EAST LONGMEADOW, MASSACHUSETTS — The best businesses have a compelling origin story, and George Gombossy’s consumer protection website, Connecticut Watchdog, started with a doozy. As of 2009, Gombossy had worked at the Hartford Courant for forty-one years: first as a reporter, then business editor, then as “The Watchdog,” a consumer protection columnist. His picture hung on the side of “every bus in Hartford” and his mug smiled from billboards. But, in short: the Tribune Company bought the Courant and installed new leadership, Gombossy wrote an article criticizing one of the paper’s largest advertisers, the article didn’t run, executives called him in for a meeting, and Gombossy was no longer employed. (The New York Times reported the full details here.)
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Two weeks and two overworked web-designers later, Gombossy was the proprietor of CTWatchdog.com. A continuation of his consumer protection column, the for-profit site also aggregates consumer news, and features columnists covering topics like couponing, elder care, and health. It also publishes articles from outside sources like the consumer credit card comparison site www.lowcards.com, ProPublica, and the Connecticut Attorney General’s office.
At the Courant, Gombossy demanded editorial independence from business interests, but at the Watchdog, both business and editorial responsibilities settle on his shoulders. He has chopped the ethical Gordian knot with little remorse. Disclosure is his sharpest weapon, followed by a low tolerance for the lack of it.
“I learned that it’s much more difficult if you’re going to uphold the kind of standards [I] have when it comes to ads,” says Gombossy. “The New York Times on its website runs advertising for phony weight loss medication. I can’t have that on my site. I remove advertisers who aren’t legitimate or [are] anti-consumer.”
He tells advertisers that if he receives a complaint about them, he will investigate them like any other business, or he will cease to accept their advertising. This has happened. His one caveat is for the auto dealership where his son works–his policy is to refer complaints to their PR department, as he considers his conflict of interest too high.
Gombossy’s personal finances help mitigate the risks of slim margins, lawsuit threats, and a tendency to turn away advertisers. “I’m sort of lucky because I’m not a thirty-year-old man,” Gombossy says. “I’m sixty-four. I have a pension. I have Social Security. My wife works. And so I don’t need to make a lot of money.”
“My philosophy is if I do a good job on the website, the money will follow it. At least enough to live on,” he continues.
Gombossy aggregates or produces about fifteen to twenty articles a week, sometimes including an edited version of an email complaint from a consumer. (He receives about three such tips a week.) Topics for his articles range from the conceptual “FREE: The Most Dangerous Word for Consumers” to specific warnings like “Do Not Open Email From USPS Delivery, It Is A Virus.” He sees his role as that of an educator. He writes at least one longer column a week.
Gombossy has been creative about finding content. About ten other journalists, mostly his old pals from the Hartford Courant, now write articles of their choosing for CTWatchdog.com. For now, he pays them in trade, showing an ad for a book or providing a link to a personal website. He also promotes these writers through CTWatchdog’s weekly e-mail newsletter, which reaches 2,6000 subscribers.
The site is part of a newly formed news co-op, the Independent Media Network, a collection of about fifty Connecticut news organizations. The group sells ads based on their more than 1,250,000 readers, shares technological expertise, and gathers for seminars on topics like search engine optimization. “They’ve been tremendous,” says Gombossy. “I hope my advertising will begin to come through the co-op so I don’t have to hustle for it.”
Gombossy attracts readers by appearing as a guest on several local radio stations and through a syndicated weekly newspaper column, which runs in twelve Connecticut newspapers. He gives away the articles in exchange for including a link to CTWatchdog on each paper’s RSS feed. This drives 30 percent of his traffic.
He has expanded to form a similar website in Florida. Ron Winter, a former Courant collegue who writes for the Watchdog, will soon start as a paid, Florida-based editor.
“Doing this keeps me young,” Gombossy says of his work on the sites. “I have to keep on the forefront of technology. My work requires that I do six to ten hours of reading a day, which I would do even if I weren’t working. This process keeps me engaged, curious, thrilled, and scared about what’s going on in the world.”
Connecticut Watchdog Data
Name: Connecticut Watchdog
City: East Longmeadow, Mass. (just across the border from Conn.)