A Q&A with LION member Andrew Sylvia, publisher of WestfordCAT News in Massachusetts.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
WestfordCAT News Online launched officially in March 2015, becoming the online component of Westford Community Access Television's News Department, which was launched in September 2014.
WestfordCAT News Online covers the town of Westford, Massachusetts, and aims to serve as an independent, hyperlocal news source for the more than 20,000 residents of Westford. Our content focuses strictly on Westford, something not found elsewhere.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I freelanced for newspapers and news websites throughout New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts prior to being named as the local editor of the Westford Patch in 2011. In 2012, I was given the reins of the Chelmsford Patch in addition to Westford, keeping both roles until January 2014, when I was laid off.
However, I still had a love for Westford and wanted to stay if I could. So, I launched the Westford Template in May 2014. The transition from the Template to WestfordCAT News Online occurred in January and February, with the Template serving as a template (no pun intended) for what we would be doing with WestfordCAT News Online.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
WestfordCAT, and by extension WestfordCAT News, is a nonprofit organization funded through fees paid by cable users in Westford. Those fees are allocated to us via the Town of Westford's Communications Advisory Committee. We've also begun looking at sponsorships, ala NPR/PBS, as well as possible grants for additional funding avenues.
Currently we have five employees, and we're hiring a sixth to replace an employee who left recently. However, I am the only employee specifically geared toward news content creation.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
While I was with Patch, I considered the Westford Eagle (Gatehouse) and the Lowell Sun as my competitors. However, that is no longer the case. Our goal is to become the "Associated Press" of Westford, becoming a benefit to other media agencies covering Westford just as we aim to be a benefit to residents. There are times when I cover the same stories as Eagle and/or Sun reporters, but there are also times when I have helped provide them with information for their stories as well.
5. What makes your site unique?
There are many newspapers and websites that now have video content, and there are plenty of television stations that have delved into text-focused content. However, due to my experience with text and still images and WestfordCAT's experience with video, I think we've created a balance.
The WestfordCAT News website has continued on completely separate from the WestfordCAT website. I know there are a few other public access stations with news initiatives, but I don't think any of them have that balance between video and non-video, seeing the news component as something secondary or equivalent to other non-news content rather than something unique and autonomous.
We also publish daily on weekdays, and we're the only hyperlocal news outlet that does that for Westford. (Westford Patch's content is largely regional and national content now.)
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?
Drop everything you're doing for four to six weeks before launch and prepare. No distractions.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
There are moments when people read my work and feel like they're seeing a part of their town they've never seen before, or they wait for my work to see what happened on something that interests them. Those are the moments that make this all worthwhile.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
This town has far more going on than one would realize. There are times it's hard to keep up!
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
We set a traffic record in May 2015, but it's still only at about 20 percent of where I'd like it to be. I'd also like to begin searching for new sponsorships and help residents learn more about grassroots journalism.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
A few colleagues spoke highly of it as a forum to touch base with other hyperlocal journalists and ask for advice.
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