An Engaging Idea To Help Your Publication Thrive

An Engaging Idea To Help Your Publication Thrive

Mar. 26, 2021

We’ve got a surprise in this week’s Alliance newsletter. Bridget Thoreson, the Engagement Manager at Hearken, is stopping by to talk about network mapping. Don’t know what network mapping is or what it has to do with journalism — especially at your local news publication? Well then this newsletter is for you.

So without further ado, please give a warm welcome to our very special guest star, Bridget Thoreson!

Making your outreach roadmap with network mapping

by Bridget Thoreson, Engagement Manager, Hearken

One of the first questions newsrooms ask me when they’re considering engagement journalism is where to start. Today I’d like to share a simple but powerful exercise to provide a roadmap for reaching out to specific audiences to inform your reporting.

First, a word on engagement – I work at Hearken, an engagement consultancy serving newsrooms, and we define engagement as a feedback loop with your audiences. This goes beyond getting likes on social media to providing pathways for audience members to ask questions that directly inform your reporting.

On to network mapping!

This exercise is included in the Citizens Agenda guide for engaged elections reporting (available for free download here), and was part of the Election SOS training taken by 134 journalists from 63 newsrooms last year. One of our participants was such a fan that she wrote a Nieman Lab piece outlining the impact this approach had for her own newsroom and others.

First, on a piece of paper or on your computer, put the topic you are interested in covering in a circle in the center. If you’re interested in pursuing engagement outreach for all your coverage, your news outlet can go here.

Next, start drawing stakeholder groups connected to the central circle. These groups can be defined any way – by demographic info, by interests, by platform usage. Audience members can belong to more than one circle.

You can also use visual cues as you map – if this is an especially large part of your audience, give them an especially large circle. If they’re superfans, put them close to the center, etc. Use cues that make sense to you. Here’s an example of the start of a network map from the Citizens Agenda guide: 

Next, keep going! Keep adding circles even after you start running out of ideas. This is where things get really creative. 

Last, look at groups that are not on your map. Who are you not currently reaching who may want to connect to your news coverage on this topic? List them on the side. You can find ways to reach them.

Once you’ve drafted your map, take a look and identify just one group to start reaching out to. Think of existing platforms where you could connect with them, both those run by your newsroom and external platforms. 

You can revisit this map and add to it as often as you like. By identifying stakeholders for your coverage, you’ll have a better sense of who you’re trying to reach, what you can offer them and where to go next with your engagement work. 

If you’d like to learn more about network mapping, or other ways to approach engagement and build trust with your audiences, please join us April 7 for our free virtual summit

Thanks to Bridget for joining us this week! I’d be interested to see what kind of network mapping you all can do for projects you are working on, or for your publications in general. Just reply to this email or tap here and let me know how it goes.

I’m sure Bridget would enjoy hearing your experiences with network mapping, as well. You can reach out to her on Twitter @BridgetThoreson.

Meet a New Local News Owner (And NewStart Fellow)

Meet a New Local News Owner (And NewStart Fellow)

Mar. 19, 2021

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing the stories of new fellows entering our NewStart program as part of our second cohort.

If you follow us on Twitter, you may have seen mentions from several folks who have already been accepted.

That includes Maggie McGuire, who dropped some big news on Wednesday:

The deal to acquire the Moab Sun News has been in the works since November, and the paperwork for the deal was signed March 1.

It’s a quick rise for McGuire at the weekly publication. She was hired in 2019 as managing editor after spending time as a freelancer.

Now, she’s the owner.

“I’m really excited to quit being a back-seat driver and take my idea and put it to the test,” she said.

Journalism seems to be in McGuire’s blood. Both of her parents worked for their hometown paper in Michigan. And her great-grandfather also ran a newspaper.

Now, McGuire will learn via WVU’s NewStart program how to carry on that tradition in new ways, including through the diversification of revenue sources and by engaging new and existing audiences.

