A Q&A with Bob Brown, publisher of The Swellesley Report in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
The Swellesley Report launched in late 2005 and is squarely focused on Wellesley, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb of 28,000-30,000 residents. Swellesley was born out of my initial effort to find a webpage listing places to go sledding in town. When I couldn't find one, I decided that was a good excuse to experiment with creating a webpage (on Blogger). I then created a page documenting my running of every street in town. After that, I had breakfast with a friend who suggested I should just go ahead and cobble together a news page about the town. I started it strictly as a community service because I had a real job as a tech industry news publication editor and writer. But once the Boston Globe and others started linking to a lot of our stuff, I decided we might as well make a few bucks off of it since others were.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I've been a trained journalist since getting a degree in journalism at Boston University. From there, I worked for the Boston Herald, and then for about 30 years at IDG, a tech publishing company. While at IDG, I edited and wrote for a magazine (initially print, later online-only) called NetworkWorld. I've also freelanced for the Boston Globe and others.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
I do Swellesley on the side of my real job, which is as a managing editor for Mass.gov, the website for the State of Massachusetts. My wife, Deborah, has taken over the business side of Swellesley, selling and managing ads. She writes a ton as well and is quite the wordsmith. We have distinct voices, but they work well together. Swellesley is mainly the two of us, with some contributions from our teenage sons, and plenty of input from the community, which is the lifeblood of our operation. Businesswise, we sell mainly banner ads, but also do a sponsored post or two per month. We also sell ads specifically for our newsletter, which has 1,000-plus subscribers. Neither my wife nor I is exactly a techie, so we rely on friends who operate a website design business called Tech Tamer to design our WordPress site and support it.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
Wellesley is a much-watched community outside of Boston, in part because so many of the local newscasters live here and in part because it is a relatively wealthy community. So the mainstream press is quick to jump on anything that might play up the affluence of our town. So, competition would include these local TV news stations (they tend to pick up stories from us, are notoriously bad at citing us with the exception of NECN). The Wellesley Townsman is the traditional town newspaper (owned by Gatehouse). They do a good job and have a longtime editor who really knows the town. The Boston Globe, like the local TV stations, keeps an eye on Wellesley, more often getting stories from the likes of us or the Townsman than digging up stuff itself, but they do a good job when they do follow up on our stories, often advancing the stories. We also have an active Facebook Group in our town that people use to swap tips on everything from plumbers to vacation rentals to local news.
5. What makes your site unique?
Most followers cite our cheeky-yet-respectful voice and sense of humor. But we have a good feel for what residents are interested in as well since we do live here and have for 15 years. We aren't hugely political and don't stir up a ton of controversy since we do live here, but we pick our spots. We don't cover the town like a traditional small town newspaper since we don't attend a lot of town meetings, but we do report on things that interest us and that we come across in our real lives. If I'm coaching baseball or sitting on the town's trails committee, you'll see more posts about baseball and trails, for example.
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 really was limited in terms of the time I could put into Swellesley because of having a full-time job, so I wouldn't say I have a lot of regrets. We just did what we could do. But in retrospect, we probably should have had more of a real business plan from the start… just in case we wanted to turn it into a business. That would have made a huge difference in how we priced our ads etc. While we love the name of our site, we probably would have done more from the outset to ensure that Google etc would recognize us as a Wellesley website…we definitely don't get enough respect searchwise considering how much content we produce, almost all of it Wellesley-specific.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
Just the fact that Swellesley is a real thing in our town. Despite the fact that Swellesley is a small business now, it's a community service first, and I'm really glad that we've appealed to people of all ages in our town. When I had my editing job taken away after 30 years this past May, I posted about it on Swellesley and dozens of readers reached out to meet with me and share career advice with me. That was amazingly nice of them. We always hear Swellesley stories from friends who are in other places too (one friend plays the piano at clubs in Maine and tells of how patrons will mention they are from Wellesley, and when he mentions he knows the Swellesley people, they ooh and aah). It's also super fun when our stories go viral. We usually have a few every year that go nuts, most recently the Tom Hanks Typewriter story. Our biggest story by far was the You're Not Special graduation speech, which went worldwide viral and crashed our server after we posted the transcript. The speaker wound up getting a book deal out of it.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
We have no shortage of ideas, it's just a matter of time in putting them into action, whether it's businesswise or storywise. It can be awkward too being the Swellesley Report when we talk to friends in town. We don't want people to feel guarded when they talk to us. But we think we've proven ourselves to be discreet and professional when it comes to what we do and don't report on.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
I have a real interest in social media and served as the social media coordinator for business publications at IDG when I was there. So I'd love to take more advantage of some of what Facebook and others have to offer, but the time involved in getting going has been an issue. We're trying to do more with video. We'd also like to do more data journalism, which is something I was pretty heavily involved in at my last job.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
After being laid off last year, I considered whether I might want to make a go of it with Swellesley fulll-time. So we joined LION and I attended the recent conference to get a better sense of whether I might be able to pull it off. In the meantime, I got hired by the state for a really interesting job in helping to revamp the state's website, so I've put Swellesley back on the side while Deborah works on it almost full-time. I enjoyed the conference and like the LION's Den (LION's closed Facebook group for member publishers) as well. I realize that a lot of the LION members are way more sophisticated on the business side, so that's really where I'm paying attention.