Finding Purpose After Tragedy

Taking My Talents to NewStart…

May 27, 2021

This week I’d like to introduce you to another member of our second cohort of fellows. You’ve already met Maggie and Larry. Today you’re going to hear from Alicia Ramirez, who is a web producer at CBS Los Angeles.

Alicia is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago with degrees in journalism and political science. Before joining CBS Los Angeles she was a designer and editor at the Chicago Tribune. She got her start at a small weekly publication in Texas. And as you’ll hear from Alicia, the time spent working in Castroville left a lasting impression.

Alicia, take it away…

Why am I joining NewStart?

The simple answer is that I believe there’s a better way to do local news that treats journalists and communities with the respect and dignity they deserve while still being financially viable.

The more convoluted answer starts with a woman named Natalie Spencer, who took a chance on a 22-year-old journalist fresh out of college and hired her as a reporter for Cornerstone Publications — an independently owned outlet that published two weekly papers.

The thing about Natalie is that she believed deeply in the power of good journalism to both hold accountable those in positions of power and build better, more informed communities.

But when she died in a car crash last April, the papers she devoted her life to also ceased to exist, and the communities they covered are all a little worse off.

The death of my mentor at the start of one of the most trying years I have faced as a journalist really made me take stock of my life and career, as well as how my skills and interests can be best used to further the field of journalism. Because not only am I the living legacy of Natalie’s work (along with the rest of my Team Cornerstone fam), I am the product of every single newsroom I have ever worked or interned in.

And my goal, I have found, is to find a way to make local news financially viable while paying journalists living wages and offering good benefits, hiring folks with diverse backgrounds and covering communities in a way that is respectful and comprehensive.

But to do this, I first have to educate myself more deeply about the myriad issues facing local news outlets and potential solutions, which is where NewStart comes in. Because while I have extensive experience as a reporter, photographer, editor, designer and union leader, I have to admit I know very little about the business side of news.

So, like I said at the beginning, I decided to join NewStart to find a more sustainable path for local news — and those who produce it — to not only survive, but thrive going forward.

Well said, Alicia. Thank you for sharing.

All of us associated with the NewStart program can’t wait to work with Alicia and the rest of our second cohort.

If you’d like to join Alicia in our second year of the program and earn a master’s degree in Media Solutions and Innovation from WVU’s Reed College of Media, there’s still time to apply. Our next cohort will start learning virtually at the end of June, so if you want in, check out the program details here, and then follow the instructions here to apply.

Is It The Best Option We Had? Absolutely.

A Nonprofit Grows in Chicago

May 21, 2021

About a year and a half ago, four weekly community newspapers in the Chicagoland area began the transition from a for-profit business called Wednesday Journal Inc. to a nonprofit called Growing Community Media.

I talked with editor and publisher Dan Haley this week about how the transition has been going, and what lessons others can learn from his company being perhaps the first for-profit, legacy print community news publication in the country to make the switch to a nonprofit model.

First, some of the backstory.

Haley was one of several founders of Wednesday Journal Inc. in June 1980. They didn’t have the luxury of relying on what Haley calls “family money,” so they quickly realized they needed to find a way to fund their journalistic endeavors. To do that, they got creative, and sold shares of stock in the company to people in the community. About a year and a half later they had about 70 to 80 shareholders who ponied up about $1,000 each, and the publication found itself on solid ground and rooted in the community.

Eventually the company grew to seven weekly newspapers and several other publications, including Chicago Parent magazine.

But, as is the story for many community newspapers across the country, things changed. Print advertising shrunk, digital revenue wasn’t enough, staffing diminished and by 2019 the company was down to four weeklies.

Something had to change.

“We were either going to run it down to the ground over the next couple of years, or we were going to reinvent it,” Haley said.

Luckily for the communities they cover — Chicago’s West SideOak Park, River ForestForest ParkBrookfield, Riverside and North Riverside — they chose the latter.

After researching options, Haley landed on the nonprofit model. From there, the first thing Haley did was go to the remaining shareholders in the company and explain the situation. The company has done well over the years, it made money and it paid dividends. Now he was asking them to donate their shares to the new nonprofit entity.

“To their credit, all of the dozen shareholders signed on to that,” he said, adding that they did receive tax benefits from the donation of the stock.