“With fewer and fewer newspapers, that sense of community and the ability to draw on others’ experiences and not have to go it on your own is in danger,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to engaging with people who know how to run a newspaper and small business in the communities we’re serving. It’s probably not dinner table talk for everyone. … I’m really jazzed about sharing the nuts and bolts and sharing the experience with them.”

Until Year 2 of the NewStart program starts, McGuire is getting acclimated with the business side of the Sun News, and is looking for new ways to connect with her Moab community. For example, she donated years of leather-bound editions of the paper to the public library, where they are now available in a local history section for the community to explore and learn from.

“Being able to share that with the community in general, and increase their awareness of what’s gone on over past 10 years, I just love it,” she said. “That’s been, overall, the thing that has excited me the most. I’m excited for all the ways the paper can expand the sense of the community, (showcase) itself as a viable business, but that it also is a social good and serves a social purpose. It’s really cool. We’re not just selling burgers, so that’s rad. I’m 100 percent getting to live my values, and that’s awesome.”

Feeding Fred the News

Feeding ‘Fred’ the News

Mar. 12, 2021

As we reached the one-year mark of the pandemic shutdown in the United States, you probably read many pieces that looked back over the past year. From the tragic loss of loved ones to empty shelves at grocery stores to a completely new way of living our lives, COVID-19 impacted everything.

Brian Wilson, news editor of The Star News in Medford, Wisconsin, has been documenting this tumultuous last year in the pages of the weekly publication in a unique way.  I’ll let him explain:

“Last spring when the pandemic hit, I started writing columns as letters to a future reporter named ‘Fred’ (after Fred Rogers, because the world needs hope) with the concept that ‘Fred’ was a cub reporter in 2120 and was given the job of doing a story on the 100th anniversary of COVID-19,” he said.

For the first couple of months he penned his “Fred” columns weekly as coronavirus updates were fast and furious. Since then he’s done occasional dispatches for “Fred” on things like the cancellation of the county fair, the start of school and the impact on the holidays.

Wilson said the columns aren’t just a way to document history, but also serve as a reminder to people that, no matter how they feel about it, we are living in historic times.

“Overall they have been very well received,” Wilson told me. “One reader commented to me that she especially enjoyed reading those columns because they gave her a new perspective that people in the future would care about what was going on.” 

He said he planned on writing one this month for the one-year anniversary of the local emergency declarations and see how things have changed.

“There is a lot of optimism right now in the community,” Wilson said, “which is a far cry from the fear that was there a year ago.”

Is This the Future of Public Notices?

Is This the Future of Public Notices?

Mar. 5, 2021

Hopefully you saw the link in last week’s newsletter about three newspaper chains striking a deal with a company called Column to streamline their public notices.

As the article mentioned, Column has grown significantly in the past year via deals with the Washington Post and numerous state press associations.

By now I hope you know how significant the money generated from public notices is for many newspapers’ bottom lines. And I hope you know about the constant push from lawmakers to end requirements that certain legal notices have to be published in a printed newspaper. 

West Virginia Press Association executive director and NewStart founder, Don Smith, is currently in the midst of his yearly battle to save the requirement in his state. And due to a Republican super majority in his state legislature, that battle is quite intense, to say the least.

The alternatives that are proposed by lawmakers are less than ideal. It’s not that they just want to open it up to online publications because that’s where public eyeballs are trending. They want to house these on their own government websites where few people may ever visit, providing less transparency into what is happening in communities across the country.

State press associations have been fighting the good fight for their members, and some, like West Virginia, have created their own websites to help satisfy requirements for a digital presence and improve the experience.

Column is another tool for publishers and state press associations in the battle to keep public notice transparency alive. The company is a public benefit corporation that was started by Jake Seaton, who comes from a long line of newspaper publishers in Kansas.

I got a tour this week of Column and wanted to share some of the details for anyone thinking about upgrading their public notices systems — both individual publishers and press associations.

First of all, let’s start off with the price, because we all know publications are strapped for cash. 

It is free for press associations to join the platform, and it is also free for individual publications to use the service. There are no initial costs or maintenance fees. 

So … how does Column make money?

