Rising From the Ashes in the Valley

Rising From the Ashes in the Valley

Nov. 12, 2019

I spent some time last week in the offices of the Mon Valley Independent, a six-day-a-week newspaper in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Mon Valley Independent is an interesting story. It’s only been around since May 2016, but emerged from the ashes of the Valley Independent, which served this area for an impressive 113 years before finally closing at the end of 2015.

Four local businessmen — entrepreneurs, if you will — created the new publishing venture. (Entrepreneurs are one of four target groups for our NewStart media ownership program, along with current journalism students and current and former journalists looking to take over their own publications.) The Mon Valley Independent owners had no real newspaper background, but knew that if this former thriving steel town lost its newspaper, “no one would care about this area any more,” according to co-owner Naz Victoria.

They’ve gone through some difficult times, especially in the first two years of existence. You can read about some of those issues on the NewStart website here.  

But it appears they’ve turned the corner.  They were profitable in 2018. They expanded their coverage area in 2019. And they’re looking to the future with an eye on events, a digital subscription push and even a possible nonprofit model.

Oh, and you’ll see them on their own float in the upcoming McKeesport Holiday Parade in these red “Make Newspapers Great Again” hats.

The MVI’s ownership group is unique, to say the least. One owner is currently incarcerated. As mentioned before, they don’t have previous newspaper ownership experience (Victoria was once a stringer, however). And they also span the political spectrum.

Co-owner Joseph Dalfonso was a Westmoreland County magisterial district judge for 25 years and was once the chairman of the Monessen, Pa., Democratic Party.

The first time I met co-owner Moe Galis this past summer, he was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Last week he had swapped it out for a MNGA version, complete with an ‘I Voted” sticker. He’s a Republican, obviously.

Victoria says he is an independent.

Despite their political differences, they say that hasn’t had an impact on how they run the MVI.  In fact, they said they were unanimous in their last round of political endorsements.

They say their goal of owning this paper is to help the Mon Valley improve. They’ve changed their editorial and advertising philosophies to match that. Without the paper, Galis said, the area would be left in the dark on some of the most important things a community needs. He said that includes who died (i.e. obits), how the local youth sports teams are doing, and what’s happening at council meetings.

Galis pointed to that “dark” period between when the former Valley Independent closed and when the MVI opened as an example.  One of the local high school basketball teams had an incredible season, but no local paper was there to provide in-depth coverage. It just felt wrong.

That, in part, is why the MVI exists. To fill in the crucial community coverage gaps that would exist otherwise. 

“They believe in their community, and they believe there is a role for newspapers,” said Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. “They put their money where their mouth is.”

The owners of the MVI are making a good run at it, and believe they can be sustainable for years to come.

“The newspaper is going to be here a long time,” Galis said. “It’s not going extinct.”

What We Can Learn from Bookstores

What We Can Learn from Bookstores

Dec. 10, 2019

We’re big fans of books here at NewStart. In fact, we’re pretty sure we’ve read all of them. Reading is fundamental, and whatnot.

But a few weeks ago when we talked about a library, and how it relates to newspapers, we didn’t really mention books.

This week we’re going to talk about a bookstore, and how it relates to newspapers. But, once again, we’re not going to talk about books.

Oh sure, there are still books inside the Mechanicsburg (Pa.) Mystery Bookshop. They’re quite mysterious, if the rumors are true. 

But in case you’ve been living under a rock the past decade, times have been tough for bookstores in this new digital age, especially with a little upstart website called Amazon gaining traction. The bookstores’ fate is similar to that of newspapers, with digital advances wiping out legacy establishments left and right.

But the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop is still going strong nearly 30 years after it opened in this town of about 9,000, according to Kirkus, which did a fascinating write-up on it last week.  

So how does it do it? Well, it’s following a path many of us in the journalism industry are asking legacy newspaper to follow, including:

  • Find a niche: Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, obviously, focuses on the mystery genre
  • Create community engagement: It hosts three book clubs per month and has welcomed in a knitters club that lost its former event space
  • Host events: It holds 12 author events per year, a speaker series and an annual mystery conference
  • Partner and collaborate: It is doing some off-site events with other local businesses and libraries

I ran across this Kirkus feature on the bookstore thanks to journalism legend Dick Belsky, who was part of the team at the New York Post that brought the world one of the greatest headlines of all time: “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” 

Belsky has transitioned from newspaper and digital journalist to award-winning author (pen name R.G. Belsky). He’s been to the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookstore several times, and was a guest speaker at the annual Murder Mystery Conference. Belsky is impressed with what store owner Deb Beamer has accomplished, especially considering the bookstore’s location.

“It’s not even in downtown Mechanicsburg,” Belsky recalled. “It’s on this little country road. I get lost every time I go there. The store is on a hill in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing else around it, so you’re not going to get walk-in traffic.”

Belsky said the first Murder Mystery Conference he attended wasn’t held at the bookstore like he thought it might be, but in the cafeteria of a local elementary school.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is a waste of my time,'” Belsky said, thinking about first pulling up to the school. “‘I’m going to an event in an elementary school? I drove five hours for this?'”

But looks were deceiving. Belsky said it turned out to be “one of the greatest conferences I’ve ever gone to.” He said about 50 people showed up, and just about all of them bought books. And the crowd was very knowledgable about mysteries and asked great questions.

“I probably sold more books at one of those events than almost anywhere else,” Belsky said.

So what makes people turn out for events like this and spend their hard-earned money? Belsky said it’s because Beamer provides the personal touch that Amazon doesn’t. She’s extremely knowledgable about mystery books. She gives good advice and recommendations, and people listen and buy.

