NewCanaanite.com marks its 10-year anniversary today, Jan. 31.
I’m going to try here to explain how the website started, how I set it up to run and what it has come to mean to me.
How the website started
My big brother Terry was still living at home when our family hit its biggest rough patch. It was just as I was starting at New Canaan High School. Our dad moved out. Some months later, Terry moved to New York City to finish high school there, things being difficult for us in New Canaan. Soon our mom—for reasons of health and self-preservation, as I have come to understand only recently—moved out of the house on Lakeview Avenue, too, leaving me and my little sister there on our own. We weren’t connected to local services, organizations or other families, though I myself would come to rely on the coach and parents of the New Canaan Y swim team.
Before it got to that point, though, it was just my mom with two teenagers at home for a time, doing her best. We kept costs down. In the winter, you could see your breath inside our house, especially at night. Even so, the furnace blew one night. It was the winter, near the holidays, and we had to find an emergency electrician.
I got my first news job 20 years ago, as a reporter at Greenwich Time newspaper, working Saturday through Wednesday. On the weekends I did general assignment work, covering a bit of everything including four car crashes that killed four teenage boys whose names I find myself reciting out loud sometimes, Frank McCourt promoting “Teacher Man” at Greenwich Library (he was living in Connecticut, and when I asked him whether he ever visited Greenwich he said, “No, I’d be too afraid of the Episcopalians”) and the annual reenactment of Gen. Israel Putnam’s horseback ride along present-day East Putnam Avenue. The weekday “beat” they assigned to me was the leftovers of the newsroom: health, housing and social services. In retrospect, that wide-ranging coverage prepared me well for future news jobs, including this one. But within a few years I’d come to dislike my schedule and resent my position at the paper, and asked for a regular beat. The city editor rebuffed me, and then all the newspapers started to falter. The Greenwich Time got a new managing editor, ownership hired an efficiency expert and reps from media companies interested in buying it started to come around. Twice within six months, all of us reporters interviewed for our own jobs.
Then three things happened pretty quickly that resulted in my getting fired. First, I reported a story about the biggest parking scofflaws in town (I’ve always loved the parking stuff). It turned out that the person who owed the most money in overdue tickets was the limited liability company representing Toyota of Greenwich (it’s not them, it’s customers who drive their cars, for example, while theirs are being repaired, but anyway). When I called the dealership for a comment, the guy told me that they were major advertisers at the paper. I said that I was a reporter, not a salesperson. Before the story ran, our new managing editor came to my desk and said that we would need to use the name of the LLC and not ‘Toyota of Greenwich.’ I said that was an embarrassment and asked that my byline be removed from the story. Second, I filed an FOI request for a consultant’s report on Greenwich Library. The library was in disarray because they’d hired this terrible, toxic director. They brought in a consultant to look at all the internal problems. The taxpayers of Greenwich supplied two-thirds of the library’s operating budget, so my view was that the consultant’s report should be public. The library denied my request, so I filed an appeal with the state FOI Commission. Without telling me, the new managing editor pulled my appeal. I confronted him in his office and he said he was working on getting the report a different way. I felt he was making nice with the library’s Board of Trustees at my expense, and so when I walked back out of the office I re-faxed (it was 2008) the appeal to Hartford. The third thing happened that same day: the city and managing editors pulled me back into the office to suspend me for insubordination—a conversation that I recorded without telling them, and they fired me the next day, citing the illicit recording as a basis.
Two years later I started a news job at Patch.com that I loved, overseeing the local editors operating websites covering individual towns throughout lower Fairfield County. Whenever there was an opening in the New Canaan editor job, I would step in to report on my hometown. I was supposed to be a manager, but I preferred working as a reporter. I remember thinking at the time that if I ever won the lottery, I would step down as manager, take on the New Canaan Patch local editor role and ignore everything from headquarters. But eventually Patch also was set up to be sold, and they let nearly all of us go through three layoffs over a nine-month period. I was laid off in the third wave.
It was Jan. 29, 2014—a Wednesday—and I called Terry afterwards. He told me that I should start my own news website covering New Canaan. He said the domain newcanaanite.com was available. I’d never had my own business. I’d never seen the underbelly of a website. And as the Toyota of Greenwich guy could attest, I’d never sold an ad.
But I felt strongly that I could not go back to work for someone else. I drafted an “About Us” section for what the website could be, and texted it to a trusted friend—a person who never hesitated to tell me exactly what he thought about my reporting on New Canaan, good or bad: Rob Mallozzi. He encouraged me, and told me that Bob’s Sports would be my first advertiser, which it was. I reserved the domain, downloaded a free WordPress theme, found an ad server, started showing up to public meetings and launched a daily newsletter. It was Jan. 31, 2014. Our first published article was Terry’s write-up of a NCHS boys varsity basketball game that featured Zach Allen.
How I set it up to run
I had two months of federally guaranteed severance from Patch, plus another two weeks for signing an NDA. I wrote freelance articles for the Moffly magazines and found little jobs in social media management while the site got off the ground. In May, with my wife’s help, we held a “launch party” at New Canaan Olive Oil on Elm Street—a store and staff that I miss (Heidi, Caroline)—and invited prospective partners and advertisers. Tucker Murphy, head of the Chamber of Commerce and a supporter at the time, said positive things to the gathering about the work I’d been doing. By midsummer New Canaan Music, Walter Stewart’s Market, Stewarts Spirits and Karl Chevrolet came on as advertisers.