It charges a processing fee on all transactions done via the service. Column suggests passing that on to those placing the ads, so publications do not have to absorb that cost (credit card fees are baked into that processing fee, BTW).

What does it look like?  Here’s an example of how the Colorado Press Association uses Column for public notices.

The statewide database is searchable via date, location, publication and notice type.  Users also can sign up to get email alerts based off of search queries daily, weekly or monthly.

Individual publishers can have a similar look. The Washington Post went as far as to add a mapping feature, allowing people to locate trustee sales, for example, across the D.C. region.

Column can also help publishers manage their notices and streamline the process. 

There is a self-service option for those placing ads. Column can help create custom affidavit templates for the public to use, provide rates and show a preview of how it will look in print. It can even help paginate notices as they come through the system. 

I could see Column creating some additional tools down the road so publishers could insert legal notices into their existing editorial newsletters, or exporting the data in a format that investigative reporters could use to find story ideas or track trends over time.

Joey Young, majority owner of Kansas Publishing Ventures, said his company has enjoyed its experience with Column so far.

“We have had very little trouble with clients adapting to it, and when we have had issues the Column staff have been super easy to work with in getting those issues fixed,” he said via email. “We have most of our customers converted to using Column, as we took a slow and steady uploading process approach. Our hope is to get to about 90 percent adoption for our three legal newspapers.”

There is one other Column feature to note — a donation platform.

Column offers a set of out-of-the-box donation tools that the foundation arm of an association can use to send donations to newspapers. Column can help foundations customize the page, keep track of donations and email receipts to donors.

Here are a few examples from the New York Newspaper Foundation and the Florida Press Foundation.

The Orlando Sentinel is one newspaper that has benefited from this arrangement. You can read about the publication’s efforts here.

As long as newspapers still have public notices, they will have to find a good way to make the entire process of acquiring and publishing them happen with as few pain points as possible. In general, turning over valuable content to a third party is a risky proposition, but if your newspaper or association can’t do it alone, Column may be a good option. The terms seem to be solid (for now). And hopefully efforts like this will help in the battle to ensure that government agencies continue to be transparent for years to come.

No Power? No Problem. Grab Some Coffee and News.

No Power? No Problem. Grab Some Coffee and News.

Feb. 26, 2021

A year ago Max Kabat and Maisie Crow were featured in the New York Times after purchasing two West Texas newspapers, including the Big Bend Sentinel, and opening a cafe and cocktail bar in the middle of the town of Marfa.

A lot — and I mean A LOT — has happened in the year since that article was published. That includes some terrible things, like a global pandemic that has caused turmoil for the newspaper and service industries (and humankind in general). But some great things have happened, too, like the premiere screening of Crow’s documentary film, “At the Ready,” last month at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

A few weeks after that screening, however, the couple was forced to meet yet another challenge head on — a rare Texas winter storm that knocked out power to a large portion of the state.

Marfa, which is in the high desert of West Texas, is prone to significant temperature drops overnight, but that’s nothing like the sustained below-freezing cold front that swooped in Valentine’s Day weekend. 

A significant portion of Marfa lost power. That meant no heat for many who live in homes that aren’t well insulated. It also spelled trouble for those with electric stoves and hot water heaters. It also meant no high-speed internet. On top of that, cell phone service also was knocked out for the major carrier in the area, making it extremely difficult for people to get life-saving information.

That’s when Crow, Kabat and their teams at the newspaper and the cafe went into action.

“We thought, ‘How can we do this? What does the community need right now?’ Kabat said. “People need warmth, smiles, and they need to know that others are going through the same thing.”

The cafe didn’t have power, but it did have a gas stove. All of the food there had to be used right away or else it would spoil. So the cooking (and coffee making) commenced. They offered it up to everyone in town. Pay what you want, or don’t pay at all. The community was grateful.

Meanwhile, Crow, Kabat and the newspaper staff had to find a way to cover the storm and its aftermath, both online and in print. They found a friend of a friend in town whose house still had power and internet, so they packed up their computers and made that the newspaper’s new headquarters for a few days. 