“When you meet her, you see how much she actually cares about it,” Belsky said. “She’s not just trying to sell books — well, she is — but she cares about the authors and readers. There are a lot of relationships that are built. That just comes from the sincerity. They trust her.”

Belsky thinks there’s a lot newspaper owners can learn from what Beamer is doing in this little Pennsylvania town.

“Try to figure out what it is your customers want, and do the best job you can in providing that,” he said. “That seems simple, but I’m not sure all newspapers in this day and age do that. Try to figure out what the role of the paper is. What is it that is still appealing about a newspaper? What can it provide? Try to connect with the people in that way.”

I thought these paragraphs in the Kirkus article by Radha Vatsal were spot on:

So I’m going to repeat something similar to what I said when we discussed the Millvale Library in Pittsburgh — if an independent bookstore can adapt and evolve, why can’t local newspapers?

Let’s do this, folks.

(Side note: Belsky’s books are great reads. The best part: the main characters are always journalists. So if you’re looking for holiday gifts for any journalism friends, his books might be the way to go.)

Is Dollar General’s Booming Business Good for Local News?

Is Dollar General’s Booming Business Good for Local News?

Dec. 17, 2019

The end of the decade is near, and journalism has survived (for the most part)! Congrats to each and every one of you who are still in the business!

We’re going to do things a little different this week in the Alliance.

A couple of weeks ago I saw several headlines about Dollar General stores growing at an incredible rate, and they’re doing so in rural areas across the country. That led me to ponder what the General’s growth means for local journalism. I reached out to several NewStart friends, including longtime newspaper publisher Gary Sosniecki, who took the question and ran with it. The result of his queries makes up the majority of this week’s newsletter.

Growing up in Chicago, I’d never heard of Dollar General until I landed in its home state of Tennessee for my first newspaper job and heard country singer Jim Ed Brown (pictured below) pitch the discount retailer on television every morning.

Forty-five years later, I can’t find a reference to Jim Ed Brown on the Dollar General website, but I have no trouble finding a Dollar General. They are multiplying faster than rabbits, even building stores in unincorporated areas that are no more than rural crossroads. The business media reported recently (NBC News | CBS News) that Dollar General has been opening about 1,000 stores annually in recent years and plans to do so again in 2020. 

The Missouri town of 14,000 where my wife and I retired has four Dollar Generals inside the city limits and two more along rural highways within our ZIP code. Three have been built in the past four years. All seem to be busy. 

NewStart’s Jim Iovino raised the question of how the rapid growth of Dollar General has impacted rural newspapers and their communities. Do they advertise in local newspapers? Are they good community partners? 

My own experience with Dollar General was positive. My wife and I owned a weekly newspaper in a Dollar General town from 2003 to 2007. Even though most of the store’s advertising circulars were mailed directly to every household, the Dollar General manager helped us get circulars to insert several times a year in the newspaper. She also allowed us to put a newspaper rack outside the store. When it was stolen, she let us replace it with an indoor rack. Instead of giving the store a commission for papers sold, we made a monthly donation of an equivalent amount to the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. The manager bragged about the arrangement to her bosses. 

But in another community where we owned a weekly newspaper in the 1980s, a town of only 900 residents, the only supermarket has closed twice in recent years since the local Dollar General expanded its grocery line. 

The economics of the newspaper industry have changed considerably since my wife and I sold our last weekly, which, coincidentally, has been the same period of Dollar General’s rapid growth. So I posed Jim’s questions to fellow members of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. 

More than 20 editors and publishers responded, with the responses almost evenly split among those newspapers that get Dollar General business and those that don’t. Not surprisingly, those that see no dollars from Dollar General were negative, even bitter. 

“They are a drain on the economy here,” the owner of a small weekly in South Dakota wrote. “None of their money recirculates like that of local mom-and-pop stores.” 

A Texas publisher wrote: “We have several in our markets. They do not advertise, nor do they sell our newspapers. They simply suck money out of the local economy.” 

The owner of a weekly in the Missouri Ozarks said he has a Family Dollar (a competing chain) as well as a Dollar General in his town of 2,000. “Both businesses are big vacuums in our community. They give nothing back.” 

A Kansas publisher agreed: “Dollar General does almost nothing to support their communities, and I’m trying to give them the benefit of the doubt.” 

The manager of a Minnesota weekly blamed Dollar General for the loss of the town’s hardware store, “and the grocery store and drug store are not far behind.”

In September, Dollar General opened its 16,000th store (this one was in Panama City, Florida). In a press release on its website, company CEO Todd Vasos said:

“From our first store in rural Kentucky to today’s 16,000th store in Panama City, our commitment to serve the communities we call home has never wavered.  From small towns to metropolitan city centers and every community in between, Dollar General is proud to create positive economic impact and local career opportunities as we provide customers with everyday value and convenience.” 

The news editor of one of Kentucky’s biggest weeklies remembered how many local grocery stores closed when Walmart began building “supercenters” with grocery departments about 20 years ago. “The Dollar General stores, which are seemingly everywhere in (his county), are probably much more of a direct danger to the local mom-and-pop convenient stores.” 

The owner of another South Dakota weekly sees one benefit of Dollar General to his community even if he doesn’t get its advertising: “I will say that people are shopping locally at Dollar General instead of going to Aberdeen to Walmart.” 

In cases like that one — a rural town big enough to support a newspaper but not a Walmart — a local Dollar General can reduce the outflow of shopping dollars to a bigger community that has a Walmart. The sales-tax revenue generated by the Dollar General can benefit local government even if the newspaper doesn’t benefit directly. But, as one South Dakota publisher put it, “I only consider their tax dollars our community gains from them as a perk, as the extent of their ‘community partnership’ is zilch.” 

