is looking to expand, potentially through venture capital or bank loans, and CaryCitizen is involved in the Venture Mentoring Service of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development in Durham, N.C., an organization dedicated to helping start-ups develop their entrepreneurial ambitions. Ideally, Goodtree hopes that the staff will be split evenly between editorial and business staff. For now, though, Chester heads the business staff, which sells banner ads and story ads to local businesses and some national ones.
Although he believes in modest beginnings, Goodtree has big dreams for CaryCitizen. In the future, CaryCitizen hopes to become the preeminent news source for “The Triangle,” an area consisting of North Carolina cities Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. Eventually, Goodtree sees CaryCitizen competing directly with News & Observer, the area’s dominant news organization and a subsidiary of the Sacramento-based McClatchy Company (the United States’ third-largest newspaper corporation). Despite the challenges of sustainability, Goodtree is optimistic of the chances for his online news organization: “The moment is now.”