They were able to produce the first half of that week’s paper there. They drove around town, when it was safe, to talk to officials and residents, but the roads were not good.

Eventually, ground zero for the newspaper transitioned to the local school, which was also ground zero for residents since it still had power. The school was turned into a warming station for the community. Local grocery stores donated food that was turned into free meals for anyone who could make it there. It was also a hub for information, both from officials and the Sentinel staff.

Speaking of the newspaper, the staff turned the teachers’ lounge into a makeshift newsroom and was able to update the website from there and finish putting together that week’s print edition.

Did they meet their print deadline? You bet. And remarkably, the printing company they use still had power, so in between snowstorms Kabat made the 2.5-hour trip to the press in his 4×4 to pick up the papers, drove them 2.5 hours back to Marfa, stuffed them and started making deliveries. Those who receive the paper via the postal service might have received the paper a little later than usual, but Kabat said the Sentinel was the only paper in the region that was delivered that week.

“It took a little longer to get it to some places,” Kabat said, “but people expect it.”

Kabat said he was glad the newspaper and the cafe was able to be there when the community needed them the most. And he knows how important the community is for them.

“We need them as much as they need us,” he said.

Is it Time to Rethink Strategy?

Is it Time to Rethink Strategy?

Feb. 19, 2021

The news this week of Alden Global Capital’s purchase of Tribune Publishing means more metro newspapers have been swallowed by a hedge fund.

So it goes.

I don’t use that phrase, made famous by Kurt Vonnegut in his book “Slaughterhouse-Five,” in the way most people think Vonnegut meant it — as a shrug of the shoulders and an “oh well, that’s life.” I care tremendously about those papers and hate to see what is to become of them. 

Vonnegut’s “so it goes” was more about death and free will (or the lack thereof) — in his case through the lens of World War II. 

In fact, one passage of the book is a conversation between Vonnegut and a filmmaker, who asked him if he was writing an anti-war book. Vonnegut pondered this and then said yes, he supposed it was, indeed, an anti-war book.

Are the hedge fund acquisitions of major metro newspapers across the country like wars and glaciers — unstoppable?

Perhaps. Some will point to the fact that the Baltimore Sun was spared in this round of acquisitions. But for how long? That’s yet to be seen.

Are we, as an industry, fighting an unstoppable force? And should we be taking a different approach to ensuring the future of local news? These larger chain newspapers are, in many cases, riddled with debt. And it is as hard to change their business models as it is to turn an ocean liner that’s on a collision course with … a glacier.

In the case of the Tribune properties, especially the Chicago Tribune, many inside and outside of the newsrooms pleaded for someone, anyone — from local and national foundations to wealthy individuals — to step forward and purchase their publications to make them locally owned and operated.  Heck, the Chicago Tribune was apparently even turning a 13 percent profit(!), albeit after a number of recent cuts.

Yet despite all of the pleas for acquisition, no one (outside of Baltimore) stepped up to the plate. As NPR’s David Folkenflik quoted Chicago Tribune editor and publisher Colin McMahon, simply hoping a wealthy benefactor steps in is just “dreams and hope.”

So it goes.

Are we putting our efforts into saving major metro newspapers at the detriment of others who also really need help, and could actually survive and thrive? I’m referring to the kinds of publications  — rural community weekly publications that have no debt, a loyal audience, small staffs and profitability — and the lean digital startups like those served by LION Publications that aren’t tied to print and are able to adjust to market forces more easily than the giant chains.

Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate our priorities in the media ecosystem, and focus on the ones that have the best chances of survival. In the case of existing rural print publications, they can be had for a reasonable sale price, opening up more options for local, independent owners (and first-time buyers) who are willing to transform the business to continue sustainability well into the future through a diversification of revenue. And in the case of digital startups, those outlets may have a solid business model from the start; all they need is help acquiring an audience. 

I don’t want us to write off the major metro publications. Far from it.  But I also wonder if more good can come from spreading out across the country and helping those who want it, and those who can be impacted greatly by providing them more attention, training and guidance. 

