Newhouse grad class creates LivableCNY.com to produce content and revenue, attracts international readership

By Emily Kulkus

June 26, 2014

A Silicon Valley-esque startup company—indie techno music, hipster glasses and Ping Pong table included—is abuzz inside the Newhouse School.

The company, www.livablecny.com, is the fledgling and rapidly growing product of the New Media Management Class of 2014. It’s a real company, producing and publishing real content, making real money.

“We decided to do a commercial business,” says Steve Masiclat, director of the new media management program at Newhouse. “It’s the only way you can get the full experience of the existing tools.”

Seventeen students have been working on the project, their capstone, for months. Individual students took on different development tasks to help get the company off the ground. One student helped write the business plan, another worked on the branding campaign and another researched content management systems.

On June 1, the group pressed play and www.livablecny.com went live with stories about the best places to live in Central New York, the region’s renowned wine industry and where to watch World Cup games, among others.

The target audience? Anyone searching for that content, says Masiclat. In just over three weeks time, the site has attracted more than 6,000 page views from the United States, China, India, Great Britain and Australia. The students, more than half of whom are from China, have aggressively used search engine optimization and social media networking techniques to promote content, here and overseas.

Review the company's brand identity guide here.

Here’s one example of how the company’s approach is working: a student writes a story about the best places for students to live in the Syracuse area. The story gets posted on Facebook, which then gets shared and reposted by another user. A representative from a new Syracuse apartment complex sees the post, recognizes LivableCNY’s readership in China and wants to be included on the website since her company is trying to attract international students. LivableCNY sells the new housing company a “sponsored post” for $1,300 and revenue-generating, sponsored content is born.

Masiclat does not mince words: it’s not journalism.

“We are creating content that people are looking for and people want to read,” Masiclat says. “We are doing it with honesty and integrity, but that’s sponsored content and it’s labeled as such. We don’t lie.”

Newhouse professor Steve Masiclat works with his new media management students.

Since the beginning of June, the 17 students have worked nearly every day on LivableCNY.com. The group has twice daily meetings to share ideas and progress reports. Each student has a different responsibility: writing, photography, advertising, analytics, SEO, editing or social media. Four students head up the social media team but everyone is responsible for helping push out content over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Weibo, which is China’s equivalent to Facebook. It’s a WordPress site and the team is using several Google tools including AdSense to generate advertising revenue and Google Analytics to track readership.

The team did enough pre-launch research to know the company would find an audience. What did surprise them, however, was how fast they were able to make money through advertising and sponsored content, says Masiclat and editor-in-chief Whitman Littlefield.

There have been many surprises—and hands-on lessons—along the way. One highlights the importance of recognizing how people search the Web.

In creating the site, the team chose content categories, all starting with the letter “C” to play off the Central New York connection. One of the categories is Civics, which includes stories about local entrepreneurs and snow removal. As it turns out, pretty much the only time people search for “civic” online is when they are shopping for a new Honda.

Several team members set out to solve the problem and discovered “negative keywords,” which help companies like LivableCNY.com filter their content in web searches for potential readers. Now they are experts in negative keywords and other Google techniques for SEO and readership.

“These guys figured it out because they had to,” Masiclat says of the negative keyword research. “It’s one of those things that can only truly be learned by experience.”

Masiclat says the company was launched with about $2,800. The business plan includes pay for staff, he says, but they aren’t there yet. He plants to continue LivableCNY’s publishing success with the incoming new media management students who arrive next week.

Emily Kulkus ’02 is the web content manager at the Newhouse School. Reach her at eakulkus@syr.edu.