The newspapers that benefit directly from Dollar General understandably responded more positively. 

The news editor of another Kentucky weekly wrote that her county, with a 14,000 population, has two Family Dollars and four Dollar Generals. “Both run inserts in our paper frequently. After pestering them for a good while, our publisher finally talked the DGs into selling our papers.” 

The co-publisher of a family-owned newspaper group in Georgia responded that Dollar General has a couple dozen stores in his markets. “They frequently run inserts and are one of our top advertisers in gross dollars,” he wrote. 

The retired publisher of another group of Georgia weeklies noted that Dollar General’s “rise to a significant retail powerhouse across many states seemed – to me at least – to coincide with their increased presence as a regular customer with their inserts. We all know that isn’t a high profit margin for us, but I believe they ought to have a great story to tell on what community newspaper ads can do for a company.” 

He noted that Dollar General “single-handedly brought the price of milk down in our market by roughly $2 per gallon. I went from never darkening their door to visiting three or more times every week. And they sell our newspapers pretty well, too.” 

The owner of a Kansas weekly said he sells “quite a few papers in Dollar General, but I’ve never tried to get inserts and don’t think I will while we still have a locally owned grocery store as our No. 1 advertiser.” Business at the grocery jumped when the Dollar General was closed three days for remodeling, he added. 

But Dollar General’s impact on local retailers in a South Carolina community has been limited, the local publisher wrote. Dollar General does not advertise in his publications, but the stores in his market have been selling the newspapers for years. “We worked with them to get their managers to display the papers where consumers would see them,” he said. 

The editor of a weekly in a Kentucky town of 5,800 said Dollar General has been “a strong advertising partner” with his newspaper. “I have found it interesting how DG chooses to place their stores, relying heavily on U.S. Census data and placing those stores where folks will have to drive five miles or more to get to retail services.” 

I checked with the publisher of our local newspaper, a former daily that has found new success since converting to twice weekly two years ago. The Record and its two sister weeklies all receive Dollar General inserts. “They seem to be about as important to our readers as the grocery inserts,” she wrote. 

“Dollar General stores are also single-copy sales locations – and they do quite well. Most of the stores allow us to have our newspapers right at the register.” 

Ironically, our local paper is located in an historic downtown building that at one time housed the city’s only Dollar General.


Gary Sosniecki of Lebanon, Missouri, is retired from a 43-year career that included owning three weeklies with his wife Helen, publishing a small-town daily and selling digital products to the newspaper industry. He may be reached at [email protected].

Thanks to Gary for all of the info on Dollar Generals around the country. We really appreciate it.

Over the weekend I was in a sleepy Pennsylvania town called Crabtree, which has a population of about 320 and just happens to be the home of my favorite restaurant in the world. It’s also home to a relatively new Dollar General (it opened in 2017, I believe). As I drove through town at about 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the DG parking lot was packed. And this was right before the Steelers played on SNF, no less.

So business, it seems, is booming for Dollar General. It will be interesting to see how long the popularity lasts.

Insanity and Prosperity in the Midwest

Insanity and Prosperity in the Midwest

May 14, 2020

When Joey Young was 27, his friends told him he was insane. 

The reason? He wanted to buy a newspaper.

“Why sink a lot of money into that?” he remembers them asking.

Young didn’t listen. He bought that paper — a weekly in south-central Kansas that just happened to be his wife’s hometown paper. Seven years later, Joey is now the owner of Kansas Publishing Ventures, which publishes six weekly papers in four Kansas counties.

OK, so perhaps his friends were right. You’ve got to be a little insane to be in this business, but Young also is successful. Editor & Publisher recently named Young one of their 2020 25 Under 35 in the news industry.

Young said he doesn’t buy into the talk that newspapers are dying, and he’s trying to prove it.

“I’m personally a print guy,” Young said. “I think most of the money is in print right now. Until I see differently we will continue to print a newspaper.  Certainly it is not helpful the coronavirus decided to kill off a chunk of our business. But that’s been everybody. For us there are ups and downs every year for every business.”

Kansas Publishing Ventures prints The Hillsboro Free Press, Newtown Now, The Clarion, The Hesston Record, The Harvey County Independent and The McPherson News-Ledger. Three are free weeklies and three are paid-subscription weeklies.

“Newspapers in some way or some form will never die,” Young said. “Unlike TV or radio, etc., we create original content. People still want to know what’s going on in their town. We create content and people will pay to read that content. That business model has been working for hundreds of years. Now, you have to tweak it occasionally. We’re in a tweak right now. But in 20-30 years, will people not care about how the government is spending their tax money?”

As far as digital subscriptions go, KPV is all in, but keeps it simple. If a weekly is free in print, you don’t pay for it online. But if a subscription is required for the print product, you need to have that subscription to read it online. Very little is given away for free. There are no digital-only subscriptions, however, unless you live out of state. If you’re in-state, you get both print and digital. If you’re out of state, the paper won’t be mailed to you.

KPV also practices what we’ve been preaching here at NewStart — diversification of revenue.  The company has a custom printing division that works with writers to self-publish books and with area high schools and colleges to publish yearbooks. It also has an IT division to help area businesses and residents with computer issues and services. 

But that’s not all. Young said they’re also hosting community events, like an annual blues concert that brings in a “decent chunk of cash every year.”

The key, Young said, is to find ways to bring in more cash during the normal downturns each year in newspaper advertising.

“Normally newspapers struggle in June and July, but we bill our yearbooks in June,” he said. “That way you have this nice 20 to 30 percent profit margin right when the other starts to dip.”

