A Q&A with Carol Robidoux, publisher of Manchester Ink Link in New Hampshire.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
Manchester Ink Link launched in July of 2014. It's a daily hyperlocal news and information site covering Manchester, New Hampshire's largest city (population 110,000-plus). Because we are a relatively small state and because of politics, I also post statewide stories when they are relevant.
I had my best month ever in January – 251,077 page views. When I attended the LION conference in October, I proudly announced I'd just reached my 1 millionth lifetime page view. I am on track to reach 2 million by April or May, so the upward trend is encouraging!
I'm a former Patch editor who was laid off in the Great Separation of 2014 (January). I started applying for jobs and unemployment checks, and for some reason the State of New Hampshire identified me as a prime candidate for what they call the Pathway to Work program. Translation: They realized my chances of finding comparable work was slim, so they allowed me to keep my full $427 weekly unemployment benefit while creating my own job. I was allowed to make as much money on the side as I could without reducing my unemployment benefit. I had six months to make something happen. Yippee!
So I started my "brand site," www.robidouxinklink.com, and started immediately freelancing. The idea was to eventually launch a hyperlocal site "some day" as part of my business plan, but I couldn't wait. I started reading up on indie journalists, I found LION, I picked the brains of others who'd already taken the plunge, and then I started tinkering around with WordPress, and pushed a few pivotal buttons. I have not looked back.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I worked in print media in Pennsylvania as a features writer, columnist and youth editor for Bucks County Courier Times for about 12 years before moving to New Hampshire to join the night staff of the New Hampshire Union Leader just after 9/11. The world had just blown up, and so I was ready to try something different before the jig was up.
I was laid off in 2008 and was rehired as an "independent contractor" by the paper that just let me go because they couldn't afford me. I did that for a couple of years while freelancing on the side. I was starting to dabble in public radio and magazine writing when Patch came along, and I was hired in 2011 as Nashua Patch editor (population about 87,000-plus).
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
Although I'm a sole proprietor, I've slowly amassed an amazing cast of contributors, some former colleagues, some local luminaries, who all deliver regular columns, podcasts and even editorial cartoons for free. That is a testament to the camaraderie among journalists and also the value of building relationships.
I have John Clayton, a former star columnist at the Union Leader and now the executive director of the Manchester Millyard Museum writing stellar and funny weekly historical columns; I have Mike Morin, a former radio personality delivering "Reset: 40 is the New Happy" a weekly podcast about people reinventing themselves after 40 (now available on iTunes); I have Susan Ware Flower, a former Boston Globe correspondent and local food writer compiling weekly "Manchester Bites" ie weekly restaurant news and deals; I have a TV reporter/food hobbyist Carolyn Choate, doing video and written features on food trends, news makers, new restaurants, and foodie adventures. Peter Noonan just posted his first cartoon, and will be adding them as fast as he can draw them, and they're wonderful.
I could go on, but the point is that they provide me with the kind of rich content that readers aren't getting elsewhere, while I am able to focus on breaking news, crime and punishment, news features, police logs and all the other stuff that people like to click on. I also just got an intern from the local community college, who isn't so excited about journalism, but is willing to learn some things. Passing the torch is good for the soul.
I only started monetizing the site in March of 2015, and it's still a work in progress, but for example, today I deposited about $1,200 in ad revenue into the bank; last week was about $750 plus a $200 freelance political piece I squeezed in, for the money! I'm really ready to ramp up my ad sales, and I have two friends who have deep marketing and sales background who are offering to help me strategize. I know I should hire a sales person, but I am still not sure how to find the right fit, with the promise of enough revenue to make it worth their while. The struggle is real. And it's hard to let go of the joystick.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
My former employer is a statewide newspaper, and I do my best to beat them whenever possible on the low-hanging fruit, since being first is the best way to get the clicks on crime stories. We have the country's most talked about heroin crisis here and I've made that one of my regular "beats" as it means everything to residents and business owners, and I don't think anyone is covering it with the depth that I am. Otherwise, we also have two local TV stations and a weekly paper, which is primarily advertising, plus a wonderful public radio presence.
5. What makes your site unique?
The only thing that makes it unique is that it represents this unique community. I've learned from looking at the sites of my fellow LION Publishers that we are all delivering news and information that is topical and relevant and timely, so in that way, my site is not unique. However, my years of news experience gives me some wisdom when it comes to feeding the "click" beast. Don't get me wrong; I will post stories I know are clickable. I will use gimmicks. I just used a photo of the Jonas Brothers to tell my readers that "Winter Storm Jonas, like the singing brothers, will not be coming to New Hampshire this weekend," and it's in my top three today. [No shame]. But I don't always agree with my local competitors about what is "newsworthy" – especially with the ravaging effects of drugs on our children and our families here. If anything, my sense of community building is unabashed, and that may be something this city has never seen from a journalist before. So then, the thing that makes my site unique, it seems, is me.
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 wouldn't have waited quite so long to engage advertisers or revenue streams. I felt like I needed to build up the story archives and analytics before I could attract advertisers, and I think in a way, that was the right way. But I freelanced on the side for more than a year and so I spent that first year not 100 percent vested in the site. Now that I am all in, I see the difference in every aspect and so I think maybe it's taken me longer to get to the tipping point of success.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
I have to go back to the earlier response. The outpouring of support from my fellow local journalists who recognize what I'm trying to do and who are lifting me up with their contributions, asking nothing of me in return (well, except for a wide distribution of their work). That gives me pride, that they recognize I'm filling a void with solid content that is catching on in a city that has been a one-newspaper town for more than a century.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Time. Making the time to adjust the site, fine-tune, plan ahead. I often say that I'm running as fast as I can every day, and it never quite feels fast enough. And letting go. That joystick thing.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
More podcasts; Humans of New Hampshire; a partner in crime to help me keep up with meetings/municipal stuff; a vacation.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
Because once I launched my site, I was a part of something, before I really knew what that something was. Finding fellowship with a pride of LIONs has legitimized all my hard work. It has quieted the voice of uncertainty in my head. Yes, technology has changed everything about everything as we've known it; technology is pulling us out into the vast unknown. We are astronauts, and LION is my lifeline.
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