By Adolfo Mendez
A school teacher and politician in suburban Chicago is betting his recent online venture can fill a niche for local news in his small community.
Gary Kopycinski, a full-time teacher at a parochial school in Chicago Heights, Ill., is also founder of eNews Park Forest, an online operation that recently passed its first anniversary. Kopycinski created eNews Park Forest because townsfolk were interested in receiving more local news than they were getting from existing print publications.
“People in our town weren’t seeing much by way of local news, certainly no news on clubs or every public meeting,”Kopycinski, who served as a village trustee for three years prior to starting the publication, said. “News coverage here is mostly a lot of regionalism, so the papers were missing a lot of meetings and events. I decided I wanted to do something to cover Park Forest comprehensively.”
Before launching the site in summer of 2006, Kopycinksi,who also owns a Web design firm, sought the advice of a trusted friend and journalist, and even the village mayor, who Kopycinski says has a journalism background. Kopycinski is serious about offering a polished, professional site, respectful of the First Amendment and one that plays fair in its coverage. To establish his press credentials, Kopycinski has offered reporting internships to college students majoring in journalism. He’s also recently joined the Inland Press Association — the first online-only publication to do so.
Though he lacks journalistic training himself, Kopycinski said his philosophy is simple: “Just tell people what happened and what’s going to happen. That’s the basics of reporting.” The site includes a police blotter and news of upcoming events and press releases. Feature stories arise just by meeting local people with interesting stories to tell, like a mom with a son serving in Iraq. “You never know when you’re going to run into a story,” he said.
The Web site has gone from virtually no hits to pageviews reaching more than 80,000, Kopycinski said. “People like having their stories told,” he said.
To publish an objective news site, Kopycinski refrains from writing political stories about local government. “I insist someone else write them.” He instructs his student interns to “stick to the facts” and tells them not to feel compelled to make Kopycinski, or any other local politician, sound better than they did during a public meeting. In addition, Kopycinski says he rarely writes commentary, preferring instead to host blog sites for residents at eNews Park Forest. “I tell people, this is not the G.K. site. This is not about me,” he said. While a handful of local businesses have paid for banner ads, the site is “still very much a labor of love.” A banner ad, 160 by 160 pixels, costs $50 a month. Kopycinski is targeting a dozen local businesses with online photo ads running $60 a month. He’s even considering publishing a print version of the Web site, if advertising revenue can justify it. “Really I think the heart and soul of this project is online. Even with a possibility of a print product, we’d want to point them to the Web for more information. But I think we’re missing a good demographic by just being online.”
Google ads populate the Web site only because “some ads are better than none,” he said.
“When we start generating five times more page views than we are now, those will probably go a long way to impacting our bottom line. At this point, they’re just gravy. I’ll gladly give up that space for local advertising.”
Among the biggest lessons he’s learned is that he should have cast a wider net for advertisers from the beginning. “From the start, I should have focused more comprhensively on expanding advertising outside of Park Forest,” Kopycinski said. “As much as I wanted to really showcase our local business, there’s also the matter of ‘Don’t think too small.’ The news is local, but other people may want to help pay for it.”
Is he worried about drawing the attention of competitors if he is successful? “The more the merrier, ”Kopycinski said. “It’s like any business in this town. Any developer would say competition is good. It actually breeds business. I think our residents deserve greater media attention.”
Editor’s Note: eNews Park Forest was featured in the February 2008 issue of The Inlander. I am very grateful to all of those who have supported eNews Park Forest during our first year and into our second. In particular, I would like to thank these supporters and authors: Wendy Heise, Glenna Hennessy, Barbara Sturges, Judy Lohr, Jonathan Pittman, Christine Blue, Sandy Roos, Raegan Bricks, George Fabian, Ryan Merriman, Jane Nicoll, Cheryl Warshaw, Alan Edrinn, Megan Lastaria, John Goodrich, Janet Muchnik, Joe Woods, Ken Kramer, Mary Kay Joens, P.C. Smith, Walter Falk, Leslie Simms, Barbara Principali, Brenda Miller and Clare Stuber.