LION member spotlight: Riverhead Local

A Q&A with LION member Denise Civiletti, publisher of Riverhead Local and Southold Local in New York.

May 27, 2015 by LION Publishers


A Q&A with LION member Denise Civiletti, publisher of Riverhead Local and Southold Local in New York.

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

My husband, Peter Blasl, and I launched RiverheadLOCAL in January 2010 because we believed there was a void in authentically local news coverage in our hometown of Riverhead, New York, which is located on the East End of Long Island, about an hour’s drive east of New York City.

In March 2014, we launched a second community news site, SoutholdLOCAL, covering Southold Town, which is the adjacent community to our east.

We have also launched, which is where we host real estate listings and content, a calendar of events and classifieds for both sites.

Riverhead has a year-round population of about 34,000. It is a racially and ethnically diverse community and the county seat of Suffolk County. It has a downtown struggling to regain economic viability and an extremely successful commercial corridor (that drew business from downtown long ago, contributing to its downturn.) The town has many hamlets with many distinct personalities. Surrounded by the Long Island Sound, the Peconic Bay and the Peconic River, it has drawn a significant population of summer and second-home residents to many of those hamlets.

Southold Town has a year-round population of about 22,000. It also encompasses the Village of Greenport and the Long Island wine region. Known as “the North Fork,” it is a very popular vacation destination and its population increases dramatically in summer.

Riverhead and the North Fork are located a short distance from the area known as “the Hamptons,” famous for its celebrities and uber-wealthy residents.

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

I moved to Riverhead in 1985, having grown up in Suffolk County (where Riverhead is the county seat) and spent six years in New York City. Peter is a lifelong Riverhead resident. (His family has been here for generations, dating back to before the American Revolution, in fact.)

I am an attorney by trade (NYU Law, 1982) and have been very involved in my community. I was elected to a four-year term as town councilwoman in 1987 and served one term — decided against seeking another term because I was starting a family, had a law practice and was an adjunct at the community college.  

Peter has always been an entrepreneur. He had his own contracting business for more than 25 years and also owned a retail store (ceramic tile and marble, which was his business.)

I began writing an opinion column for the local weekly newspaper, the News-Review, in 1999 and soon after became a part-time reporter. (It was something I’d never done before, but it was undeniably who I was. I loved it.) In 2002 I was made editor of the newspaper, and in 2004 I was named executive editor and co-publisher of what was then a four-paper, family-owned chain of papers and niche publications. I expanded and developed the company’s web presence and worked to adapt our papers to the demands of digital journalism and effectively, toward a 24/7 newsroom.

The company, Times/Review Newspapers Corp., launched a fourth print weekly in 2002 and when I was elevated to co-publisher I became very involved in building its circulation. What we saw was a very robust growth in its digital presence, but lethargic growth in print.

Around when I became executive editor, Peter — a lifelong shutterbug — started doing freelance photography for the company’s new startup, the North Shore Sun. He was eventually hired by the Sun’s editor as its full-time staff photographer. He put his heart into building the Sun’s presence in the community — because, as I said, he is a natural entrepreneur.

In 2009, the CEO of the local hospital offered me a job as vice president of external affairs and foundation. Due to some changes in ownership at the company and others that were in the offing, on top of the overall bleak outlook in the news industry, I decided to take accept the offer. It was a decision I would soon regret. Community journalism is my passion and I missed it terribly.

Peter also left the newspapers in late 2009 and was agitating for us to start an online news site. He knew there was a market for digital local advertising if we could provide a quality local news product. He was right. I built a website for RiverheadLOCAL and we launched. Local business owners immediately began clamoring for advertising space.  We refused to sell any ads until March, when I felt comfortable that we had a sufficient body of content — and that our site would be there when I woke up in the morning. (Adventures with Joomla, ignorance of website security measures and a shared Hostmonster server made that a daily question!)

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

I handle editorial content and Peter handles sales — more or less. I help with marketing ideas and materials, and Peter helps with breaking news coverage. He is also a great source of leads (as all good sales people are!)

We have a staff of four full-time employees — including Peter and me, the editor of our second site,, and a reporter who produces content for both sites.  

We also have five part-time employees: a sales assistant for Peter, an office manager, and three other people who do a variety of jobs. There’s a lot of crossover.  One thing I learned long ago in this crazy world of local digital news publishing is that (almost) everyone needs to be able to do (almost) everything.

