Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

When Susan Saks's wallaby escaped from the yard of her home, she got right on the phone to Daily Voice. The online community journalism hub covers 43 towns including New Salem, New York, where the Saks family lives. Over eight months, Daily Voice published six stories, tracking reports of the missing marsupial from points throughout Northern Westchester County.

"They were so wonderful and thorough, following up with phone calls to ask if we had heard anything," says Saks, who reluctantly gave up hope of reuniting with her pet as winter closed in. "The articles got us a lot of interest, a lot of sympathy, and people out there looking for him."

Everything matters to someone, and almost no event is beneath Daily Voice's notice, assuming at least a few readers care. The company, based in Armonk, New York, is trying to crack the nut of hyper-local news, which has confounded larger players, and to do so with the leanest of operations. Daily Voice hopes to cover 4,000 communities across the country by 2018. For now, its stomping grounds are Westchester and Putnam counties in New York, as well as Fairfield County in Connecticut--largely affluent areas whose residents care deeply about their homes, their schools, their government, and anything causing delays on I-95 or the Metro-North train line.

Joe Lombardi, managing editor for the Westchester sites, recalls posting a piece his first day on the job about a tree bringing down a power line on Route 35. "I didn't think much of it," he says. "But for days after people were saying, 'I found out about that from you guys and went home on Route 100 and saved myself two hours.' It was a major story. That told me right there: This is what people want to know about."

They also want to know about the Mt. Vernon, New York, teenager competing in a cooking contest; a Scarsdale, New York, dog owner whose bichon was attacked by a bulldog; and a Stamford, Connecticut, resident who did not fall prey to a scam on Craigslist. "In newspaper days, editors would sit in judgment on information that was sent to us mainly because of space," Lombardi says. "People would come, hat in hand, and ask, 'Can you possibly get this in?' And now, most of the time, they are really amazed. You've got a missing cat? Send us a photo. We will post that right now."

Which is not to dismiss Daily Voice as a trove of the twee. Its content, which is free to readers, includes substantive news as well, albeit in posts that top out at 300 words. Business. Crime. Local government. And when national stories touch down in the form of tragedy, Daily Voice chronicles practically every detail of the aftermath. Staff attended not only the press conference after a fatal train crash in Valhalla, New York, in February but also the funerals of the victims. More than two years after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, Daily Voice still reports on every local fundraiser for the victims' families.

Paul Feiner, supervisor of the Town of Greenburgh, New York, since 1991, reads Daily Voice three times a day and sometimes draws on its articles for his weekly radio programs. "It's a great tool for me to learn about people who are doing outstanding and interesting things," he says. He also sends the Voice releases about town government, some of which it prints. "It's the little issues," Feiner says, "that make a community a community."

The rise and fall and rise of Daily Voice

Daily Voice--originally called Main Street Connect--was founded by former publisher Carll Tucker. One wintry day in 2009, Tucker and his wife, the financial journalist Jane Bryant Quinn, retrieved the local paper from outside their home in Beekman, New York. This would be the final edition, a headline announced. "Suddenly, in this town of 15,000 good people, you had no news," Tucker says. "You had your town board, zoning board, planning board, births, deaths, schools--and no way for anybody to hear about it."

Tucker is a local news veteran. In 1983, he acquired a moribund Westchester paper and grew it into a mid-size regional publisher with 15 papers called Trader Publications. He sold that company to Gannett in 1999. Despite Main Street Connect's humble inspiration, Tucker always imagined it at scale. The goal was to create a community newspaper online and then replicate that model until he had irrigated every news desert in the country. Tucker's chief competitor in the hyper-local space was Patch.com, which was acquired by AOL around the time Main Street Connect launched in 2010. "If you put our mission plans side by side, they would have been identical in terms of objectives," Tucker says.