Then came the inevitable task of getting the nonprofit status from the IRS. After receiving a lot of advice from accountants and lawyers on the paperwork (and one math error on the application that had to be fixed), it took about four months to get approved.

From there, it was all about figuring out how to reimagine the business model for a nonprofit newsroom — and, of course, doing so during a pandemic.

The nonprofit status gives Growing Community Media another revenue stream to tap into. They are focused on selling more ads, increasing paid print subscriptions, creating more digital revenue opportunities (they do not have a paywall and do not plan on adding one), and now they’ve added philanthropic donations. Those donations range from someone adding an extra $2 to a current print subscription renewal to up to $1,000. There are also some high-level benefactors who have added much to the bottom line.

Haley said having that additional revenue stream was critical for the organization over the past COVID-impacted year.

“Is this going to work? I think so. I’m not positive. Is it the best option we had? Absolutely,” Haley said. “We had a considerable amount of success stabilizing ourself and growing our newsroom after years of declines. We can invest more money in our newsroom. That’s been the pitch all along to readers and donors. That’s certainly the message that people want to hear.”

And that’s a message Haley and his team are trying to get better at conveying to the community, especially if they want to double the number of folks who can make an annual donation and increase support from community foundations.

Haley has been the one to make a lot of the calls to ask for contributions. He said it is a huge cultural change to be comfortable enough and passionate about what his team is doing to ask someone to make a donation.  But, he added, he’s been “surprisingly comfortable” doing it.

“I certainly have sold a lot of ads over the years and sponsorships,” he said. “I’ve been comfortable making the asks. My failing is that I’m not always sure how much to ask for. That’s something I need to get better at. Asking for 20 bucks or 20,000 bucks. I will get better as I go along.”

Along with the uneasiness that comes along with an entirely new business model comes the realization that the move appears to have paid off. In fact, he said some local journalism funders in the Chicago area have been intrigued by Growing Community Media’s hybrid approach, since it combines advertising, subscriptions and philanthropy and is not overly reliant on donations alone. 

So far, that diversification has been a source of strength.

“We’re stable. We are operating this year at a little better than break even. That’s great and better than anticipated,” Haley said. “I think this model is going to work.”

Id Like You To Meet Someone

A NewStart Introduction

May 14, 2021

Today we’d like to introduce you to another member of our second cohort of NewStart fellows. 

Larry Graham spent the majority of his career leading sports departments in newsrooms across the country. He’s worked at, The San Diego Union-Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Kansas City Star, to name a few. Most recently, he served as deputy director of local news transformation at the American Press Institute where he built the website. He is also on the board of directors for the APSE Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering diversity in sports departments, and co-chairs its flagship program, the Diversity Fellowship. In addition he is a faculty associate at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant for Loyola University New Orleans School of Communication & Design.

As part of his NewStart research, Larry wants to help community newspapers survive and thrive. There are significant diversity issues within news organizations across the country, as documented in articles like this one from earlier this year. If a newsroom isn’t diverse, it doesn’t represent the community it covers. And if the community doesn’t feel connected to the newsroom, it will look elsewhere for its news and information and leave that legacy publication behind.

I invited Larry to share some of his thoughts on diversity, his goals in the NewStart program, and what it means to all of us in the industry. Take it away, Larry…

A series of incidents stand out in my mind from when I was performing some consulting work in addition to a full-time job. I shared a couple of those incidents with my respective supervisors. One involved borderline racism and the other implicit bias. They both dealt with the color of my skin, and the reactions were completely different.

One organization offered me hope for what journalism could be. The other, unfortunately, reminded me of what journalism still is.

That’s one of the many reasons I’m building a company that helps identify and destroy barriers to advancement for diverse journalists. We’ll support their career growth and help journalists find a home with the right organization.

I can’t do this alone. Through the NewStart local news ownership initiative, I’ll gain a better understanding of the business side of journalism, and I’ll learn more about the thousands of small, local newsrooms that remain profitable and welcome the help in diversifying their newsrooms.

One of the longest stints in my career was at The Lee’s Summit Journal, a small, bi-weekly newspaper outside of Kansas City, Missouri. It was also one of the most inclusive organizations I’ve ever been a part of, and where I developed lifelong friendships.