He realized that he couldn’t have all his eggs in one basket soon after buying his first newspaper, The Clarion.

“Four to five weeks into buying The Clarion, our second-largest advertiser was a bank that merged with another bank, and that one had no money for print advertising,” Young said. “So we knew that customer was gone. That was our second-biggest advertiser. We had to scramble and hustle to make things work.”

So each year, Young, his wife (who quit her teaching job to work for KPV), and his other business partners “sit in a room, drink some beer, throw stuff against the wall and see if it sticks.” Some of those ideas are successful and add to the company’s bottom line, while others are not.

One example, which Young details on his blog, is the first newspaper he tried to start on his own — the Maize Free Press. He said he lost a lot of money on that venture. But without that failure, he wouldn’t have been able to succeed with the next one he tried — Newtown Now. 

“We should be doing a better job. Lord knows we could be,” Young said. “Sometimes the ideas have hit, and sometimes they don’t. We try to experiment. If one of the ideas pans out, we keep doing it. If not, we don’t.”

That constant experimentation allows KPV to learn on the fly, and gives him opportunities to try things that other chain newspapers are not able to.

And speaking of chains, that’s a sore spot for Young, who battles them in South Central Kansas and has seen what they have done to competing papers that used to be independently owned.

He wrote an “obituary” for one competing paper when it was purchased by a chain, and got a little bit of flak for it. But he stands by it, and says that the way chains and hedge funds have run community newspapers is the main reason for the negative outlook on local ownership.

“It bothers me that these giant companies bought newspapers at 10 times cash flow thinking they would be able to print money for eternity,” Young said. “But they couldn’t see the writing on the wall. They made a bunch of mistakes.  … ‘We can’t print money any more, but we bought a bunch of newspapers.’  That’s not newspapers dying. … All of the big companies were greedy. And they’re paying for it now.”

Young says it is still possible to buy a community newspaper and make a good living, despite what people hear about horror stories at corporate chains.

“We didn’t buy any of our papers at 10 times cash flow,” Young said. “I don’t think they’ll be sold at 10 times cash flow again. That era is over. (Young’s papers) are enough to make money, and not have a lot of debt. You can live a relatively comfortable life.”

If you’d like to learn more about Joey Young’s work in Kansas, here’s an in-depth interview from earlier this year with Mike Blinder of Editor & Publisher.

Creating a ‘Supercharged Weekly Newspaper’

Creating a ‘Supercharged Weekly Newspaper’

May 28, 2020

Last month the Rappahannock News, a weekly newspaper in Virginia, received 13 awards, including eight first-place honors, from the Virginia Press Association in its annual excellence in journalism competition.

If you look at the Rappahannock News website today, you’ll see daily news updatesin-depth investigative reporting featureseye-catching video vignettesdaily email newsletters about the covid-19 pandemic, a texting service and more.

What you don’t see under the hood, however, is that the Rappahannock News has a full-time staff of one.

What is this wizardry? How does the Rappahannock News do it?

Well, the paper has a not-so-secret weapon: a collaboration with Foothills Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic news organization.

If you’re not familiar with Rappahannock County, it is a rural area that has seen a steady stream of retirees migrate from Washington, D.C., and even more Washingtonians who view the area as a weekend getaway from inside the Beltway.

The collaboration between Foothills and the News has existed for about four years. 

Foothills Forum began as a way to provide in-depth reporting on topics that the people of Rappahannock County said they were interested in via a comprehensive survey that was created in conjunction with the University of Virginia and mailed to everyone in the county. Foothills hired reporters to create investigative-style stories on topics that came out of the survey. The organization then handed over the stories (and money for any costs associated with publishing them) to Rappahannock News publisher Dennis Brack and editor/reporter John McCaslin for possible publication.  

That’s right, “possible” publication. According to the four-page agreement between the two organizations, the Rappahannock News can edit the stories how it wants. Or it could pass on the stories altogether. That, however, doesn’t seem to be an issue since the two sides are in agreement on what stories to cover from inception.

But over the last couple of years, the partnership has morphed from just a few in-depth series or investigations into what you see today — nonstop coverage of the pandemic and an expansion of platforms used to get information to the people.

The whole idea, according to Foothills Forum co-founder Larry “Bud” Meyer, is to create a “supercharged weekly newspaper.”

“Whatever we do, it has to have a ‘wow’ factor,” Meyer said. “It has to make Jim and Sarah sitting around their morning breakfast table say, ‘Wow, this is not your mother or father’s journalism.”

Brack, a former design director and creative director at the Washington Post, said the collaboration has been “enormously beneficial” for the newspaper and the readers.

“That a paper of the Rappahannock News’ size can do such in-depth journalism is pretty remarkable,” Brack said.

Case in point: an ongoing series called “Opioid Ripples,” which was produced not only by Foothills Forum and Rappahannock News, but also with Piedmont Journalism Foundation (which is modeled after Foothills) and the Fauquier Times. The research and the reporting was done by the nonprofits, and the newspapers published the content on their sites.

The Rappahannock News not only gets award-winning content out of its collaboration with Foothills, but also benefits via subscriptions from the community, which values the in-depth reporting found in its paper and on its site.

Meyer, who was vice president and secretary of the Knight Foundation from 1995-2009, believes Foothills Forum could be a model for rural communities to keep their local news outlets alive.