Let’s get past the “dreams and hope,” and let’s take action.

How can we give them the shot they deserve?  An influx of new, highly trained local owners is a start. That means seeking out diverse, entrepreneurial minds in our industry, providing them with the business/publisher knowledge base needed to succeed, and making connections with current owners who want to see their publications continue with local ownership for many years to come. Access to favorable financing options is another must-have. Local and national foundations purchasing and holding publications until local, independent owners can be found and trained also would be beneficial. In addition, national journalism organizations should be coordinating with each other to make all of this happen as fast and seamless as possible.

And while we’re at it, all of us in the industry can help shift the narrative and public awareness of local news from “rescue/save” language to language that is about investing in communities and acknowledging where legitimate economic opportunities do exist across the country. It seems that message is consistently obscured by talk of perpetual distress, which furthers the cycle of people unwilling to step forward to purchase publications, no matter much profit they bring in.

These things can be done, and truth be told they’re happening, but it seems to be a piecemeal approach. 

So it goes? No. Let’s go big, and let’s make it happen for these small publications — right now.

Moving the Chains

Moving the Chains

Feb. 5, 2021

You may have seen the news this week that Gannett sold off three newspapers in Oklahoma

The three papers — the Miami News-Record, the Grove Grand Lake News, and The Delaware County Journal — were purchased by a family-owned newspaper company called Reid Newspapers, which already owns seven other papers and operates two printing operations.

News of a Gannett or other large corporate chain selling off a paper doesn’t come up very often. But expect to hear more about these types of deals in the future.

Sara April, who works for the media M&A firm Dirks, Van Essen & April (which represented Gannett in this deal), discussed this with our NewStart class late last year.

“One thing we’re seeing is some of the larger companies, whether it is a Gannett or a mid-size group, they’re really working on refining their strategies around digital, around publishing cycles,” April told our students. “And some of them are finding that strategy really lends itself better to certain circulation categories.  So maybe they’re really focused on their larger papers. So they’re looking to sell their smaller papers where the digital strategy just doesn’t translate as well.” 

April added that that certainly rang true for Gannett.

“That’s really a clear strategy change for them,” she said. “The smaller papers don’t fit in with the strategies they’re moving forward with.”

And sure enough, if you look at the three papers sold in this deal, the papers’ digital strategy is, well … pretty much nonexistent. Only two of the three have websites, and there isn’t a consistent social media strategy among the three.

Hopefully putting the three former Gannett properties in local hands will help those publications and the communities they serve.

At the same time, however, this pushes the family-owned newspaper company from seven properties to 10. Which begs the question: when is a newspaper company too big? 

Yes, there are efficiencies that can be implemented across all of the properties to streamline operations. But at what point does streamlining get in the way of providing individual communities with the information they need and want? And what happens when the current owners want to sell? If sold together, the price is steep, and that leaves a lot of potential buyers locked out. And that can lead to larger corporations swooping in and getting even bigger. And the cycle continues. I think you see where I’m going here…

Sadly, I don’t have good answers to the questions posed above. If anyone else can point me in the direction of some research on this topic, or if anyone has an opinion on this, I’d love to hear it.

An Experiment Ends

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the news that McClatchy has ended the Compass Experiment.

The company created two hyperlocal news outlets — one in Youngstown, Ohio, and the other in Longmont, Colorado, to see if independent local news websites could become self-sustaining. 

They had small editorial teams and small business development departments, and shared resources for strategy, sales, events and more.

A third site was supposed to be added to the mix, but that never materialized. 

Mahoning Matters and the Longmont Leader won’t disappear entirely. McClatchy’s news division will run Mahoning and Village Media will take over Longmont. So not everything is lost.

Upon announcing the news, Mandy Jenkins mentioned a very interesting point: “One of the hardest lessons we have learned so far is how difficult it is to efficiently operate local news sites without the benefits of a network. We built our sites to loosely emulate the playbook of our partners at Village Media. We found it challenging to replicate their output, growth, and revenue options without the resources made available through their shared central team and network of websites.”