Now, this isn’t an overnight endeavor. This is an uphill climb with a boulder on your back, barefoot in the rain and mud, with no time for breaks.

But so what.

We already know some of the specific hindrances to diverse newsrooms. We’ve all heard the phrase, “I don’t know where to find diverse candidates.” Oftentimes, that’s the end of the story.

Instead, it fuels my desire to build a company that helps organizations find the most qualified diverse job candidates. We’ll solve the diversity pipeline problem while erecting new systems for mutual learning between job candidates and the hiring managers.

In short, we’re going to change the world.

Thanks, Larry, and welcome to the NewStart program! If you would like to see how Larry can help your organization set and reach diversity goals, or if you would just like more information about what he’s doing, feel free to send him an email at [email protected] or on Twitter @ByLarryGraham.

If you’d like to join Larry in our second year of the program and earn a master’s degree in Media Solutions and Innovation from WVU’s Reed College of Media, there’s still time to apply. Our next cohort will start learning virtually at the end of June, so if you want in, check out the program details here, and then follow the instructions here to apply.


A Community Rallies to Save Its Anchor

Raising The Anchor

May 7, 2021

Bob Anderson is not a trained journalist. He is a fisherman by trade. But for 22 years he successfully published a monthly newspaper in Harpswell, Maine, called the Anchor.

Sadly though, after the pandemic arrived and most happenings in this fishing community on Casco Bay were put on hold, Anderson decided to stop the presses. That was in October. But by the end of 2020, a group of residents felt the loss of their community news source was too big of a blow, and started working on a way to bring the Anchor back to life.

One of those residents is Doug Warren, who grew up about 12 miles away in Brunswick, Maine, went to Brunswick High School and now lives on the property his family has owned on Orr’s Island for more than 100 years. 

Oh, and Warren also just happens to be an accomplished 32-year veteran of the newspaper business, spending time at The Portland Press Herald, The Miami Herald and The Boston Globe (where he had the pleasure of taking Marty Baron to his very first Red Sox game) before eventually moving back to Harpswell.

In a short amount of time, Warren and this group of concerned residents were able to put together enough funds to purchase from Anderson the name, archives, website and other pieces of the now-defunct Anchor, and are planning to revive it as a nonprofit publication by the end of this month.

Anderson’s Anchor basically was a one-man operation for a few decades. He had an office assistant and a few freelancers at any given time, but he made it all happen, according to Warren.

“Untrained as he might have been, he kept the focus on the nature of the fishing community that Harpswell is, and made an effort to publish what he considered to be the positive stories of the community,” Warren said. “There were a lot of nice features, and it was fairly good quality journalism, I would say.”

Anderson didn’t solicit ads. People brought them to him. But as most rural journalists know, it is hard to run a business that way. That’s where folks like Janice Thompson come in to play for the new Anchor. She’s a Harpswell Center resident and career fundraising professional.

With help from Thompson and more than a dozen other residents, enough funds were raised — about $30,000 — to get the paper back in business, this time as a 501(c)3. Well, it eventually will have its own nonprofit status. But until the application is approved, the Holbrook Community Foundation agreed to be its fiscal sponsor, meaning the Anchor can accept tax-deductible gifts immediately.

Going forward, the group plans to fund the publication through a combination of advertising, donations and grants.

The new group sent a survey to every household in the area asking for feedback on a number of subjects, including what types of stories they want to see the Anchor cover going forward. They got about 600 surveys back so far, which was a pleasant surprise.

“People have strong opinions on what they want to see,” Warren said.

One thing was certain — residents wanted the print version of the publication to continue. It makes sense. This is a fishing community and a retirement community and, as Warren said, it is the “oldest median age town in the oldest median age state.”

But the new Anchor also will have a new website, and it will contain a lot more timely news and information than the previous version, which only housed archives of the print edition. 

To do that, a staff will be needed. The first step is hiring an editor. If you’re interested, the job description is online and the pay will be between $35,000 and $50,000. 

Until a full-time editor is hired, Warren will fill the void. He hopes someone will be hired within the next month or two.

“I want to get the job filled as quickly as possible,” he said. “Hopefully soon I’ll go back to my big-picture advisory board role that I’m so much more comfortable in now.”

