Readers of the Valley Independent Sentinel know when Editor Eugene Driscoll’s kids are home sick from school. They are understanding (mostly) if some car trouble delays news from a school board meeting in one of their blue collar towns along Connecticut’s Naugatuck River.
They know that the local online news site is primarily Driscoll and reporter Ethan Fry, that they are real people — their neighbors — because this is small town life, and because its popular Facebook page is full of those kinds of personal references. Or “transparency,” if you want to attach an industry buzzword to it.
So when the site makes a push once a year for reader donations, it’s perhaps fitting that readers are invited into the Valley Indy’s tiny newsroom for a livestream with Eugene and Ethan … for 36 hours straight.
They started the tradition two years ago when the site started participating in the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven’s “Great Give” campaign — a big effort to boost online donations, particularly from younger people — to local nonprofits.
The campaign — which will be held on May 2 and 3 this year — is heavily promoted by the foundation and features a variety of prizes and incentives, with the foundation awarding matching dollars to the nonprofit that gets the most donations between midnight and 1 a.m., for example, or that has the most individual donors from a particular town.
More than 35 percent of donors to the foundation’s Great Give campaign last year said that their gift was their first-ever to a nonprofit. The Great Give’s website breaks local nonprofits down into nine categories (including “nurture children and youth,” “support arts and culture” and “care of animals”), introducing specific organizations to people who just want to help in some way but aren’t familiar with who is doing this kind of work.
“It was just really cool,” Eugene said. “You could go and look at a list of nonprofits and learn about them, or you could look at an area of need — do you want to help early education? — and they had this website set up with the local nonprofits you could donate to right now that do that kind of work.”
Folk songs and horror movies
The Great Give lasts for only 36 hours, so Eugene and Ethan decided to draw attention to the Valley Indy’s effort by staying on camera for 36 hours straight.
All day, and through the night, they talk extensively about what it’s like to cover news in Connecticut’s Naugatuck Valley, how reporting and editing decisions are made, what makes a local independent online news site different from bigger corporate media outlets, how a nonprofit news site gets its funding.
But they also use the livestream to highlight the other nonprofits from their area participating in the Great Give, bringing in guests from the various organizations to talk about their work.
“It was sort of fun. That was what really kind of drew me to it. It wasn’t that I was desperate to raise money. I wanted to be part of that community building,” Eugene said. “We could use our site, and local credibility, and fan base on social media, to spread the word about the whole thing.”
Talking about their coverage and interviewing local nonprofits still doesn’t quite fill 36 HOURS, so Eugene and Ethan have brought a local folk musician and students in to perform. Last year, the livestream included them watching a campy horror movie and providing commentary, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000.
“At 3 a.m. we interviewed someone from the Seymour Pumpkin Festival,” Eugene said. “Last year, we watched ‘Night of the Living Dead.”
The livestream has also featured an interview with a local guy who monitors police scanners constantly and is a good source of newsroom tips.
Eugene promised to play embarrassing videos of Ethan if three people donated between 7 and 8 a.m., and at one point the livestream just featured a handwritten sign that said “pizza break.”
Last year, Eugene’s young daughter called in with a “Daddy, please come home.”
“I was like, ‘this will be good for a few bucks,’” he said.
They used YouTube last year with a laptop webcam, HD camcorder hooked up to a laptop, and a $70 USB mic.
“It’s lower quality than cable access for 36 hours. We were surprised by how many people watched,” Eugene said. “It seemed to weirdly touch a nerve … If it looks like 20–20 or 60 Minutes, I don’t think people would donate. You know it’s that guy Eugene from Derby, not a fake news outlet.”
Indy journalism blooms in a news desert
The Valley Independent Sentinel was launched in June 2009 by Paul Bass, pioneering founder of the nearby New Haven Independent, who saw huge gaps in local journalism in the Naugatuck Valley communities of Ansonia, Derby, Oxford, Seymour and Shelton.
The valley used to have its own daily newspaper — the Evening Sentinel — which closed in 1992 after nearly 100 years of coverage. And in ensuing years, nearby dailies, including the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post of Bridgeport and the Waterbury Republican-American, had all but abandoned coverage of the valley as they circled the wagons around their core markets as newsrooms were cut.
Eugene and Ethan use the livestream to talk about why the Indy exists, the gaps in local journalism they are filling, all the print newspapers that have disappeared, “daily and weekly newspapers that aren’t covering this community anymore.”
Towns such as Derby and Ansonia don’t have the wealth — or the attention from bigger media — of stereotypical (and nearby) Connecticut suburbs.
“Patch came and never even bothered to open up in Derby and Ansonia. They went to where the more wealthy people were. And they imploded,” Eugene said. “We’re here because we believe in this mission, and we live here, too.”
Funding and engagement
The Valley Indy continues to receive funding from the Valley Community Foundation, and is also supported by the Katherine Matthies Foundation, launched by a Seymour philanthropist.
The annual fund drive launched in association with the Great Give in the past few years is part of a bigger effort to diversify the site’s revenue.
“There was always an option that if you wanted to donate, you could do so,” Eugene said. “At the beginning I wasn’t concerned at all with fundraising. When I was hired, I didn’t want to have any part of that …But ain’t nobody else going to do it.”
Last year, the site raised about $11,000 in 36 hours — $10,000 from individuals and $1,000 in matching funds. It came from 147 donors, up from 119 donors and about $6,000 the previous year.
Eugene said the site is getting more organized and intentional about fundraising from individual donors.
Last year, it reached out to people who had donated ahead of time and asked them to consider doubling whatever they gave the year before. It worked. Gifts of at least $100 went from 21 to 50.
The annual fund drive has become a nice supplement to the site’s total budget of about $140,000.
“We got new laptops, because our old laptops were completely fried,” Eugene said.
Of greater significance, perhaps, is the opportunity the Great Give has provided for readers to feel like they are part of the team.
“We recognize the names from Facebook. It’s a great feeling, it’s surreal. It’s our neighbors. These are the people we talk to every day on Facebook, good, bad or indifferent,” Eugene said. “I think they realize this is the one time of year we say, ‘if you can help us out, please do.’ They know us as people are are more willing to do that.”
Eugene and Ethan thank people by name as they donate.
“I’ve definitely seen names that surprise me,” he said. “Maybe they haven’t come right out and trashed our coverage, but they don’t return our phone calls. So wow.”
A goal for this year’s fund drive is better followup with donors.
“I take a day off, and then it’s back to budget reporting,” Eugene said.
Some fundraising advice
Related articles that could be of help to those planning annual fund drives and/or membership campaigns:
Nieman Lab: Getting comfortable asking for money.
Greater Public: How to build a comprehensive year-end fundraising strategy.
Stanford Social Innovation Review: How nonprofits can get younger donors to give.
And if you haven’t already, subscribe to LION Publishers’ weekly newsletter, a comprehensive roundup of news, information, advice and ideas for the local online news business.
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