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It’s been 18 months since we launched BenitoLink. The project is a direct outcome and response to more than 1,000 San Benito County residents who participated in a yearlong visioning process called Vision San Benito County. Sponsored by the Community Foundation for San Benito County (CFFSBC), Vision San Benito County’s (VSBC) purpose was to ask residents: “What would you like to see happen in our county over the next 20 years?”  Our one-page summary, View 22,  can be found here.  As the executive director of VSBC, I sought funding for projects that would meet the requests of residents. Several themes came out of VSBC. We realized that residents love living here for the natural beauty, cultural diversity, and unique opportunites San Benito County offers. I focused my efforts on those things, in the hopes that VSBC would indeed produce results.  I wanted participants to have a high ROI (Return on Investment) for the time and effort we spent on the process. 

We launched a Healthy San Benito Initiative in collaboration with a coaltion of groups with funding from The Health Trust. We also worked with the County Parks and Recreation Department to design a River Parkway to meet residents’ request for more recreational opportunities. In addition to healthy living and outdoor recreation, residents told us they wanted to be informed about local politics, events, and human interest stories. With the closing of our county’s only daily newspaper and a pay wall put up in front of the existing newspaper, residents expressed a frustration that there was no free, reliable source of daily news and information. Gary Byrne, the CEO and president of the CFFSBC suggested I attend a conference in Miami, FL, hosted by the Knight Foundation in March 2012 that focused on providing communities with news and information.  I attended the Media Learning Seminar that year and applied for, and received, funding to start a free online news source for San Benito County from the Knight Foundation.

Over the next two years a dedicated group of volunteers worked to design and launch BenitoLink. We went live in January 2013. Since then we have made some mistakes, learned how to code, worked with similar projects across the country to learn what works, and grown more than we could have ever imagined. We are managed by a voluntary, 10-member Advisory Board and currently still operating as a “project” under the umbrella of the CFFSBC. We have engaged a local attorney to begin the process of forming our own 501 (c)(3) non-profit corporation and hope to become fully-independent within the nex year. 

Our expectations of reaching 2,500 residents in the first year have been surpassed several times over as we exceed the 30,000 pageviews (per month) mark on the site. We are meeting the information needs of a disconnected community and we hear positive feedback every day. This is not to say we do not have challenges. We are struggling with several issues including staffing government meetings with reporters, signing up long-term fiscal sponsors, and trying to engage difficult-to-reach segments of our community. We are, however, addressing these challenges and confident they can be resolved as we grow. But we need your help. We need residents to participate in this experiment by submitting content, sharing articles, and donating whatever fiscal support you can. 

When we look at the target we set at the beginning of this project, we now see that we underestimated the number of residents who would come to depend upon a reliable, daily and free online source of information. We originally thought we would have 250 – 500 users on the site, but when we removed barriers (such as requiring readers to register) we saw our numbers increase dramatically. We are now up to more than 550 registered users and the number grows every day. 

We are learning new lessons every day. One of the first ones we discovered was that the site needs to be accessible, and that meant removing barriers. We did this by changing our policy of having users register. We also made the site easier to navigate by listing a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section and instructions on how to post content. 

We have benefitted by word-of-mouth promotion, keeping the site free, and ensuring that we respond to readers’ questions and requests quickly. 

Here’s a look at our March 2014 statistics: 

Unique sessions:                                              10,484 (up 49% over Feb)
March 2013 vs. March 2014:                                   329% increase 
Facebook Feb 2014 vs. March 2014:                     84% increase
Facebook March 2013 vs. March 2014:                 638% increase

Page Views, Visits, Duration at Pages:                 Overall increase
Bounce rate (click and leave quickly):                   Decrease

The Knight Foundation recently approved a second round of funding for us: $50,000 through 2015. CFFSBC and Gavilan College have also taken bold, leadership moves to promote an informed community by funding the project. 

We are excited to be meeting the needs of residents, but will eventually need to wean ourselves from the funding of outsiders. San Benito County residents will need to support the site if we are to survive. If you find value in BenitoLink, we encourage you to donate. We’ll use your donation to pay modest stipends to our part-time content director, a bookkeeper, and our development coordinator. We also pay an IT consultant to keep the site secure and operating well, as well as monthly rent & utilities, web hosting and a monthly cell phone bill. Our monthly costs are about $5,000. Any amount you can give helps keep the doors open and San Benito County informed.

Thanks for supporting an informed and engaged community!  Donate here.