The local service organizations found out about the new website and invited me to present to them. After presenting to Rotary Club, one of its members, an older gentleman, approached me and said that he wanted to advertise his business. He just got a good feeling about me, he said with a shrug. His name was Peter Santella and he owned Santella Electric on Cross Street.
The first year of the New Canaanite was exhausting. I felt that so many people were coming to the site for the first time that I wanted it to be a very specific and good experience at all times. Many nights and early mornings I fell asleep wherever I was, slumped over a laptop (I’ve gone through four in 10 years). I was running a newsletter seven days per week, until Caren Forbes advised me that I didn’t have to. More advertisers came on, wonderful people and companies like Denise Gannalo, Rucci Law Group, Francos Wine Merchants, Kendall and Jaime Sneddon, Bankwell, Christine Saxe, Pet Pantry, April Kaynor and Kelly DeFrancesco, and I found myself seeking business advice daily from Laura Budd, the number-two at the Chamber (now the director).
I felt that the most important thing about all of it would be the news reporting, and I felt protective of it. I wanted the advertising set up so that I would remain independent in my news coverage. I didn’t want so few advertisers that any one of them would be in a powerful enough position to lean in and influence coverage the way that Toyota of Greenwich did years before. I would never want to be beholden to any political or other special interest, because that would immediately, and rightly, damage the credibility of this news outlet. If your readers can’t trust you, nothing else matters. I also didn’t want too many advertisers, because each one is a real relationship to manage. So I have felt my way toward an equilibrium that provides independence as well as a living. It was a matter of setting the advertising slots and pricing them to achieve that goal, and only that goal.
I also decided to report exclusively on New Canaan, and set up a rule whereby all content on the site has to meet two criteria: 1. It needs to be local enough that a person would need to live in town, work in town or be from the town in order to be interested in it, and 2. It would need to look out-of-place on a website covering any other town. One of our lead stories in the early days of the New Canaanite was about a baby possum that wandered into Spencer’s Run at midday and escaped with its life.
What it has come to mean to me
Mom found an electrician that night. Arriving at the house on Lakeview, he would have walked through the front door, into the living room, through the upstairs kitchen, down the stairs, through the downstairs kitchen and into the basement furnace room. What he saw and heard along the way would have been memorable and upsetting, I have come to understand only recently. After he fixed the furnace, mom thanked him and said she needed to set up a payment plan. He waved her off with a smile, saying, “I make my money on the people in the ridges.”
For me, the New Canaanite has become a second chance at my hometown. Traveling through town as I do my reporting, I find that many streetscapes and scenes trigger memories of the first time around, good and bad. At times it feels like time is slowed by these layers of memories firing off. In certain moods, I find myself driving a little out of the way to go past Mill Pond and our old house.
I find myself deeply moved at least four to five times each year, in covering the Memorial Day ceremony in Lakeview Cemetery, the 9/11 ceremony at Town Hall, the Veterans Day ceremony at God’s Acre, the Martin Luther King Jr. service at the United Methodist Church and New Canaan Police promotion and awards ceremonies. I also find myself moved by formal observances at Town Hall, such as the appointment of a prominent committee. Former Town Council Chair, now-Selectman Steve Karl always dresses up extra smart for those observances, which I find very touching.
About one year into the New Canaanite, I launched our monthly Community Coffee at New Canaan Library, thanks largely to the generosity and support of then-library director Lisa Oldham and Doug Zumbach, who has always supplied the coffee (we have our next one at 8:30 a.m. Thursday). Though things ended badly at my first newspaper job, I still miss the newsroom. It was a cynical place where reporters and photographers licked their wounds, scoffed at the mention of government officials and swapped colorful anecdotes from the strange world outside our fortress. For me, the monthly coffee at the library has taken the place of the newsroom—a time to connect in-person with my Editorial Advisory Council members (Laura Budd, Rob Mallozzi, Julia Stewart, Doug Zumbach, Michael Chen, Andrew Ault and Lisa Oldham), friends, readers and even family. My mom and brother Terry are both regulars.
My mom also is my biggest reader. Each morning after the newsletter goes out, I open the Mailchimp app to see who’s reading, and the first email address listed is always hers.
It was that way one morning in March 2020, weeks into the pandemic, when we published the obituary for Peter Santella. In talking to my mom that day, I relayed how Mr. Santella had approached me after the Rotary Club meeting to advertise, and how it was such a meaningful lift for me during that first difficult year of business. My mom paused on the phone while looking again at the obituary, and then identified him as the electrician who had come to our house on Lakeview 30 years before to fix the furnace. The obituary had been sent to me by Mr. Santella’s son-in-law, as I recall, and after talking to my mom, I reached out to him to share that story. He responded that Mr. Santella had remembered the incident, too, and that as he neared the end of his life, spoke of helping a struggling single-parent household.
I think about Mr. Santella often. I wonder how many kindnesses he quietly bestowed on the people of this community. I wonder how it was he came to touch my life twice in such ways. I wonder if he ever was kind as a result of hardship or poor treatment; I wonder if he found—as I have come to understand only recently—that the best way to move past an unkind word from another is to say something kind to a stranger.
I’ve had the opportunity to share the story about Mr. Santella with the present-day Rotary Club, and in marking 10 years of the New Canaanite I wanted to share it more widely. It’s not often that I reflect on the origin of the site, but when I do, I think about Mr. Santella. For me, today, he captures the unique spirit of New Canaan and I think of him as a kind of guiding light for the New Canaanite, as well as for me, in what has been a life-changing rediscovery of my hometown.
Thank you so much for reading.