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An Inside Glimpse — Cliffview Pilot’s Jerry DeMarco

by: Elizabeth Harrington, on Oct 23, 2012 in Hyperlocal Publishing, Publisher Tips & Tricks

At Local Yokel Media we work with many top notch digital publishers who work day and night to provide their community with breaking local news — where and when it happens.  We recently met with Gerard (Jerry) DeMarco, Publisher and Editor of CLIFFVIEW PILOT, to learn more about his site and personal story.  Jerry had so much to say of value that we want to share our conversation with you – our Local Yokel community.

Local Yokel Media’s Elizabeth Harrington (LYM):  Give me a short introduction to your website, CliffviewPilot.  When was it established, how big is your community, what competitors are in the market and why did you start this blog?

Jerry DeMarco (JD):  I’ve always been a newsman, so the Internet was Nirvana. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t get the local pulp legacy to move in real time. So in early 2009 I set out to create a local news site that would give people breaking news and exclusives that my former colleagues were unable (or unwilling) to produce.

As a result, I’ve been covering hot, interesting, breaking news in a county of more than 60 municipalities, as well as in surrounding areas (when warranted) that are within spitting distance of New York City. And I’ve been scooping ’em all on a regular basis.

The local daily still has trouble moving its feet when news breaks, but there are a host of competitors — beginning with New Jersey’s largest newspaper, The Star Ledger, and including the newspapers, TV and radio stations and sites in and around NYC. I LOVE that just about every one of ’em subscribes to my news and Twitter feeds.

LYM:  What has been one of your proudest moments/breakout success with your site?

JD: I frequently break major stories, attracting sweet traffic numbers and forcing my competitors to play catch up. I was proud of exposing sleeping guards on the George Washington Bridge, a story that was picked up by so many media orgs that I had to divide interviews with them with my photographer.

There have been many other exclusives — they really do happen regularly.

But I’m proudest of the reputation I’ve built, and the trust, kindness and care shown to me by sources of all stripes — from police chiefs to cops on the beat, from firefighters, emergency medical workers, dispatchers, prosecutors, defense attorneys … even JUDGES, who, as a rule, don’t talk to news people.

That extends to a growing army of everyday people who make it their business to let me know what’s happening as it happens. Last year, when a mini hurricane caused serious damage, I remained live for 38 hours, updating the site constantly.

I was able to do this because of all the people, from the public servants to the average citizens, who not only called, texted, emailed and IM’d through the day and night but also sent me no fewer than 65 photos, many of them hi-res and high quality. One, in particular, captured a street corner after the storm. The top half was a house on the corner, with a STOP sign. The bottom half was its perfect mirror image in the still water.

It became my logo for the storm coverage.

I put “YOU READ IT HERE FIRST” on a story some time back as a sort of jab at the dead tree. Then came another, and another. What began as a joke stuck. Now, people make sure I get it first. I’ve gotten calls about arrests before people have even been booked. I had one that involved a hostage situation — one of the detectives kept an open phone line with me and was doing play-by-play. When a local police officer was shot the night of the 2011 Super Bowl, I had the first story up in 20 minutes. Several folos, um, followed, before any other media org had its first report.

LYM: What has been your biggest challenge with your site?

JD:  Generating revenue, of course. So many indie publishers have tried to crack the advertising code, with varying degrees of success — much of it not so good. Until recently, I had trouble finding someone with the same drive, dedication and energy as me. That’s not brag. I simply tend to be feverish, running on adrenaline. It’s like working in a hospital or being on the ground in the armed services — get in, do it, get out, next…. I needed a clone.

It also took me a little while to truly run the Pilot like the business it is (a bonded LLC). But I now have a business lawyer AND a liability lawyer, an accountant, a banker — and a muse.

And while I prefer it be called the website it is, I’ve come to accept “blog,” mainly because of the personal connection it connotes — among me, the site and the audience.

LYM:  How did/do you address this challenge and what has happened as a result?

JD:  I didn’t give up. I told myself that if the investment capital could hold out, I’d eventually build the site’s traffic and reputation to the point where someone would find me, and not the other way around. After all, your site’s value can only increase with each piece of content you add, right?

My first blessing came through a connection to Local Yokel.  As you know, I couldn’t be more thrilled (I’ll stroke you some more in 45 days … heh heh …).

The second was a connection made by a very close friend who introduced me to a pulp publisher.

A corrections officer, Danny began his publishing career with a magazine for his colleagues. Before long, he’d branched out to police, fire, teachers and transit workers. He’s a dynamo, bursting with ideas. He collects talent, provides a baseline of standards, then lets everyone in the group have it at.

After starting out with that single mag, Danny has increased the line by nearly a dozen in no time — not just in New Jersey but in other states, as well.

He and I have formed a partnership through which I produce content and he sells advertisers. We are also creating the CLIFFVIEW PILOT magazine, a quarterly set to debut in early 2013 (yes: pulp!). It will include a couple of full stories and columns, but it will also have teasers with qr codes that will drive readers to the website.

