A Q&A with LION member Ronni Newton, editor of We-Ha.com in West Hartford, Connecticut.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
We-Ha.com had a soft launch in July 2014 while we were populating the site with content and getting our social media following in place. We were posting stories and sending out an email newsletter once a week through MailChimp during the summer. We kept a "beta" tag on our banner until Sept. 2, 2014, the day after Labor Day, when we declared ourselves official. Here's the link to the official announcement I wrote, which tells a lot about why we started the site and what my background is. As for geography, we are West Hartford-only. The population is about 63,000, and there is plenty to cover while remaining committed to being hyperlocal. We were founded because we felt that after Patch changed its operating model and moved away from being truly hyperlocal, there was a huge void in timely coverage of news in West Hartford. Our stated mission, which we continue to adhere to, is: We-Ha.com is the place to go for the latest information about West Hartford – a town that “has it all!” We-Ha.com is part of and proud of our community, and we bring a hyperlocal focus to news and features about the people, schools, businesses, real estate, sports, restaurants, charitable events, arts, and more.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
My personal background is varied, but the most pertinent training I received for this job was being a local editor for West Hartford Patch for several years. I have also been managing editor for a local lifestyle magazine, a freelance features writer, a PR person, PTO president, and a board member of many local non-profits. My first career was as an insurance professional and risk management consultant, and my degree is in economics/political science with a concentration in American government. All combined, it's a great background for interviewing, listening, writing, and understanding businesses and how the town government works!
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
We're supported by local advertising and to some extent by organizing community events like "Taste of" events for local business associations. I do the majority of the writing, but we have a few community contributors who share their blogs on a regular basis. The Front Door Project (architecture and real estate) and West Hartford Street Smart (written by the executive director of the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society) are two of the more successful contributors. We also post press releases from the community and have a calendar. Although I am the only one who is essentially full-time, we have four other people involved with the site who are integral to its operations. We have a sales director, publisher, creative director (who puts together our newsletter and designs the ads), and a business manager. Our IT work is contracted out.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
The Hartford Courant is probably the biggest competition, and the reporter currently assigned to West Hartford is much more energetic about covering it than the person who was in place when we started the site. There is also one very good weekly (West Hartford Press) and the West Hartford News, which no longer has a reporter for the town and doesn't seem to print many copies of the paper anymore. I've personally been trying to subscribe to the West Hartford News for about nine months, ever since they made it "request only," and have yet to see it. The TV stations cover breaking news in West Hartford, and because NBC Connecticut is located here and many of the cameramen/producers for WFSB as well as FOX61 live in town, they are often on the scene of big stories. There's also a very active Facebook group called "Neighbors and Friends in West Hartford," and I try to stay on top of what's posted there and use it strategically to share my content.
5. What makes your site unique?
We-Ha.com is not cookie cutter. I like to think it's customized for the town based on what I have learned is important to the population. We have decided to only publish our newsletter three days a week, and I think that keeps people from feeling like we are bothering them. Breaking news emails are sent out, but we are very judicious. We do not use click-bait headlines. We also have a few regular weekly features that are our "trademark," including Business Buzz and Thursday Throwback. Both were ideas I had originated at Patch and they continue to be our most popular and engaging posts.
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 don't know that I would do anything differently, except maybe try harder to retain a better work-life balance. Hyperlocal news has the potential to be a 24/7/365 job, and it's important to be able to set limits and tell people that you aren't going to be able to cover everything. I try not to cover events on the weekends unless they are some of the community's signature events and I am sure I will get a lot of mileage out of a story. I'm no longer afraid to tell people that I don't usually work on the weekends, but if they send me photos and a write-up, I will be glad to publish it – which I do! My advice for any community journalist is that networking, and knowing who the "movers and shakers" in the community are, is critical.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
My biggest source of pride is the quality of the site and the reputation we have built in this town for providing high quality and accurate content as well as high quality photography. I like to think I am annoyingly ethical in my approach to providing hyperlocal news. I won't promote a business in Business Buzz just because they're an advertiser. I won't write click-bait headlines. I won't overuse breaking news as a way to get page views, and I am a diligent fact checker. I have been told by town officials that We-Ha.com is the "only" real news source in town, and that's something that makes me proud. We have also built a great reputation in the business community for being the first to share news about openings and closings, and for breaking the news about all of the new restaurants that seem to be opening in town. I have worked very hard to get the scoop on a lot of that big news through nurturing relationships with some of the PR and social media people who control it, and am also proud when we get the scoop.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
I struggle to cover everything. It's too much for one person and I personally beat myself up when I miss a story. It's also hard to leave town for even a few days. Last summer there were three bank robberies in one week while I was on vacation, but thanks to a great intern and the support of our creative director (and cellphone service at the beach), we managed! We were also struggling with server problems (using too much bandwith), but as of last week migrated to a new server and everything seems to be working well!
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
I would like to integrate more video in the site, either through embedding YouTube/Vimeo or posting it directly. From a business standpoint, I am hopeful that the site will continue to grow its revenue so that it will be able to support freelancers. I would specifically love to have a freelancer to cover sports because I don't really have the time to do it properly myself.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
I love the feeling that I am part of a larger community by being a member of LION Publishers. This job can be very lonely sometimes, and it's important to have people with whom I can brainstorm. The Lion's Den Facebook group has been a great resource as well, and I feel like I can ask questions and learn so much from others.
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