Tucker started his company in Norwalk, Connecticut, (it moved to Armonk last year), "because I wanted to make my mistakes out of town," he says. But he had already made a near-fatal mistake: The economics didn't work. First, labor costs were high. "I thought I was producing a community newspaper online," says Tucker. "So we had lots of reporters and variable quality." Second, local advertisers--the company's sole revenue source--had grown accustomed to spending "digital dimes" instead of "print dollars." And they had innumerable options for where to spend them. "We figured we must be able to sell advertising against this big audience," says Tucker. "What we missed is that the commoditization of banner advertising was going to crucify prices."

Still, readership numbers kept ticking up, comments sections buzzed, and the founder and his angel investors, a group that includes former Saks CEO Steve Sadove, stayed optimistic. In November 2011, Tucker relinquished the CEO spot to an experienced tech executive, something he had planned to do from the beginning. He remained chairman of the board.

At 61, Tucker returned to school, pursuing a doctorate in classics at Columbia. The call came 15 months later, while he was studying for his Homer midterm. Daily Voice's CEO had resigned abruptly, trailing part of his management team behind him. In March 2013, Tucker returned to the office, facing some dire circumstances.

Main Street Connect had expanded to 47 websites, including six in Massachusetts. But it had no money in the bank; expenses exceeded revenues by a ratio of three-to-one; and reporters had filed a potentially devastating class action lawsuit claiming that the company had failed to pay overtime. A board meeting was scheduled for March 3. "When Jane and I woke up that morning, I was pretty sure we would have to put my baby down," Tucker says.

Still, he believed it could work, if only he got the business model right. He and two investors agreed to fund Main Street Connect week-to-week. Now, Tucker had to perform field surgery: effective, but ugly and bloody. He shut down the Massachusetts sites and let go 60 of the company's 100 employees. In May 2013, Main Street Connect (which had rebranded as Daily Voice a year earlier), filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, allowing it to settle the class action suit. Sixty days later, a new legal entity--which was also called Daily Voice, and which purchased Main Street Connect's assets in the bankruptcy--emerged with a new business model. 

The key to that model is shoestring journalism. Of the roughly 300 pieces posted each day across Daily Voice's sites, about 90 percent are harvested from online sources as diverse as Twitter and funeral home sites, or from citizen input, such as press releases. For the rest, eight reporters pinball around roughly 400 square miles, following story leads provided by a panel of advisers (librarians, chamber of commerce directors, PTA presidents, and others) who are deeply entrenched in their communities. Daily Voice also cultivates relationships with government officials, emergency responders, and civic groups to keep it apprised of the local skinny. The two managing editors are longtime residents of their regions.

On the revenue side, the company has begun signing up content partners, such as hospitals, colleges, and realtors. So, for example, Daily Voice staff might collaborate with a regional medical organization to produce a sponsored article about a new hospice. Meanwhile, banner revenue is up, especially in towns where Daily Voice has been around for a while and businesses know how to leverage it. And the company started using programmatic advertising in May.

In February 2014, AOL sold struggling Patch to an investment firm. (The dramatically slimmed-down Patch is itself trying to regroup.) Shortly afterward, the number of unique visitors to Daily Voice rose 20 percent. Advertising increased as well. "That was a piece of luck I hadn't anticipated," says Tucker.

The company does not release revenues, and Tucker will not say whether it is profitable. The number he points to, often and with glee, is Daily Voice's 750,000 unique monthly visitors. He characterizes that audience as one-third of the region's population, once you subtract young people who don't read community news and old people who don't read online.

Tucker predicts that in a few years Daily Voice will be in markets comprising 150 million people, all with their own news of store openings, spelling bees, and sewage troubles. "The commonality of these communities allows us to produce structurally the same site everywhere," he says. "But each individual town green will also be reflective of the community being served. We are all alike. And we are all different." 

 

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the company that filed for bankruptcy protection. It was Main Street Connect, whose assets were later purchased by Daily Voice.

 

Published on: Mar 16, 2015