I kid about print, but the magazines do extremely well, in terms of both readership and advertising. Given that the PILOT focuses heavily on breaking news (which includes crime, fires, accidents), it’s a nice fit. We cross-promote and hold regular skull sessions with staff that produce original and innovative ideas for us individually and together. Ad sales are often bundled.

Truth be told: I get the same kind of creative stimuli from the Local Yokel Media folk. I swear, there have been a couple of times when I was this close to becoming the next night manager at the local Starbucks. But Nicole offered an idea, or simply an encouraging word, and I was back up to (hi-)speed — without caffeine.

LYM:  If you could do it all over again with the knowledge you have today, what would you do differently?  And why?

JD:  Easy: I’d have gotten out of pulp and launched the site earlier. I thought I’d do well, but I never imagined that my creation could become part of the fabric so quickly. It’s not about popularity. Honest. It’s more the warm feeling that I get when a stranger comes up and says hello, when calls or emails with sensitive info come in from people I haven’t yet met, when I’m introduced at an event and I see the look of recognition on the other person’s face (“You’re THAT guy?!”). It means the PILOT has truly become part of the community, that it’s interwoven into other people’s lives nearly as much as it is into mine. “Local and loyal” I always say, and it comes back to me in spades. Had I started sooner, who knows where it would be right now?

LYM:  What is on the horizon for Cliffview Pilot?

JD:  You’ll laugh, but for competitive reasons, I’d rather not go too deep on that one. In fact, I’d rather not go into it at all…. Instead, let’s cue up Springsteen’s “Better Days.”

LYM:  Is there any advice or tips you would like to share with fellow hyperlocal publishers?

JD:  First of all, I encourage all of you, if you haven’t already, to check out LION: Local Independent Online News Publishers.

We made our debut at last month’s Block by Block conference in Chicago and are extremely excited about spreading the word (I’m proud to have played a small part in building the group and am thrilled to be serving on its very first Board of Directors).

In short, we’re the only organization (non-profit, of course) representing locally-owned and -operated indie outlets that directly serve their communities. We share expertise in content, tech, business operations, selling ads, marketing, fundraising and other aspects.

Already we’re scheduling webinars about advertising sales, investigative reporting, data visualization, online video, content management, mobile platforms, etc. We’re also planning regional meet-ups and an annual national conference.

We’re tireless advocates, raising all of our profiles (and yours) nationwide.

The short list also includes plans to seek group rates on health, media liability, and directors and officers insurance, discounts from approved vendors on web hosting, software, graphic design, and more, as well as (my pet project) content-sharing and editorial collaborations.

I guarantee that if you become a member, you’ll never feel like you’re out there on your own again — because you won’t be. In the short time I’ve known so many of the members, I’ve gotten invaluable advice and assistance. We have a private message board for venting, too. It’s amazing  how many of us have been through similar experiences.

Personally speaking, I tell this to everyone who’ll listen: Make every decision, and conduct every encounter, in this order: As a human being first, a citizen second and a news person third.

Newspapers tend to fall into a culture of us versus them. It becomes adversarial. Too many school-trained journos are looking for a “gotcha” moment. That’s not my thing.

I don’t have an advanced degree. I have a B.A. in English, and the rest I learned by working the street, working the station houses, hanging around council and School Board meetings, sitting at the deli, popping in at the sports bars, LIVING in my community.

The folks in my county don’t look at me the same as they do “the media.” They consider me the same as any other local businessman. They know that my business is news, content, information. So they do all they can to help me produce it. In turn, I give them a common destination where they can find out exactly what’s going on, in real time, with real people talking (not spokespeople).

Try this: Each week make it a goal to add anywhere from 5 to 10 new contacts and/or sources. Have those you’ve come to rely on introduce you to others. Build those relationships and have them lead you to more. Don’t always go back to the same well. Dig new ones. Be INVOLVED in what goes on out there.

Not once in 32 years of doing this have I used the expression “right to know.” It’s served me well: I end up knowing more than most.

The secret? Apart from my two ex-wives, my previous employer and a couple of fellow publishers, few people think I’m an asshole.

LYM:  How can we at Local Yokel Media improve our product and services to better serve your needs?

Keep doing what you’re doing.

Really.

I LOVE your model and how seamlessly it dovetails with what many of us are trying to accomplish out here in the fields …

… although, if you REALLY want to know how I’d be better served: A little LYM swag wouldn’t hurt.

I’m just sayin’….

Thank you so much for the opportunity — not just to work with you clever, dedicated and cool people but for getting me to climb out of the salt mine and talk freely about the mining itself.

I hope everyone will feel free to contact me at any time for whatever reason – (201) 943-2794

Also, please “like” CLIFFVIEW PILOT on FACEBOOK.

And what the hell? Friend me, as well: GERARD DeMARCO / FB

Thank you all. Good luck. Be well.

 

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