The formula, Meyer said, includes the following:Willing partnershipsCommunity supportFinding a nicheUnderstanding if the community is, or is close to being, a news desertFor Foothills Forum, they definitely have the willing partnership with Rappahannock News. They also now have community support, although there were plenty of local skeptics early on who thought the founders were, as Brack put it, “just an example of these come-heres who have an agenda.” They’ve found their niche by reporting on specific topics that are important to county residents. And without the Rappahannock News, the county would be a news desert, according to the Expanding News Desert Study.

Foothills Forum has a unique group of founders, like Meyer and Bill Dietel, who has extensive expertise in philanthropy (he’s was executive VP and president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for nearly 20 years) and other board members and advisors like Beverly Jones, an attorney, corporate executive and university administrator, and her husband, Andy Alexander, a former ombudsman at the Washington Post and current Scripps Howard visiting professional at Ohio University.

It’s a powerful group of leaders from journalism, philanthropy and beyond, and points to the power of what a rural community can do if it pulls its resources together for a common cause.

And both Foothills Forum and Rappahannock News think this is just the beginning of what their partnership can become. For example, the Rappahannock News will host its first Report For America reporter starting in June, which will immediately double its staff size. The Subtext texting service and the newsletter could lead to new audiences and advertising opportunities in the future. 

Brack said he could even envision a podcast down the road. 

All of these things, he said, wouldn’t be possible without Foothills Forum.

“We’d be around as a business, but it’s a total game changer,” Brack said of his newspaper. “We’d be doing what we do anyway, which is scramble every week, but we wouldn’t have that depth.

“The product is recognized as a stronger paper than it was five or six years ago,” he added.  “Not that it was bad.  … I think people have noticed that we’re doing things now in a positive way that weren’t being done before.”

RELATED: Industry Insight: Fight for Survival Will Push More For-Profit Toward Philanthropy

Sinking Ships and Solar-Powered Planes

Sinking Ships and Solar-Powered Planes

July 23, 2020

This is how Dawaune Lamont Hayes describes the journalism industry these days:

“We’re on a sinking ship trying to build a solar-powered airplane.”

For the past couple of years, Hayes has been using all of the tools he can find to create that “solar-powered airplane” as founder and director of NOISE (North Omaha Information Support Everyone), which is a community-led news organization focused on informing the people of North Omaha.

For Hayes, that means thinking outside the box in an effort to push journalism forward. Take his project with the Omaha Star, for example. As Hayes explained it in 2018 during a talk at West Virginia University, the partnership was to try to find ways to utilize visual art to get a younger audience engaged with print again. His vision for that project was bold — something he strives for every day.

“Don’t be afraid to be too creative,” Hayes said. “That’s what we need right now. Journalism is an awesome field, but what it has lacked for a long time is creativity.”

Hayes learned a lot from his collaboration with the Star, and that led NOISE to try experimenting with a magazine format to get important topics — like the history of redlining in Omaha — to a generation that normally may not pick up a newspaper.

NOISE’s next ‘zine will be published in August both in print and online. The focus will be on Omaha’s Black civil rights history, which is extensive, considering that Malcolm X was born there.

Hayes said he’s a big fan of the ‘zine culture and small publications that encapsulate a variety of ideas.  And, he said the idea of creating a printed product is still important. “I recognize that something tangible and tactile can be just as, if not more, effective” than an online-only publication, Hayes said.

But at the same time, he knows that print is a finite product. So the online version of a Black civil rights history timeline will take on a life of its own. NOISE will invite the community to submit their own images and stories to the timeline, especially from the uprising during the late ’60s.

That kind of interaction is key to NOISE’s success, Hayes said.

“News needs to be inviting,” he said. “It’s not just that we are going to tell you what’s happening. But we are an ecosystem. The readers who engage with our content are just as, if not more, knowledgable about things.”

Listening is just as important as telling for NOISE, and that stems from the organization’s early work with the Listening Post Collective. The knowledge learned from listening to the community has stuck with Hayes throughout his tenure at NOISE.

“I go back to that (Listening Post Collective) document often,” Hayes said. “It’s rooted in honesty.”

“There’s simplicity in that,” he continued. “Sometimes we felt ourselves get away from that. But you really have to come back and say, ‘What’s up?’ and have a real conversation about it. The benefit that NOISE has is because of our relationship and direct personal contacts. We are just as affected by the news as anyone else. … It’s a grounding and you’re always trying to keep doing better. Find entry opportunities for people to come into your space, but also ask to be in their space to share information.”

Hayes stressed that NOISE is the platform for the news. NOISE is not dictating what’s news or what’s not.

“As someone who studied journalism and teaches it to others, the No. 1 principle is listening and listen well,” he said. 

Hayes and NOISE continue to listen and learn, not just from the public, but from the American Journalism Project cohort they are a part of, which includes the likes of City Bureau in Chicago. In fact, NOISE is working to create a documenters program in conjunction with the Heartland Workers Center in the spirit of City Bureau. That will enable people in North Omaha who are interested in bettering their community to expand NOISE’s reach by attending local meetings.

“There are a ton of public boards and commissions that gather with little attendance or oversight,” Hayes said. “When someone from the public is just there, the conversation changes.”

Because of all of the events NOISE has been a part of the past couple of years, they have accumulated a broad network of people (about 700 in total) interested in helping their community.  The challenge is finding ways to turn that energy into something actionable. NOISE has asked this group what they think their strengths are. If they said they are good storytellers, they will be invited to documenter training, with a goal of having them attend community meetings.

Not everything they document will be turned into stories, but it helps an outlet like NOISE so it doesn’t overextend itself. At the same time it empowers others and creates an effective way to hold people accountable.

That matches up well with two of NOISE’s three primary pillars (civics, community and culture) and it also helps NOISE plan out its roadmap for growth and sustainability.

