CORONA DEL MAR, CALIFORNIA — When former newspaper reporter Amy Senk decided to get back into journalism, she wasn’t sure how to begin. “When I was reporting, we barely had Internet or e-mail,” she says.
Senk left her job at the Contra Costa Times in the mid-1990s and focused on raising a family. When her husband was diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer in late 2006, Senk considered that she might need to provide health insurance for her family if her husband was unable to work.
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“He’s in deep remission and he’s fine now,” says Senk, “but I had no reason to think that was going to be the case. It was a scary diagnosis and it was eye-opening.”
With little work experience beyond journalism, Senk thought her job options may be limited. “If you’d been a nurse or teacher, you could possibly brush up on your skills,” she says. “But what was I going to do? Newspaper jobs are gone.”
Senk started by shopping around a resume and thought about going back to school. She also freelanced. In 2008, the University of Missouri graduate attended the journalism school’s centennial celebration, which she says included seminars on journalism in a digital age and multimedia sessions. Hyperlocal publishing caught her attention. “People were doing online news sites all by themselves. And I was thinking, ‘I could do that.'”
In March 2009 she launched Corona del Mar Today to report daily news about her Newport Beach neighborhood. The neighborhood is also covered by the Orange County Register, OC Weekly, Newport Beach Independent, and the Daily Pilot, but Senk sees herself as providing the local news stories that slip through the cracks. “It’s not like they’re going to tell you a yogurt shop closed,” she says of her competition.
Senk always planned to sell ads, but at first had the site on a WordPress template that didn’t support advertising. Two months after the launch, she says, a friend with a web hosting and design business called Clickbrand e-mailed her to say he was hooked on the site and wanted to help her with it.
Clickbrand set her up with a template that included ad slots, and also became her web host. In July 2009, Senk “hacked together” a rate card for advertisers, with a starting price of $39. Since then, her rates have changed and she declines to discuss them because of competition from the Newport Beach Independent and from Patch, which came to the area in November 2010.
“[Corona del Mar] went from being a media desert to a media overflow,” says Senk. “It seems there are new glossy magazines coming out every other month.” She says she’s earning a modest income, with enough to pay for hosting, cover reporting costs and contribute to her family’s budget.
Senk aims to publish two stories a day, but she says she’s posted as many as 10 depending on how news breaks. Her beats include city council, safety committees, the police beat, and PTA meetings. She has one regular unpaid contributor who writes a weekly cycling safety column.
Her plan to cover stories other reporters don’t has gotten her work picked up by other news outlets and had some papers chasing her. For example, the Daily Pilot followed up a recent high school cheating scandal first reported by Senk, who says it happens often enough that it’s hard to think of specific examples.
In the fall of 2009, Senk made a deal with the Orange County Register in which the paper pays to run her stories and photos once a week in an insert in the Register‘s Friday newspaper as well as online.
In the spring of 2010, Senk made a similar deal with the Daily Pilot. The paper runs a column written by Senk on Sundays. If the Pilot runs Corona del Mar Today stories in addition to Senk’s column, they pay her an additional freelance fee.
The two content partnerships have raised Corona del Mar Today’s profile, says Senk. “People really do like to have a print product,” she says. “When I started to appear in paper, that helped build an audience [for the site].
Senk’s internal Google Analytics figures regularly put monthly pageviews between 30,000 and 40,000, she says, with about two-thirds of readers returning. She offers uniques for two months, including 11,000 in July 2011 and 7,300 in November, but says she’s more interested in return readers.
“One of the biggest stories I did had to do with [sports agent] Scott Boras,” she says. His car was vandalized in late June 2009 at a restaurant in town and Senk published a short news story about it. Deadspin linked to the story, and Senk’s traffic for the day spiked.
“It was great, early on,” she says, but adds that one-time readers from New Jersey or Boston don’t help in the long run. For that reason, Senk mostly stays away from SEO-driven headlines.
“There are things I could do to increase my numbers overall, but would it help my readers, my advertisers, help me?” she says.
When she started the site, Senk says, she wasn’t trying to get a lot of attention. “But of course the more seriously people were taking [the site], the more seriously I felt compelled to take it,” she says. “If there was something late at night, a big fire or something, I would want to go cover it because I have an audience.”
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