HERMANN, MISSOURI — Although the homepage of Gasconade County’s CountyNewsLIVE.com has the look and feel of a simple, straightforward blog, it is actually the first of three frequently updated Missouri-based hyperlocal news websites founded by writer and publisher Jeff Noedel. Launched in March 2008, the Gasconade County site primarily covers rural Hermann, Missouri, a small agricultural town that attracts tourists with its nearby wineries and a German heritage museum. Three years after the Gasconade site launched, Noedel decided to create another news outlet that covers Montgomery City, which debuted in May 2011. The third website, which went live on November 7, 2011, covers the town of Troy, Missouri, which, at 10,500 residents, has by far the largest population of the towns covered by the network.
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The ambitious network of three hyperlocal news sources essentially began as a hobby for Noedel. He first started the website when he lived outside Hermann in a small town called Berger, with a population of just 221 people. A lifelong photographer, Noedel initially posted some of his nature pictures on his website, as well as games and other light fare for visitors. Shortly thereafter, though, he started to incorporate another one of his lifelong passions into the site: politics. “I found myself just writing long e-mails about politics and things like that to my friends,” he says. “It just started very informally and very inexpensively.”
One of Noedel’s friends who worked in IT helped him to set up the website with a Drupal content management system. Noedel says that he had very few startup costs besides the initial web-hosting. And although he did not have journalism experience before launching the site, Noedel was quite familiar with the field, having owned a public relations firm for twenty-five years, where he had supplied news releases to thousands of weekly newspapers. Since there was little commercial potential for a website focusing on as small a town as Berger, Noedel decided to move to Hermann in the summer of 2008, where there would be the potential for more local advertisers and a higher readership. There, the website evolved into a more official news source for the community.
After relocating to Hermann, CountyNewsLIVE.com began to tackle stories on a wide variety of topics, from breaking news to business reports and education. Recently, the staff published a breaking news story on a fatal car accident involving a well-known high school student, as well as a feature on the Hermann first responders who saved a man from drowning in the Missouri River.
“We have kind of CNN-ized rural news coverage, which is really fun,” says Noedel, referring to the breaking news abilities of his site. “Rural audiences are tired of weekly news. A lot of that news is two to eight days old by the time that it gets out in the paper.”
The CountyNewsLIVE sites also stress regional news coverage throughout Missouri. “We have found that our viewers and readers very much want to know what’s going on in the next town to the north, the next town to the east, the next town to the south,” Noedel says. “If the story is right, they are just as interested in reading about a story from one town over as they are in their own town.”
Noedel also encourages his paid staffers–three full-time writers and one part-time writer, who contribute to all three websites–to post five originally reported news items or feature photos per day, per outlet. The Hermann flagship website currently attracts 14,000 unique visitors per month, with about 1,000 of these visitors visiting the site two to six times a day, according to Noedel. Besides his writers, Noedel also has two full-time and one part-time sales employees, and one full-time creative services employee who designs the website’s advertisements. The websites also utilize several social-media platforms, including Facebook and YouTube.
The revenues for all three sites, Noedel says, come from about 90 percent local banner advertising and 10 percent subscriptions. While the site is generally free, the staff saves some of the stories “that took more investment and time” for about 300 subscribers who pay $24.95 each year. Every time a subscriber story is placed behind the paywall, the staff puts up a teaser in hopes of attracting more subscribers.
Noedel says that the Gasconade site will gross between $90,000 and $100,000 in 2011 (an extremely impressive figure for a town of 2,400 people) and would easily be profitable on its own were he not investing those profits in expanding the network. He plans to continue expanding throughout rural Missouri.
Noedel’s long-term goal, though, is for the websites to provide an online version of television news for rural Missouri–building from one-off video reports to a full thirty-minute broadcast in the next two to three years. Hermann and Montgomery City are right on the edge of the St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri, markets but do not share the same interests as these audiences. Rather than focusing on St. Louis major league sports teams and high-profile violent crimes, Noedel says, CountyNewsLIVE.com audiences are more interested in smaller scale topics that are more relevant to them, like high school sports, county fairs, and church activities. Each of the three CountyNewsLive site’s currently produces video content, and the network as a whole has produced about one hundred news videos and one hundred advertisements for local businesses–most of which are currently hosted on YouTube. As Noedel launches more CountyNewsLIVE sites, he’ll combine the video content from the entire network into a thirty-minute, advertising supported news report that will be broadly relevant to all of rural Missouri.
“That’s the dream–to build an Internet-based television station with bureaus in most of the rural towns in this part of the state,” says Noedel. “It’s going to be expensive. It’s going to be difficult, but that’s what we’re going to do.”
City: Hermann, Montgomery City, and Troy