LION member spotlight: North End Waterfront

By Matt DeRienzo | Feb. 25, 2016

A Q&A with LION Publishers member Matt Conti, publisher of North End Waterfront in Boston.

1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?

NorthEndWaterfront.com was launched in May 2009 covering the “news and views” of Boston’s North End and Waterfront community. At the time of launch, I was acting as clerk for a few neighborhood groups and started the site to publish reports from community meetings. The site quickly became very popular, so I broadened our coverage to all types of neighborhood news and events.

The North End is America’s oldest continuously settled residential neighborhood, the home of Paul Revere and well-known today as Boston’s Little Italy. The community is ever-changing due to rapid gentrification, real estate development and booming tourism. As a result, the past few decades have brought waves of young professionals, new families and high resident turnover in the urban core. At the same time, the waterfront area of the neighborhood has established itself as a resident destination with refurbished warehouses and luxury condos along Boston Harbor.

The most dramatic change to the neighborhood was the Big Dig that depressed the overhead interstate highway into an underground tunnel. As a result, the 2008 opening of the Greenway parks physically reconnected the North End / Waterfront with the rest of downtown Boston for the first time in over a generation.

Despite these enormous changes, the decline of the major news media and papers created a vacuum in community news. NorthEndWaterfront.com attempts to fill that gap to inform and comment on issues that make living in our historic neighborhood so unique.

2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?

I was an engineer and currently have a primary job in finance. My interest in community affairs pushed me to become a local news publisher. Technology advances also played a major role as online tools made it easier to distribute articles on the web as well as through email newsletters and social media.

As an amateur photographer, I had the advantage of being able to create original high-quality imagery to tell many of neighborhood’s stories through photo journalism.

3. How would you describe your operation and business model?

I worked on the site alone for several years and continue to post the majority of articles. Today, we have dozens of volunteers from community groups, businesses, nonprofits and local columnists contributing content. These relationships have proved vital to the site’s success.

In order to move beyond a one-man show, I started a voluntary subscription system through Patreon. Our most loyal readers responded positively to the patron program, resulting in a steady stream of revenue that continues to grow as new readers signup. That has allowed me to bring on a part-time, paid assistant editor who does much of the baseline work such as police blotters, event/calendar postings and a set of recurring weekly features. Along with a handful of freelancers, we juggle covering newsworthy events and community meetings.

My local photography brings in supplemental income for the site through various licensing arrangements, calendars and prints. I accept occasional sponsorships, but don’t believe banner ads are a sustainable business model in today’s mobile, ad-blocking world. Plus, I greatly prefer creating new content rather than selling advertising.

4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?

The site has prospered through a multitude of competitive launches, including Patch and the Boston Globe’s Your Town sites. Most of those have fallen by the wayside.

On the print side, I never saw the local weekly newspapers as competitors since I knew the digital audience was different and would continue to grow. I actually partner with a couple of the print weeklies when it makes sense to leverage our limited resources. One neighborhood paper has scaled back to publishing every other week. Another real-estate driven paper with neighborhood news ceased publishing entirely (reportedly as the result of a lawsuit, although I suspect they saw the writing on the wall, too).

Fellow LION member, Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub, has done more to expand the Boston online local news scene than most anyone else. His citywide breaking news site often highlights articles on NorthEndWaterfront.com, broadening the site’s visibility to the Greater Boston audience.

5. What makes your site unique?

NorthEndWaterfront.com has strong visual impact, with an emphasis on photos and videos. If a picture can say a thousand words, then that’s more productive than me writing those words. I publish thousands of images throughout the year, including coverage of the North End’s famous Italian summer feasts, some of which have been licensed to National Geographic publications.

Our community meeting videos capture the hard-core neighborhood issues and political debate. We have captured many of the most important discussions going on in the city. From new real estate development to liquor licensing, our public meeting videos get thousands of views.

With a strong community presence, our content is driven by the readers who now literally support the site through patron voluntary subscriptions. Our covered population is only about 15,000 in the North End / Waterfront area. But, the issues here often have citywide appeal, and that has broadened our reach throughout downtown Boston.

6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?

I had no idea how important the site would become to the local community, its residents, businesses and visitors. That’s a blessing and a curse. Sweating the details to get things right becomes a necessity instead of a luxury.

Building relationships on all levels of the community is key, whether they be with local officials, police officers, school principals, restaurant owners or even periphery experts such as academics measuring local climate change.  We find there is a lot we can do for local neighborhood groups, businesses, non-profits, cultural organizations and charities. In return, they are happy to contribute content covering their community niches.

7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?

NorthEndWaterfront.com has gained an enormous amount of trust in the community from the residents, businesses and visitors. That is a responsibility that I take very seriously. Community engagement has been a catalyst for the site’s success.

It is hard to believe the site is nearing it’s seventh year of publication. I am thrilled the site’s traffic continues grow, but I am most proud of the depth NorthEndWaterfront.com has achieved within the local community. I rarely meet anyone living in my primary coverage area that does not know about the site.

8. What do you struggle with the most?

Comments have perplexed me from the beginning of the site. Anonymous comments are popular but can easily get out of control. Moderating comments is a soul-sucking experience and very time consuming. In the past, I have tried to enforce real names or used Facebook plugins along with a myriad of other commenting systems that did not work very well. Most recently, I am back to allowing anonymous commenting with heavy moderation.

I always struggle with finding a time balance that works for me and the site. Given my other responsibilities, I continue to remind myself that I cannot cover every little thing. That means focusing on what is most important to the readership and not wasting energy on superfluous matters.

9. What are some of your future goals for the site?

For better or worse, I have more ideas than time to execute them. Introducing new community tools is priority. We have a simple forum, but I think there is much more than can be done there.

I also manage a sister site, NorthEndBoston.com, that serves as a business directory, tourist guide and history archive. I would like to better integrate the two sites to leverage both audiences, residents and visitors.

NorthEndWaterfront.com already has a strong following on social media and via email through our daily newsletter. I am always keen on new ways to further our distribution. I am not sure the ‘instant articles’ or news aggregators by the large tech companies will takeoff, but I want to be ready.

Longer-term, I want the site to be a sustainable platform with a variety of voices, where my personal participation is less vital. That might mean joining or creating a homegrown network and/or expanding to other neighborhoods. I have seen so many news sites come and go, that I want to create something that can stand the test of time.

10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?

I share the scrappy passion of LION publishers, many of which are in my situation of juggling too many balls in the air. Listening and sharing challenges has helped me figure out what makes sense for my site’s specific situation and how to introduce new policies and tools.

Changes in technology and the local news media have created an exciting, albeit exhausting, opportunity. I see LION Publishers at the forefront of figuring out how the next generation will receive and interact with community news.