LION member spotlight: Westport Now
By Matt DeRienzo | May. 11, 2017
A Q&A with LION member Gordon Joseloff, publisher of Westport Now in Connecticut.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
WestportNow.com launched in March 2003. It covers only Westport, Connecticut, an affluent community on Connecticut’s Gold Coast about 45 miles from New York City. Being a Westport history buff, I founded it because I wanted to create a digital history of the first few years of Westport in the 21st century. I was also frustrated by the existing online coverage of the community. Westport is where I began my journalism career at age 16 working summers for the now defunct weekly Westport Town Crier as a reporter-photographer, mainly covering town government. In 1993, I was among the initial investors in the Westport Minuteman weekly newspaper, mainly because I wanted it to be an early mover in online community publishing, but that did not happen. (“Why would anyone buy the paper if they can read it online?”)
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
In addition to working summers on the Westport Town Crier in high school, I also did radio work for WICC Bridgeport as its weekend airplane traffic reporter. (“Gordon Jay, on the air from the air for Salem cigarettes.”) I attended private school in New York during the school year, acting as WICC’s New York City correspondent and also as a correspondent for the audio news agency American Radio News. Most memorable coverage – attending JFK’s 1962 birthday party at Madison Square Garden where Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday.” I also was a regular with former President Harry Truman on his Manhattan morning walks.
At Syracuse University, I became a campus correspondent for United Press International (UPI), The New York Times, and the Dow Jones weekly publication National Observer. Later, I covered the city of Syracuse for UPI and the Times as well as the show business weekly Variety -- in addition to being news director of WAER-FM, the campus station. During two summers in college I worked in the UPI Albany, New York bureau, and the last summer in its London bureau, having paid for my own travel.
Enjoying working and living in London, upon graduation I accepted a job offer from UPI, turning down one also from the Times. (I figured getting back overseas was likely to happen sooner with UPI.) I spent three years at UPI New York, covering local stories, working rewrite on the cables (foreign) desk and the national desk. In 1970, I transferred to UPI London where I became overnight news editor for Europe, Middle East, and Africa. I was sent to UPI Moscow on vacation relief (I had studied Russian in college) and in early 1972 was transferred there on a three-year assignment. I also became a stringer there for Time magazine, People, and correspondent for Variety. In 1975, CBS News offered me a job as a newswriter in New York. I soon was writing for Walter Cronkite, Bob Schieffer, and Dan Rather, among others. Cronkite took a liking to me because he had also worked in Moscow for my former boss (Henry Shapiro), while was working there years earlier for then United Press.
In 1979, CBS asked me to return to Moscow. I spent two years as CBS Moscow correspondent/bureau chief, covering dissidents, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and subsequent U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, among other stories. In 1981, I transferred to Tokyo and my territory was the entire Far East. As correspondent and then bureau chief/producer, I covered everything, including the overthrow of President Marcos in the Philippines, the Soviet shoot down of Korean Air flight KAL007, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India (for which I won an Emmy Award), street riots in Bangkok and Seoul, and the death of Emperor Hirohito of Japan. In 1989, I transferred to CBS News New York, where I was a senior producer, among other things working on coverage of the first Gulf War, and installation of a new CBS News computer system.
I left CBS News in 1991, and two years later joined Simba Information in Wilton, Connecticut, a newsletter publishing house. There, I founded the Cowles/Simba Media Daily, the first online-only publication about new media efforts that ran exclusively on AOL.
I then became a freelance writer while continuing to volunteer as firefighter, emergency medical technician, and elected member of Westport’s legislative body (positions I could only assume after leaving CBS.) I served 10 years as head of Westport’s legislature, and in 2005 was elected first selectman (mayor). I had not aspired to the job, but was persuaded to take it on by my predecessor. I was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2009. During this time, I remained publisher of WestportNow. (I told people I was just like Mike Bloomberg, but he had more money.) Editorial operations were taken over by editors. I was very careful not to play favoritism with WestportNow or pass along tips, (but this did not stop competitors from suggesting such.) Upon leaving office in 2013, I once again assumed the editor position in addition to publisher.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
We are strictly focused on Westport and all income is from advertising.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
When WestportNow began, the Westport News, now Hearst-owned, published twice weekly and the Westport Minuteman weekly. Both are now weeklies, and both have websites. In addition, there are Westport Patch and the Daily Voice, None is based in Westport. Patch and Daily Voice mostly rewrite or link to our coverage and others. There is also a local blog, 06880, which is mostly features. Without knowing details of their traffic, we believe we are the most visited Westport news website, often pulling 500,000 page views a month and about 85,000 unique visitors in Westport and around the world. (Even in Afghanistan, Russia, and Australia.)
5. What makes your site unique?
WestportNow is 24/7 and has multiple editors and contributors who live and work in Westport. This makes all the difference, especially covering spot news or complicated issues. Their institutional knowledge of the town, its residents, personalities, and history is unmatched. And it shows. We are particularly active with weekend coverage – when the print competition relies on stringer coverage or none at all. We and the Westport News are the only outlets that regularly cover town meetings. Our coverage is posted immediately. Theirs, most times, waits until the weekly print edition. We emphasize photo coverage and captions, and reserve lengthy stories to the top stories only. We have a working agreement with Cablevision News-12 for use of our photos and we of theirs. Our photos and news stories often are quoted or used, with permission, by New York and Hartford TV stations and newspapers. We are also a partner of CTMirror.org., which provides coverage of Hartford and Washington, D.C. WestportNow is its only local online affiliate. Unlike our print competitors, we do not charge for obituaries and regularly run notices of deaths elsewhere of former Westporters. Obituaries and property transfers are among are highest read sections. For years, we have also featured the “WestportNow Teardown of the Day,” a popular feature reflecting the changing face of the community. We also have a popular real estate columnist and film critic. Since opened in 2007 to online publications, the Society of Professional Journalists Connecticut chapter has awarded us 62 citations in its annual excellence in journalism competition.
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?
Probably brought on a marketing/sales manager early on. But then again, some people complain we have too many ads. Can’t win.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
That we are the No.1 go-to place for online news in Westport. We are often cited publicly at town meetings as the source of news, quoted by major news outlets, and many times have a wait list for prominent ad space. Some advertisers book and pay a year in advance to retain spots. I have had people tell me they moved to Westport because of WestportNow. They said the breadth of our coverage of all sorts of activities in Westport made them choose the town over nearby others. We are often the only news outlet on the scene of fires, accidents, or town events that get zero coverage elsewhere. (And if others do cover, they mostly rely on hours later police/fire handouts devoid of any detail or color.) I am proud of the professional standards we rigidly maintain, and the respect and reputation for quality we have gained in the community and beyond.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Updating the site 24/7 and getting sleep in between. Also we offer only skimpy sports coverage as we can’t afford to do more. The print outlets do a fine job on sports. However, in 2013 when Westport went to the Little League World Series In Pennsylvania, we sent a photographer along and did wall-to-wall coverage.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
To continue to provide timely, accurate, first-rate coverage to a highly literate, demanding, savvy community, one that makes up a highly attractive demographic for advertisers.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
To learn from other publishers and share my experiences. Given the decline in local print outlets, independent online news publishers play a prime role in our democracy.