And, of course, it’s the right thing to do — empowering the community to become more involved and help each other. 

As Hayes says: “You have the power to tell your story, so do it — by any means necessary and that’s available to you”

Suddenly, that solar-powered airplane doesn’t seem that far off now, does it?

‘We’re Going To Make It, I Think’

‘We’re Going To Make It, I Think’

July 30, 2020

You’ve probably read about the dire situation for alt-weeklies during the pandemic. Many of them have either stopped printing and gone online only, or have closed altogether. 

The Pittsburgh City Paper, the alt-weekly in the Steel City, has not had to resort to those measures — yet. And as editor-in-chief Lisa Cunningham puts it: “We’re going to make it, I think.” 

Taking the finances out of the picture for a minute, and the City Paper has had an incredible year. The paper has been applauded for its coverage of the pandemic, the unrest following the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing implosion within the newsroom of the longtime newspaper of record in Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette (full disclosure: I used to work at the PG).

By all accounts, this should be a banner year for the City Paper. But the financial situation can’t be ignored. The covid-19 crisis decimated local events, restaurants and music venues — and in turn decimated the CP’s advertising dollars. That has led to furloughs and unfilled positions, a reduction in weekly printed pages and the ever-present threat of full-on layoffs.

But Cunningham, ad director Jasmine Hughes and director of operations Kevin Shepherd have kept the ship from sinking by getting a PPP loan, a small Google grant, a Pittsburgh Media Partnership tech grant, and by creating some new alternative revenue sources. 

For example:

They started a membership campaign in March, even though it wasn’t supposed to officially launch until later in the year. (For example, a recurring membership of $20 per month would cover the cost of the City Paper’s email newsletter for a week, and you’ll also get a photo print and a bunch of swag.) 

They’ve started to sell merchandise, including coloring books, cookbooks and t-shirts. 

The “Over-The-Top Completely Ridiculous Yinzerrific Coloring Book” was a collaboration with 35 local artists, with 50 percent of proceeds split among those who helped draw the scenes for the book.

The “J’eet Jet” cookbook features 50 recipes from locals restauranteurs and others, with a portion of the proceeds going to the 412 Food Rescue nonprofit group in Pittsburgh. (Oh, by the way, you’ll be able to pick up the coloring book and the cookbook together for a special price in early August if you’re so inclined.)

As you can see from these partnerships, the City Paper is trying to help the community as much as it is trying to save itself.

“Our long-time goal is to help our community out, and that’s what we do with our stories, too,” said Cunningham, who has worked for the City Paper for more than 20 years. “That’s our mission — to always try to amplify the voices in our community.

“What’s been really special is that some of the artists I reached out to (for the coloring book) said they wanted to donate the proceeds they’re making back to us. That’s incredible.”

The love and support from the community and the City Paper’s longtime readers has made these painful last few months somewhat easier to deal with. 

“The only thing that keeps us going is getting the feedback from the community,” Cunningham said. “I told all of the writers to keep a folder and get a boost from it. It means everything. It really does mean the world.”

Because of the excellent community coverage the City Paper has done, especially recently by the likes of news editor Ryan Deto, the staff has been put in an interesting position — Cunningham said they’re now receiving more tips than ever, but because of staff reductions they’re not able to follow up on all of them.

“It’s a lot of pressure, too,” she said. “It’s harder now with things that are going on with the Post-Gazette. We’re getting more pitches than ever before. People are coming to us with harder news stories. But we have less staff than we’ve ever had before.

“What do we do? We don’t have the staff or the page count. So we pass on some stories to other media outlets in town that we trust. That says a lot about Pittsburgh’s media relationships and why it’s so important to keep places like the Post-Gazette and PublicSource and WESA and The Incline and not have them shut down. We’re not going to be the paper of record. We’re an alt-weekly.”

Cunningham said the future of alt-weeklies will be up for discussion at the industry’s annual conference  (now virtual) in September. There will be horror stories, of course, and there will be stories of hope like the one playing out in Pittsburgh.

“I think the City Paper can survive,” Cunningham said. “I do.” 

Sharing (and Caring) in Iowa

Sharing (and Caring) in Iowa

Aug. 8, 2020

This week we’re going to hand over the keys to the Alliance newsletter to one of our esteemed NewStart fellows — Tony Baranowski, who is the Director of Local Media for Times Citizen Communications in Iowa Falls, a small but diverse multimedia company in the north central part of the Hawkeye State.

Tony manages all aspects of operations for the Iowa Falls Times Citizen (which is a 3,000-circulation twice weekly) another weekly called the Ackley World Journal, a shopper, the in-house radio station called KIFG, and a press release distribution service that works with clients nationwide, The Link.

Tony Baranowski

He recently told me about this interesting collaboration he developed with other newspaper operators across the state, and it’s an idea that others should know about and emulate.

So Alliance, meet Tony.

Tony, take it away…

When I started the NewStart program a little more than a month ago, in the thick of a global pandemic, trying to help lead from within my own media organization, working from home most days with twin 9-year-olds to care for, it felt a little insane.

But it was also a huge relief.

Yes, adding hours of readings and weekly assignments to my schedule has been a challenge. But I was also adding a cohort of smart, thoughtful and understanding people to my circle who I knew would help as we all traverse our way through this insanity together. I knew because it was the second time I had sought out such a group in recent months.

Back in March, before COVID had really ripped into Iowa, at Times Citizen Communications, we were still recovering from another kind of virus. We’d been hit by a ransomware attack the previous summer and were just beginning to get back to business as usual after massive hardware, software and policy overhauls. We have an incredible leadership team and great journalistic staff, but it felt prudent to reach out to other publishers in the state to compare notes on our plans.

