By Claire Schoen
In 2012, Nancy Chapman had quit her reporting job at a local news startup, while her husband Mark worked as an editor at the print newspaper in their hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut. Both were frustrated with the way local journalism was headed, and conceived of a hyperlocal site focused on government-related news with an emphasis on watchdog journalism.
With some technical help from their son Eric, the couple launched NancyonNorwalk. “It was an act of stubbornness and stupidity,” Nancy jokes.
A decade later, NancyOnNorwalk (NoN) is thriving. Nancy credits the volunteers and supporters who continue to help her deliver the news. In the news outlet, much of the work — from advertising operations to payroll — is done by a dedicated group of volunteers who are determined to keep local news alive in their city.
NancyOnNorwalk began with the mission to provide accountability in local government and give Norwalk residents “the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city,” said Nancy. With a focus on government, education and land use, it set out to report on how the city is run.
From the beginning, NancyOnNorwalk had a base of supporters eager to see it succeed. But it was slow going, and in 2013, with only $5,724 in revenue, it became a 501(c)(3) non-profit in order to apply for grants and qualify for tax-deductible donations.
Volunteers included a lawyer who provided legal advice during the application process, a local activist who served as agent for the 501(c)(3) application and later volunteered to sell ads, and a writer who later became a regular contributor to the news site.
Nancy was the sole reporter, Mark acted as editor and business manager, and Eric continued to volunteer as web developer. A board was formed to meet the requirements for its new 501(c)(3) status, serving mostly in an advisory capacity.
Early on, the Chapmans were approached by a freelance photojournalist, Harold Cobin, who was looking for a job. “We told him ‘We can’t pay you,’” said Nancy. But he volunteered anyway, for the love of local journalism.
Tip: Volunteer work comes in all shapes and sizes, from legal advice to standing in as agent for an IRS application. And people often bring more than one skill to the table — one volunteer who assisted with the 501c3 application later became a contributor of articles about local environmental issues.
By April 2016, NancyOnNorwalk had a loyal audience of readers but not donors. Mark put out a plea to readers in a letter to the editor. “We continue to be under-financed…We cannot continue without your help.”
One donor made a significant contribution to keep the organization afloat, joined the board and began volunteering his time in earnest.
In August 2016, Mark died unexpectedly, and the future of the organization was uncertain. Nancy’s decision to continue was based partly on the reaction of readers. “There was community interest in keeping this thing going,” said Nancy.
The board of five volunteers quickly pivoted from an advisory role and became more hands-on. The board took on the task of fundraising and expanding its membership to include more volunteers who could help carry some weight for the organization.
Tip: Volunteers can take charge and help in many ways. With Mark gone, the board now realized its role had to be more hands-on. The new board chair became manager for all volunteer efforts, both within and outside the board itself, while several volunteers, aware of Nancy’s devastating loss, made a point of keeping in touch with her to provide emotional support.
As the board expanded, new members brought their own community connections and access to more volunteer talent. One new board member, whose background was in marketing and media, was able to tap into her network to fundraise. A retired journalist offered editorial skills, while a retired banker joined on as treasurer.
In 2018, NoN participated in the first local Giving Day. A board member hosted a “war room” for volunteers to make phone calls, write emails and stay up late to try and win a $1,000 bonus for the campaign’s “Midnight Kickoff.” The mood was festive, and spilled into the next day, when volunteers sent out emails to friends and family to solicit as many donations as possible. The outlet raised $12,000 – more than it had ever done in one campaign.
NoN also joined INN and NewsMatch in 2018, a turning point for the financial health of the organization. Immediately after joining, the board reached out to INN for suggestions on editorial support and were referred to a retired newspaper editor, who gladly volunteered to work with interns and fledgling reporters.
Tip: Make it fun. People volunteer for the personal satisfaction it brings, but also for the social aspect of meeting and working with others. The “war room” model was successfully repeated during subsequent fundraising campaigns.
During the 2018 election, NoN published an article about the previous DUI arrest of a state senate candidate. The candidate lost — and sued NoN for defamation. A local supporter of NoN volunteered to use his network and contacted Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) for help. MFIA took the case on a pro bono basis and it was ultimately withdrawn.