And we’ve got several dedicated and very valuable freelance writers and a fantastic freelance sports photographer.

We pay our employees reasonable salaries, at least competitive with the newspaper. We also provide health insurance and a 401(k), to which we contribute a 25 percent match.

I don’t rely on “free” content from people to fill our site. I gratefully accept submissions from residents who attend events and take photos, or from people who get breaking news photos when we can’t get there, as well as opinion columns and letters to the editor, of course.

We sell ads — lots of them. Our business owners love them. Their customers respond to them. The ads work. I know the number of ads we have on our pages goes against what “the experts” say we should do (I also know the same “experts” say banner ads don’t work), but the design (and the ads) works for us — and most importantly, for our clients. Advertisers love that their ads are always visible. We don’t rotate them in and out of zones.

We don’t do “sponsored posts” or “native advertising,” and we don’t host Google Ads. I abhor “advertorial,” and I just won’t go there. People recognize it for what it is, and it detracts from the quality of your publication, period. As for Google Ads: why would I rent ridiculously cheap space on our site to a company like Google so it can serve up ads that will often compete with our own clients who are paying us a lot more to be there? Makes no sense. Even if you sell an ad for $50 a month, that’s more than you’ll get from Google. Go out and get that ad yourself.

We sell ads for a monthly fee, not by CPM. I’ve been told our rates are too cheap when analyzed by the CPM model. So be it. Our clients understand “$300 per month” (or $500 or $750 or any monthly rate) while many (small businesses, all!) do not understand CPM and don’t want to. So many didn’t even have their own websites, we started offering a click-through page hosted by us so their ad would have something to click through to! We encourage our clients to at least have Facebook pages, and will help them set it up, if they need help.

We quickly became the go-to news source for our community and we have a reputation for providing high-quality, fair and, as needed, hard-hitting news coverage — in addition to covering every kind of community event imaginable. Our reputation and our product is what ultimately sells ads and keeps our advertisers renewing, because what we are offering draws visitors.

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

Our competition comes from many places: the local newspaper, of course, as well as the Long Island TV news channel (owned by Cablevision) and the region’s daily newspaper, Newsday (also owned by Cablevision). Not to be ignored or underestimated are social media — both as competition for news and information and as competition for advertising dollars.

5. What makes your site unique?

We are longtime residents in our community and are very dedicated to our community. The same is true of the editor we hired for SoutholdLOCAL. We care deeply about where we live. We are not just passing through and not just looking to make a buck.

I approach our content in a very traditional way. I cover meetings and write stories because they should be covered and written (even though I know some of these will draw the least number of eyeballs.) I believe we have a responsibility to accurately and completely record the history of this place.

We have been named the “official online publication” for public/legal notices by the Town of Riverhead and by the local school district. I was not aware that was unique actually, until this week, when the publisher of the eNotices site we use to serve up those notices was shocked that this had actually happened. He even sent out a press release to announce it!

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?

It’s hard to zero in on one thing! I wouldn’t host on a shared server. The monthly cost of leasing a dedicated server is well worth the control and peace of mind you have as a result. I wouldn’t be afraid of using a CMS like Joomla or WordPress. (I started out with something called “Concrete” — it was easy but very limited.) And I’d understand website security better and learn how to lock down my site.

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

1) How much our community has embraced us and relies on us
2) Being able to provide professionally produced, advertiser-supported, relevant, comprehensive local news
3) Being recognized for our quality and our role in the community (by the local Chamber of Commerce, by the town, by the Long Island Press Club and by the New York Press Association)
4) That both of our young-adult children are excited about what we do and are working in the “family business” — and loving it!

8. What do you struggle with the most?

Trying to find downtime. Peter and I had our first “vacation” in five years this past November (and I still worked some every day!) Beyond that, just finding a way to take a day off here and there would be good. Sometimes I get very grouchy. Which brings me to another struggle: working and living together is sometimes very difficult.

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

Continue to hit or exceed sales revenue goals.
Convert one of our part-timers to another full-time post. (Our younger daughter has one more year of college, and if she’d like to work for our company full-time, I’d like to be able to provide her with that opportunity.)
Remain the relevant, fresh, go-to local news source people have come to rely on.

10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?

LION is all about who we are and what we do. No one but a fellow indie online news publisher can really “get” it. And my fellow LIONS have been an invaluable source of support and advice. 

CLICK HERE to see other Q&As with LION member independent local news publishers.

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