I reached out to four similar sized operations — four of the smartest folks I know in Iowa newspapering and people I’ve leaned on as mentors for years; Jeff and Myrna Wagner of Iowa Information, Alan and Steve Mores of Harlan Newspapers, Mary Ungs-Sogaard of Woodward Communications, and Doug Burns of Herald Publishing. Word spread, we added other publishers and editors from around the state, as well as Susan Patterson Plank, Executive Director of the Iowa Newspaper Association.

What developed was a weekly/bi-weekly Zoom session in which we hash over strategies to deal with the inevitable revenue shortfalls of the pandemic, share links to grant opportunities, flesh out ideas for ways to better serve our communities and customers, talk about office distancing and masking policies and, sometimes, we just vent or laugh together.

“Jeff and I have appreciated our weekly Zoom meetings as something of a support group during these unusual times. No other business in our trade area can relate to the challenges of this industry in the same way that our peers from across the state can,” Myrna Wager said. “Our business locations are distant enough that we aren’t competitors, so we’ve been able to share revenue ideas, news stories, sensitive topics and work-from-home strategies. I believe there are positives to be found in every tough situation, and during this COVID-19 crisis, our Zoom meetings hover near the top of the list.”

It’s been cathartic, to be sure, but the topics we’ve discussed have both saved us money and generated thousands in revenue as we shared ideas, at least one of which was previously featured here in the NewStart newsletter. Likewise, Patterson Plank has latched onto discussion topics to share with the larger network of Iowa publishers via the INA’s Bulletin.

“The sessions are part therapy, part brainstorming and part networking,” said Patterson Plank. “Most people in upper management in the publishing business are in many ways a singular person in their community. They are engaged with local business movers and shakers and the community at large. These meetings frankly provide a safe space, a no judgement zone. It’s a reminder that no one is alone and sometimes you get a good idea on how to generate revenue. Either way it’s an hour well spent.”

We’ve all missed out on opportunities to gather in person, including the inspiration often produced by conventions and conferences. While some of those larger gatherings have found ways to resume virtually, most community publishers have rightly focused on how to keep their staff both safe and productive.

Sometimes, though, the benefit of a coffee (or beer!) with a small group of allies pays the bigger dividends.

Thanks to Tony for taking time out of his super-busy schedule to share some knowledge with us. He’s doing great things in Iowa. 

If you would like to be like Tony, you may want to consider becoming a media entrepreneur via our NewStart program and taking over a rural publication somewhere in the country. Email me at [email protected] and we can set up a phone call or Zoom meeting and chat.

And here’s something to consider: If you’re an owner or publisher who is grooming someone in your newsroom to eventually take over, why not consider enrolling them in our one-year, online master’s degree in Media Solutions and Innovation from West Virginia University? It would make a worthwhile investment in your publication’s future.

Journalism Advice From A Musician

Journalism Advice From A Musician

Aug. 13, 2020

As you know, dear readers, I’m always looking for new or interesting business models that publications (and entrepreneurial journalists) can learn from as we try to ensure that journalism not just survives, but thrives.

So last week I reached out to a musician.  

Why? Well, I reached out to singer-songwriter Mike Doughty because he’s done some interesting things on Patreon the past four years to build his own audience  — a paying audience — to help fund his career. And, as it turns out, he has some thoughts on the future of journalism, too.

Here’s a quick look at the pricing structure of Doughty’s Patreon page:

Doughty’s “Patrons” will receive a new song from him every week for a low price of $5 a month. Four songs for $5. Not a bad deal if you dig Doughty’s style of music. And people do. He currently has more than 1,000 Patrons on board and has posted hundreds of songs.

“It is fabulously successful,” Doughty told me. “It has replaced income from record deals entirely. It pays the mortgage and pays for food.”

For those who followed Doughty’s career from his early Soul Coughing days, or for those who happened to catch one of his songs on an NPR station or online and liked what they heard, becoming a Patron is like Christmas four times a month. 

But, of course, there are the less-than-hardcore fans who also support Doughty on a monthly basis. 

“A lot of people are just voting for me to exist,” Doughty said. “Certainly that’s true for how I pay for journalism. I read the New York Times every day, and the Post some days and Economist and the Wall Street Journal fewer than that. They’re all things I give money to. Well, the Journal through Apple News, but that’s another story.

“I want them to exist,” Doughty continued. “I don’t take advantage of (reading) them, other than the Times, every day.  But I want you to be there.”

Doughty sees the same sort of thinking with his Patreon fanbase. Even if they’re not taking advantage of listening to each and every song, they still find it worthwhile to subscribe.

That song-a-week offer is key, Doughty said. Without that incentive, he doesn’t think people would be willing to give him $5 a month, if anything at all.

“It wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a quid pro quo,” he said.

But at the same time, Doughty also learned that there is a sweet spot for content with his Patreon audience. For a while, he was posting new songs as soon as he created them, so the audience sometimes received more than one a week. But it turns out that was overwhelming.

“It drove subscribers away,” he said. “The more I put out, the more cancellations I got.”

Doughty learned to stick to the script.

“One a week is the contract, and you send out one a week,” he said.

During the pandemic, Doughty found himself ahead of the curve among musicians. When touring went away, many songwriters and bands scrambled to set up online concerts on platforms like StageIt.com. And a lot are struggling with the virtual setting.

“I am so ahead of the game,” he said. “And I’m so lucky to be good at this.  And being good at this means you’re absorbed and fascinated by it and engaged with it.”