So what is the right mix of ownership? And what are the right expectations of a media company in today’s day and age? Many questions to ponder this week…

A Template for Local Journalism: The Welch News Serving a Struggling Market in WV

Jan. 7, 2021

We’re kicking off 2021 with a story from our partners at the West Virginia Press Association about something near and dear to our hearts — helping local newspapers adapt and survive. In this instance, The Welch News in West Virginia teamed up with The Paywall Project, and it has paid off.

Haven’t heard about The Paywall Project? Oh, you should. Read on for all of the details…

A Template for Local Journalism: The Welch News Serving a Struggling Market in WV

By Lexi Browning, West Virginia Press Association

WELCH, W.Va. — At a time when many communities across the country have lost their local newspaper, The Welch News, an independent and locally owned newspaper, found a way forward to serve its community despite the economic struggles in McDowell County, West Virginia.

In 2018, The Welch News was on the brink of closing. Missy Nester, then employed as publisher, had written the newspaper’s obituary and announced its final publication date would be May 7.

Instead of stopping the presses, Nester, a McDowell County native, decided to purchase the failing publication. 

With the help of the West Virginia Community Development Hub; Tyler Channell, founder of the Paywall Project; the West Virginia Press Association, and local residents, Nester developed a plan to save a newspaper in a struggling community.

“I felt like our whole state came to bat to help us save this newspaper,” Nester said. 

The group worked with Nester on a plan to stabilize the business, expand the newspaper’s reach and find new revenue.

Much of the effort focused on development of the

Following that meeting, The Welch News soon went online for the first time in its nearly 100-year existence: The publication now has a website and subscription capabilities created by Channell, whose Paywall Project helps sustain small and independent publications through websites with digital subscriptions, with the emphasis on subscription revenue. 

A Look Into McDowell County

Over the last century, McDowell County has seen its share of major cultural shifts. The colossal rise of the coal industry through the early and mid-1900s was followed by a steep decline of industrial and business opportunities — and population — in the final decades of the century.

In the 1950s, McDowell County was home to approximately 100,000 residents. The U.S. Census Bureau recently estimated McDowell County’s population at 17,624. That’s losing more than 80% of the population.

And then came COVID-19.

Nester, who has worked at The Welch News for two decades, made progress in 2018 and 2019. But 2020 has been a different story. She said the newspaper severely felt the economic decline in March when the coronavirus pandemic began to impact West Virginia.

“Our income has been slashed, but how do I let my community down? …” Nester said, explaining residents depend on the newspaper to bring them information in the middle of a pandemic.

With significant outward migration, limited access to reliable internet and the ongoing pandemic, staying connected to — and within — southern West Virginia has become more important than ever.

“We decided in mid-April that we were going to ride this as long as we could ride it, and if it gets us, then we’ll shut the door when we don’t have a dollar left,” Nester said.

The Welch News, Nester said, is a true community paper. As other newspapers have seen their printing and layout operations outsourced to other states, The Welch News’ operations, including content, advertisements and printing, are all done in downtown Welch. Nester herself took high school journalism classes in the same building she works in today.

Even during the pandemic, when encouraged by others to cut back on printing to decrease costs, she refused to let her publication waver. Since 1995, The Welch News has printed three days a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

When Nester and Tyson crossed paths with Channell and the Paywall Project, their aspirations of going online reached fruition.

“It was so exciting, the thought of having an online edition,” Nester said. “Lots of times people from McDowell County feel forgotten and left behind. … that they don’t have the same chance or opportunity as other people have. We thought it was very important to move online so they’d have that as well.”

Going Digital 

Channell understands the technological struggles facing rural communities and publications. He hails from neighboring Mingo County, which, like McDowell County, suffers from a lack of broadband connectivity and an economy bruised by the loss of coal jobs. 

Through the Paywall Project, Channell currently manages seven publications’ websites. Incoming clients start with a flat-rate fee to ensure that if a publication wants to try generating online revenues with the Paywall Project, they won’t be deterred by cost, Channell noted. 

