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Three family friends have been putting in lots of hours on a project none of them has direct experience doing: running a news site for their community.
The site, called Marblehead Beacon, launched Tuesday, co-founders Jenn Schaeffner, Jared Lederman, and Lena Robinson, told Boston.com.
“We truly want to do something that’s really good for the community we live in. Not just because we’re altruist, but because we live here and we think that if we make things more transparent, government runs better when somebody is reporting on things that happen,” Robinson said.
The idea to run a citizen-based news site for the community of Marblehead has been percolating for a while, Lederman said.
“We’ve really just been talking it over and then recently decided that it would be something that we were willing to take on as a group, and would think would be beneficial for our town to have,” Lederman said. “We’ve all found local news to be something that has sort of been diminishing across the country as sort of a national trend, and so we decided that in an effort to rectify that in Marblehead specifically we would all take on this new adventure.”
The town did have one other news organization, the Marblehead Reporter, which is operated by newspaper giant Gannett. Lederman said over the last year or so he has been noticing a shift away from truly local coverage, and now the Reporter does mostly regional coverage.
“It’s a small operation and so the launch yesterday was enormous and we’re so grateful. It was overwhelming, in a good way. But we are three people and you know, we get input, we talk to people … part of the model is that we are tapped into our community,” Robinson said. “We feel like we’re able to tap into the community in a way that a corporation like Gannett doesn’t have that ability to do.”
That’s what the team behind the Marblehead Beacon is all about, they said — keeping it close to home and relevant to the community.
“One of the things that we really would like to stand out in is our connection to the community,” Lederman said. “I think that’s really important, especially with the realm of local news, that people feel that they’re reading something from people who don’t feel that they’re above the citizens that don’t feel that they have some sort of special power.”
All three cofounders are deeply ingrained in the community. Schaeffner served on the school board in Marblehead for a few years and raised her children in the town. Robinson has lived in the town for years and has volunteered in the schools. And Lederman is still in high school in Marblehead.
“I’ve watched the need for coverage grow over time and coincide with the drop off of the coverage of the press. And it was sort of serendipitous that the three of us came together and believed we could fill this need,” Schaeffner said.
The launch this week was well received, all three said. Schaeffner said she had people reaching out via phone and text to ask questions and comment on the launch.
“I can just tell you, more anecdotally, walking in to get my coffee at the local coffee shop this morning … I had a number of people come to me and say, ‘we saw it, we read it, this is great,’” Schaeffner said. “There wasn’t a lot of pre-launch information, so I think it caught a lot of people pleasantly by surprise.”
As for the actual analytics of the site’s launch, Lederman said they were “really happy with the launch and hope that it is symbolic of success.” Lederman said they saw high engagement times, with people spending as much as 15 to 20 minutes on the site, as well as more than 1,000 unique users, and thousands of different interactions on social media.
“We already got three inquiries about advertising. Before we even have metrics to share the consensus with these people seem to be that they believe in us right out of the gate,” Robinson said.
Even though as a group they don’t have professional journalism experience, they are focusing on one of the main tenets of reporting: keeping their coverage objective, Robinson said. As residents of the North Shore town they have preconceived ideas about some matters, Robinson said, but they are striving to keep that out of their coverage.
“We thought that so much of coverage in general sometimes contains bias or conflict or issues that don’t present the facts as they should be presented. And we decided to present ourselves in the most transparent way with the goal of framing every article that has factual content with as much backbone and support,” Robinson said. “We want to continue to hold ourselves to a high standard where any of our own opinions don’t get baked into a story.”
Lederman, who is the technical director for the site, said he is excited to be a part of something that is beneficial for the town he lives in.
“It’s really cool to be a part of something that I hope and believe I really, truly believe will have really resounding effects all across the town that I live in,” Lederman said. “I’m really looking forward to being part of something that will be really, really pretty impressive and hopefully very beneficial for Marblehead.”
Just a day after the lunch, the Marblehead Beacon already has more than 10 pieces on the site for readers to take in. One project Robinson pointed out was a series of profiles of candidates in the upcoming local election. They reached out to candidates even before the site was up and running, but still got a good response from many, Robinson said.
“We did enough lead up that almost every candidate responded in depth and now we have profiles on our website for every citizen, every resident of Marblehead to read through and get a primer on who these people are in their own words,” Robinson said.
So far the team is just the three cofounders, though they have posted one letter to the editor. From here, they said they aren’t totally sure what the future holds, but they would like to expand their coverage and contributors, making sure to have some quick news stories, as well as some longer-form more investigative pieces.
“It’s been a lot of work. I can’t even begin to count the hours. We sort of lived and breathed this with our other things going on. And it is citizen journalism, we’re right now just doing this,” Robinson said. “As far as what we see for the future, we want to have consistent content coming out. We have plans for it, but it’s really as we go along we’re figuring it out.”
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