A Q&A with LION member Marc Levy, publisher of Cambridge Day in Cambridge, Mass.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
Cutting out the boring stuff, Cambridge Day launched in 2009, initially covering just Cambridge, Mass., and eventually adding some coverage of neighboring Somerville when I realized how insane and arbitrary it was feeling when I stopped at the border. The site is my form of civic engagement, a bulwark against letting the local corporate-owned sites get too complacent and a learning lab for what I hope will be software that will make life better soon for all small news publishers.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I’ve been a journalist my whole working life, but spent the final few years in print watching a lot of budgets get squeezed, people get laid off or bought out and papers sold off or shut down. Just before Cambridge Day, I was executive editor of a group of dailies and weeklies in Central Connecticut.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
I fit Cambridge Day in around a day job, so I’m forced to stay modest – it’s basically like having two full-time jobs and not much social life. I attend a lot of meetings, spend a lot of time in coffee shops and do a lot of work with volunteer journalists who contribute from around the community. It’s a pretty stellar lineup, especially considering no one’s making any money. I don’t have a business model at the moment; the more time I focus on making money, the less time I have for actual journalism.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
I try not to think of anything around here as competition; we’re complementary, since no one has the resources to be all things to all people. But there are two giant metros across the Charles River in Boston, television stations and public radio, student publications at Harvard and MIT, local cable access channels, Gatehouse weeklies and two Patches all looking to varying degrees at what goes on here, not to mention sites such as Curbed and Eater and even some citizen blogs.
5. What makes your site unique?
Like any publication, the sensibilities of the staff – which result in what gets covered – plays a big role. While it was never my intention, and I think the reputation is exaggerated, some people think Cambridge Day is the site that holds officials’ feet to the fire both in what’s covered as news and what’s written about in the opinion section.
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 wish I’d been braced for lots of frustration around technology that doesn’t really ever get easier. The idea that the technology is where it should be is a myth, and most of the people making technology being used by journalists seem never to have spoken with a journalist. I would also advise to watch out for freelance programmers. I’ve had terrible luck hiring to try to improve my site, with at least two being bad enough that I really should have taken them to court. Hire wisely.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
That we’ve done well enough that there are people in the community who think the site is great (they’re wrong) and look to it for help or information when there’s trouble (and are, I’m sorry to say, likely to be disappointed). The truth is, there’s so much more I wish I could do with the site and for the community. But I like that at least Cambridge Day is still around to be able to do anything at all and to be a player, at least on a small scale, invited into discussions and events.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Finding time. I wish I were faster at everything. And, of course, there’s the technology, with which I struggle constantly. Well, that’s not quite accurate – I keep doing what I’m doing without much innovation or change, because I’ve found a sweet spot where the technology works okay, if not great. But it’s very limited compared with what I know is possible, and very frustrating.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
Eventually I will have to monetize, but certain technological innovations in storytelling and monetization should come first. And, as I say, I want to be the innovating. If I can build some of the tools I envision, I think the site will become much easier to run and profitable, which will mean better coverage overall. And that’s the real dream.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
I like very much that members can ask for advice and share experiences. There’s some terrifically creative work and solid innovation going on, not to mention good folks to talk with. Sometimes I miss being in a newsroom; I like to think these are my people.
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