“We started a paywall with Welch [News] in January of this year, and within the first 10 days, it had 100 new paying subscribers,” Channell said. “That has since increased to about 300 paying subscribers. What’s even more interesting is that about 30 to 40 percent of that is out-of-state. I think part of this whole project is showing that there is opportunity outside of the market just as much as there is inside the market.”

For a community like Welch, which has around 2,000 residents, Channell said the paywall’s successful implementation is “a big step forward.” Most digital subscribers are first-time customers.

“A lot of people have a misconception that paywalls only work for national players,” Channell said. “For me, it’s been this effort to change that narrative a bit and to show them that there’s people in their local communities, maybe they don’t live there anymore, maybe they do, who would also pay or donate if you gave them the option to do so.” 

When smaller publications use paywalls, those additional funds can grant them more financial flexibility.   

“Any time you can add just $500 a month to a newspaper’s bottom line, that could mean fixing a roof or hiring an additional stringer, or whatever the case may be. It’s a lot,” Channell said. “A lot of papers aren’t expecting much [with paywalls], but they say, ‘OK, let’s give it a shot, this isn’t going to work.’ Then they bring in $500 here, $1,000 there, a couple thousand here. It’s money that they’ve never had before … it’s new revenue.” 

Though not all publications have incorporated digital subscriptions into their business models, Channell’s Paywall Project has illustrated the difference it can make. 

“For newspaper publishers, paid digital subscriptions [are] the most sustainable pathway forward,” Channell said. 

Linking Up With the WVPA

For the WVPA, working with the Welch News and Channell’s Paywall Project comes as part of an ongoing effort to find solutions to the problems facing many smaller publications in West Virginia and across the nation.

Collaborations such as the one for The Welch News allow publishers like Nester to set their sights on the future and have resources in place to sustain their important work, Smith said. 

Working with Channell to build new revenue to help The Welch News succeed, Smith said, was “so refreshing.”

“The new website and growing paid subscriber base allows the WVPA to sell digital advertising into,” Smith said. “We promote the newspaper on social media and place content and video on the website, which builds viewer traffic and new revenue potential.”

Smith has been working for four years to create a template for future growth and success at community newspapers.

The West Virginia Press Association partnered with West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media to develop the NewStart program, which works to recruit, train and support the next generation of community newspaper owners and publishers.

Smith, who developed the ownership initiative that grew into NewStart, said The Welch News is an example of what is possible when you combine an owner who understands the local community with a business plan designed for the future.

“The Welch News is important to the people of McDowell County and anyone with connections to the region,” Smith said. “With subscriptions to, more of those people can invest in the newspaper’s future.”

(Anyone can contribute or subscribe to The Welch News at

“A good newspaper has to also be a good business, and it has to make money,” Smith said. “Tyler’s Paywall Project is such a great West Virginia story. It is a website project that allows these small papers to move forward and solidify revenue … and it’s affordable. He designed it for the smallest communities.”

Smith said supporting local newspapers is no different than supporting other local businesses. “If every West Virginian would support local businesses and get that subscription, whether online or print, to your local newspaper, then you’re helping ensure you have that local news source,” Smith said.

The Welch News, Smith said, is a perfect illustration of how West Virginians can come together for the greater good: Subscribing to sustain the local newspaper and give its newsroom the tools needed to thrive.

“If you look at what Tyler’s doing and what Missy’s doing, they are the smallest markets, and they’re moving forward. Journalism is changing, and the news industry is changing … at the local level there is good news,” Smith said.

In It For The Long Haul 

With the momentum gained over the last few years, Nester and The Welch News’ editor, Derek Tyson, have a few goals for The Welch News over the coming months and years. Tyson hopes to work more closely with tourism initiatives to help promote the county and its outdoor recreation opportunities. Nester hopes to eventually make an e-edition available for their subscribers.

Digital and print subscriptions, as well as advertisements, mean the world to Nester — as do words of affirmation. 