But the big question: Will it work for journalists? Jarrod Dicker of the Washington Post thinks there is a strong connection between the current music industry and the future of journalism (See this and this for reference). Dicker sees individual journalists building their brands and fanbases on platforms like Substack — much like Doughty and his Patreon fanbase — and media companies acting more like record companies or talent agencies.

Doughty was hesitant to say that vision of journalism is a slam dunk. He still thinks there is good value in an overall journalism brand and a newsroom of journalists. He pointed to The Daily Memphian, based where he resides in Memphis, Tennessee, as an example.

“They really cover the boring shit,” he said. “It’s all journalists who used to work at the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Flyer.  They go to school board meetings and know zoning laws. I don’t read every single article, but I vote for them to exist. They are well worth the $10 a month.”

Doughty also said the Patreon model won’t work for everything. He said to make it successful, you really need a “base of members who are intensely interested from the jump.” Without that, he said, you have no way to grow a business. For him, he feels a minimum of 1,000 Patrons is key.

Even though he has found success with Patreon, Doughty is actively looking for a record company. It’s not because he believes his Patreon will be short-lived, but because a record company can handle a lot of the behind-the-scene tasks (like finding someone to design an album cover) while he focuses on the creativity. (This does fall in line with Dicker’s journalism vision in his Medium posts, by the way.)

“My goal is to work with a record company and have a conventional recording career, and have Patreon run parallel to it,” Doughty said. “You’re never going to be on a label for the rest of your life. I want to have that member base on Patreon. I feel this is a thing I can do until late in my life.”

Unlike other artists who are trying to make a quick buck online during the pandemic by offering up a live show, Doughty is looking way into the future.

“I’m looking for people who will pay $5 and stay with me for a really long time,” he said. “That’s my model. It works for me. Because it suits the way I work and the way I think about what I do. But I don’t know if it works for everyone.”

When One Door Closes, Another Opens

When One Door Closes, Another Opens

Aug. 20, 2020

Amy Duncan used to work for Gannett as a vice president in charge of a group of Des Moines Register weekly newspapers — publications that made a profit. 

But a little over two years ago, she was told her position was going to be eliminated.

And that led Duncan to do a lot of thinking.

“People kept telling me that nobody cared about news,” she said. “I wondered if that was true.”

After taking a short pause in her career, Duncan built a WordPress site to house her clips and started applying for jobs again. Around that time she also posted an article on the site and on Facebook about her son’s baseball game. To her surprise, that article got more than 400 views.


A little while later, she posted a column on a restaurant opening and that got about 800 views.

At this point the wheels started turning.

“Maybe people do care about local news,” she thought.

So she kept reporting and posting, and at the same time she created a business plan to start her own publication. That plan eventually turned into the Indianola Independent Advocate, a website that launched in January 2019 and is dedicated to the city of nearly 16,000 residents.

The Independent Advocate amassed more than 700 digital subscribers in less than a year, and now in year two that number has climbed to about 1,200. There was some concern after the first year when subscription renewals were sent, but so far, so good. The number continues to rise.

“That says we’re doing something right,” Duncan said. “To the community, we’re doing a lot of things right.”

Duncan has a small staff — two writers, a sales rep, her husband (a photographer) and, of course, Duncan herself.

There has been a lot of learning and experimentation going on during these early days of her online publication. 

That includes digital subscriptions. Currently the Independent Advocate has four subscription levels, as seen here:

Duncan said she sees comments on Facebook posts from folks who say they’re not going to pay to read her articles behind a paywall (of course), but “a lot of people have stepped up and said, ‘Hey, this is how they’re making a living. If we want to have this, we have to pay for it.'”

At the same time, she does provide some content for free — “things people need to function as citizens,” as she put it. That includes stories on COVID-19, weekly columns from state reps and the city manager, and, wait for it … obituaries. Free to read and free to submit. That, in particular, is a major break from print traditions. 

Duncan has experimented with newsletters, including a Saturday morning email that acts like a weekly recap of everything they’ve published throughout the week.  She said she also found that subscribers treat the weekday morning newsletter like a daily paper. 

Clearly, the experiments and learning opportunities are paying off. Duncan is now expanding her coverage area.  She is soft-launching a new website that will serve some of the rural communities surrounding Indianola. They kicked it off by livestreaming their county fair, and then followed that up with a print results section that is being distributed in the communities.

That’s right, print is still a part of the mission, even if it isn’t the main focus. 

“We chose not to do print (as a main product) because it’s such a huge expense in paper and postage,” Duncan said. “So online was an inexpensive way to get into it.”

Duncan calls her use of print products “judicious.”  Her current print products include a graduation section, the previously mentioned county fair wrap-up, and some event-driven community sections, including ones on the local opera season and a hot air balloon event. 

Those guides give the community a taste of print, but Duncan hopes those who love print will follow her, and pay for her content, online. She said she’s starting to see some cracks in print’s armor.

“One lady said, ‘Oh, we’ll never give up our print paper. … I don’t think (a website) is something I would use.” Duncan recalled. Two months later, the woman told Duncan she and her husband were leaving for a weekend in Florida and she bought her husband his own iPad so they could both read the Independent Advocate online.

That’s a good sign for the future of the Independent Advocate, as Duncan attempts to grow her audience in Indianola and beyond.

“They’re figuring out that it’s the content they care about, not the way it comes to them,” Duncan said.

And at the same time, media entrepreneurs like Duncan are figuring some things out that can allow them to take on the corporate chains. 

“There’s such a vibrant world of people who have left Gannett and other corporations and are finding communities that do want news, and are hungry for it, and are finding ways to provide it,” Duncan said.

“Now we can do what fits our town,” she added, “instead of the corporate world.”