The lawsuit was big news for the small news site, and was covered positively by other regional news outlets. Nancy was ultimately awarded the 2018 First Amendment Award from the Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for her “tremendous determination and courage” in reporting in the face of direct threats and litigation.
The award was a huge boost in morale for everyone on the team, including the photographer Cobin, who won three awards himself. Cobin had also recently become a paid freelancer, as NoN was able to finally pay him for his work.
Tip: Never miss an opportunity to recognize volunteers and part-timers, whether it’s via email, public meetings or industry awards. In time, good volunteers can turn into reliable, paid freelance talent as the organization grows.
Revenues grew, and NoN was able to buy insurance, make Nancy Chapman a full-time employee and expand its budget for freelancers and part-time contractors. It also continued to recruit volunteers, through a variety of methods.
In 2019, reader Paul Lanning responded to a NoN reader survey. Recently retired, he wanted to try his hand at journalism. Under the supervision of Nancy and an editorial consultant, Lanning initially turned out several stories, for which he refused payment. He now copy edits and collects press releases for a short “Notes” column, and still insists on doing this as a volunteer.
At a local Common Council meeting, one resident speaker mentioned his background as a reporter. A NoN board member attending the meeting introduced herself, and had coffee with him the following week. While he declined the invitation to report, he offered expertise in direct mail solicitation and ultimately became an advisor on messaging for NoN fundraising campaigns. He has also become a regular donor and is looking to leave a bequest to NoN in his will.
NoN also brought in an ad sales director to boost advertising revenue. She was between jobs and was looking for part-time work, while also looking to increase her digital skills. NoN trained her in advertising operations and analytics — and she declined to bill NoN for the six months she worked.
Tip: It’s not about you. It’s about the volunteers. One might be looking to donate services, another might want to gain new skills, while another might want to get back to something they once enjoyed and connect to like-minded people. Volunteers sometimes need to be recruited. Don’t be shy — all they can say is “no, thanks,” — but at that point you’ve already made a new friend for the organization. And many volunteers ultimately become financial donors.
While most volunteers have a passion that leads to good work, not all newsroom jobs are volunteer-appropriate. Once NoN had enough budget to hire, it focused on adding paid staff where it was critically needed. To meet the need for editorial support, NoN hired Nancy Shulins, a former AP journalist, as editorial consultant on an hourly basis. Given the fast pace of reporting, this was a position that called for a high level of expertise and experience, and not something that could be handed to a volunteer. Shulins’s editing support is now an integral part of the organization.
Tip: Let the reporter report. Every administrative or business task that the reporter doesn’t have to do leaves more time for reporting. Hire for the important roles that volunteers just can’t fill.
In the last decade, NancyOnNorwalk has become an institution for the city of Norwalk. It has weathered many storms, but has succeeded in large part due to the dedication of a core group of volunteers who are passionate about local news.
The challenges are many, but so too are the rewards — for the volunteers, the news organization and the community it serves.
Claire Schoen serves on the board for NancyOnNorwalk.
“Doing good work comes back to you. The reward for volunteering is the satisfaction of knowing that one’s efforts benefit others. NancyOnNorwalk is an invaluable source of detailed, mostly exclusive info consumable for readers who lack time to wade through frivolous verbiage and unwanted advertising. NoN’s deep dives into local politics shine a light upon otherwise unnoticed government activity that bears citywide consequences.”Paul Lanning, volunteer columnist and copyeditor
“There are two principal reasons I volunteer for my local non-profit news organization. 1. This organization provides a crucial and irreplaceable service to my community which is profoundly consistent with my personal values: supporting and maintaining local democracy through an informed electorate, and building community. 2. My volunteer activity has allowed me to make friends with other volunteers and with the paid staff. These are my friends, we are brothers (and sisters) in arms, and I really don’t want to let them down.”John Levin, Board Chair
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“As a former reporter, I value local news a lot – especially because local news affects the day-to-day. Media outlets just aren’t hitting it. NancyOnNorwalk is a super valuable resource. There’s something human about volunteering – I’m helping Nancy and also being impactful to the community.”Moina Noor, Board Member