“Any encouragement, phone calls and letting us know we’re on the right path and doing the right thing are wonderful, wonderful things,” Nester said. “I’d love to find us a set of used computers we could buy. We’re operating on very old equipment, even on our laptops. There are a million things like that, but really, the thing that motivates us, the thing that helps us, is the community support and the words that we get from our readers.”

As they continue producing The Welch News, both Nester and Tyson look forward to sharing more of McDowell County’s stories with their readers and the rest of the world. 

“Our side of the story deserves to be heard,” Tyson said. 

(A longer version of this article can be found online at

Local News, The Axios Way

Local News, The Axios Way

Dec. 22, 2020

A little while back I mentioned how some national players are encroaching on local news outlets’ territory and warned that if local outlets don’t get their acts together, they will be in big(ger) trouble.

Axios was one of the national outlets I mentioned that was eyeing the local space. Last week the company announced a bunch of hires for its new newsletter product in four local markets — Denver, Des Moines, Tampa and Minneapolis (plus another site it purchased in Charlotte). 

One of those hires is Torey Van Oot, who was a politics and government reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune before making the jump to Axios. 

Van Oot and I used to work together at NBC a few years back, and she was kind enough to talk about what folks can expect from this new local news venture.

Here are the basics, according to Van Oot:

  • There will be two-person teams in each market creating the newsletters, which will be published in the early mornings five days a week (M-F)
  • They will include aggregation of other media outlets, plus some original reporting and analysis
  • The ad-supported newsletter will be free for subscribers (the initial “launch sponsor” is Facebook)

So what will this newsletter look and feel like for subscribers? Well, think “smart brevity,” which is a hallmark of other Axios email offerings.

“We can’t cover every story that the local outlets can cover,” Van Oot said. “But what we can do is give someone a service that is a little bit of a distilled version of what they need to know about their community and why it matters, and do it in a smart, clear way.”

“There are (existing) newsletters just focused on politics and those insiders, and link roundups, but those are mostly promoting that news organization’s content,” she added. “This is an opportunity to take a cross-section of what is happening and distill it down for readers.”

That thinking matches their motto: “We’ll help readers get smarter, faster.”

Van Oot said her newsletter is not going to try being the paper of record for the area. The newsletter might only have five to eight items in it each day. But what she and her colleague will attempt to do is tie everything together to give their audience in the Twin Cities the bigger picture and make the news, well, make sense.

“The one big thing that leads the newsletter isn’t just the headline of the day,” she said. “It could be a bigger issue or trend that is connected to the news of the day or week.”

There also will be some personality and voice sprinkled in from the newsletter teams. Van Oot kicked that off in her introductory email to subscribers, as you can see here:

“One of the first things we did was send an email to subscribers to say, ‘I’m Torey. This is what we’re doing. This is what you can expect,’ along with some background and personal information,” she said, adding that she was encouraged by how many people wrote back to say hi or to give story suggestions.

So will it work? Minneapolis was a curious choice as there are many local news outlets already around the Twin Cities, including the Star Tribune. The Strib is a powerhouse news organization with a strong reader base (especially still in print). The Star Tribune also has a lot of newsletter offerings already (although for the life of me I can’t figure out how to subscribe to any of them from their homepage or section pages, which is super frustrating).

But Van Oot thinks that robust news ecosystem, an interesting political environment, and strong medical, tech and retail companies in the area make Minneapolis-St. Paul a perfect place to launch a local news newsletter. It has a lot of news to decipher, and there could be a strong advertising base, as well. 

“Success will be delivering a product to our readers that is valuable and makes them feel they are better informed about the news unfolding in their backyards,” Van Oot said. “You can measure in subscriptions and open rates and responses. But we want to make a product that people love and enjoy and read and engage with. Hopefully, if that works, and we can prove that interest in these markets, it could be replicated or expanded.

“The first goal,” she added, “is to create something that is valuable.”

RELATED: Axios Buys Charlotte Agenda, a Digital Start-Up, as Part of Push Into Local News