Now a network of 37 local news sites across Italy, City News was set up in 2010 by Luca Lani and Fernando Diana, who had been colleagues on a previous start-up business, and found themselves "falling in love with this idea of hyperlocal news".
They started the project in just five cities, "some big, some small, some in the south of Italy, some in the north", to try out the idea before taking it further, Lani told Journalism.co.uk when we visited their headquarters in Rome recently.
They used this experience "to build a very strong business plan", he added. The following year they secured €4.5 million in funding, which enabled them to build up the scale of the network to 37 cities, as it stands today, as well as a site covering the region of Romagna and a national site called Today, which also features foreign news.
And while the network covers a nation, the focus is very much local, Diana stressed.
"The approach is, for advertising and for our reader, a completely local product," he said. "The organisation, the technology, the direction of this is global, but the application is more local."
Content creation with the community
City News has an in-house editorial team of around 55 journalists, with each newsroom managed by teams of one, two or three reporters at the more recently-launched sites, and 10 to 15 at more established sites. It has seven offices across Italy, and many journalists work from home.
But it is also supported by a community of around 100 freelance journalists and thousands of readers who also can also submit content. Around 20 per cent of the content on the sites said to be contributed by users.
The stories shared by these citizen journalists tend to be particularly hyperlocal in nature, Lani explained, from reports on household rubbish not being collected to potholes in the road.
"Normally journalists cannot write this kind of news," he added, "because you would need probably hundreds and hundreds of journalists in every corner of the city".
But, he said, "we have our users and they send this news". The content is received by the relevant newsroom, and checked before it is published.
Users of the site can register to receive email alerts about news specific to where they live. For example, if a story is published about a road accident, an email alert about this will then be sent out to anyone living within 2km of the affected area who has signed up to the service.If there is an accident near your home, after 10 minutes you have the information in your inboxLuca Lani, City News
Each news story can have a location added to it, Lani explained, which will then be compared to the locations registered by users.
"So for example, if there is an accident near your home, after 10 minutes you have the information in your inbox."
"This is one of the most powerful and interesting services," he added. The platform prides itself on its quick delivery of breaking news on its websites.
"Our journalists work with their laptop or iPad, or also sometimes by phone, to put the news out immediately," Lani said.
"We have a very flat structure so we can go online immediately, and after the news is online we can modify the story."
He added that while City News has used Twitter for live updates, it focuses on its own platforms. "We prefer to write the story and update it every five minutes," he said.
The site also recently launched a new personalised homepage feature, where users can not only select geographical areas of interest or general news topics to follow, but also choose to see news about specific people, such as a favourite sports team or specific celebrities.
The result is a "flow" of personalised content, he said, although early signs suggest "people prefer the traditional homepage".
The business model: local v national advertising
For City News, its business model is all about advertising on both a national level, with advertisers able to pay for branding across the network, and on a local, site-specific level.
According to Diana, local advertising is the "most important for us". He said that 65 per cent of the network's revenue is "from the local market", while 35 per cent is national advertising, where there is more competition.
"In local news," he added, "the maximum is three or four competitors. So the market is more complex but also more free."
Lani added that City News now needs "to educate local advertisers to try digital and the internet medium, and change from older media to new media".
The focus on direct traffic
Social referrals account for a quarter of traffic to City News sites overall, a statistic which Lani said "is growing every month".
But despite this, the team is more interested in traffic coming to the site directly.
"We work to have more and more traffic direct," he said, "because people who arrive direct know the brand and come every day." The company also considers this "important" to support its advertising model, Diana added. The volume of traffic from search is said to be on the up, but is still declining as percentage of the different referrals.
The balance between search, social and direct traffic also varies on a site-by-site basis, based on the "age of the product", Diana explained.
Younger sites see higher traffic from social and search, while older, more established sites, have the highest levels of direct traffic.
Opportunities for collaboration
In a recent step towards collaboration, City News is working with local radio and television stations in some of the cities where they have a presence.
They also share content with Earth Day Italia, which in return publishes a "green channel" across City News's sites.
- This feature is the last in a series putting a 'spotlight on Italy'. Other features have included a look at L'Huffington Post one year in, a behind-the-scenes glance at the publisher of La Repubblica, Gruppo Editoriale L'Espresso and an insight into the operation of fact-checking site Politicometro.