In the early days of the Anchor, Anderson had a clamming license, and he would head out and dig clams in order to get money to pay for the paper.

The new owners dug into their own pockets in order to get the Anchor up and running again, and hope the community will continue to dig into theirs to keep it going for years to come.

“The community is excited about it and interested,” Warren said. “Hopefully they’ll support it financially.”

Open To Claim Your (story about) Rewards

A Rewarding Experience

Apr. 30, 2021

Churn is real, and it is a subscription-based publication’s worst nightmare.

You can do as much new user acquisition as humanly (or algorithmically) possible, but if you constantly lose as many subscribers as you gain, well, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

One of most cringe-worthy moments in recent subscriber churn history happened in 2019, when the Los Angeles Times announced that it added 52,000 digital subscriptions — which was great! — but … it also lost 39,000 existing subscribers during that same span.

As Joshua Benton of NiemanLab reminded folks when reporting on that Calichurnication, there are a number of ways to defend against subscriber loss, including:

The Times, like a lot of newspapers across the country, clearly had some work to do.

Fast-forward to 2021.

At the end of the first quarter of this year, the Dallas Morning News had amassed a total of nearly 51,000 paid digital subscriptions. That’s about 11,500 more than a year earlier. Meanwhile, the company said its print subscriber base has stabilized with just a slight decline in home delivery revenue year-over-year.

At the same time, the average print membership rate has increased 8 percent year-over year ($9.70 per week) and average digital membership rate has increased 21 percent year-over-year ($3.35 per week).

But once again, those numbers won’t mean a thing unless the DMN can hang on to those customers. One of the ways the publication avoids churn is via a rewards program for subscribers.

We’re not talking about a few discounts at local restaurants. We’re talking about an entire monthly calendar of events and experiences for subscribers, both in person and virtual.

Here’s a look at the current calendar for April and May.

DMN loyalty and retention manager Jessica Cates said the rewards program, which started in 2017, is a way to enhance and add value to their subscribers’ investment in local journalism.

The rewards program provides multiple levels of benefits, from chats with newsroom talent and local leaders, to workshops with staff photographers and tickets to sporting events and art exhibits around town.

In 2019 (aka The Before Times), the DMN provided more than 90 different events and experiences for subscribers. In a COVID-dominated 2020, that number actually increased to 125 virtual events.

Those virtual events turned out to be a big hit with certain sections of their audience, especially the older crowd, which may not feel comfortable driving downtown or at night.

Cates does all of the content planning, while a co-worker helps with implementation and another distributes tickets.

But the newsroom staff also gets involved in a lot of the events, especially the virtual chats.

“A lot of our journalists have dynamic personalities and a following,” Cates said. “The feedback they get is rewarding and they love doing them.”

Cates said the newsroom is now contacting her with new event ideas. 

“Now they’re coming back to me,” she said. “Plus, they’re seeing a return building their brands.”

A lot of the event passes are obtained via barter relationships with sports and art organizations around town. If those organizations are already advertising, the DMN might bump up the size of the deal for tickets in return. The orgs get new people in their doors, they get additional promotion of their events, and the DMN ends up with happy subscribers.

In general, the DMN doesn’t try to add sponsorship to these member events, but it is something under consideration, especially as virtual events mean a potential increase in audience size. Cates said it may be possible to bundle a series of sports-related events, for example, if an advertiser is interested in reaching that audience.

In the end, this is still all about the subscribers and what they are interested in, and what can enhance the value of their subscription so that they will continue to pay the DMN for years to come.

Cates said she is constantly doing subscriber surveys in order to figure out what they want. “If they are not getting it, can I deliver it through an event?” 

She said she generally does three subscriber surveys a year, but also probes for feedback in the DMN’s weekly rewards newsletter. She also can pose specific questions to certain demographics or ZIP codes. And, she said, she’s got a list of “ambassadors” — about 25 or so diehard fans who she can tap for anything. And yes, she’s on a first-name basis with all of them.

So what’s next for the DMN rewards program? They are currently testing a member discount offer to join the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. If that works, DMN subscribers may start receiving offers for discounted memberships to other cultural institutions around town.

If this all seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But it’s also work that can have a big impact on a publication’s bottom line.

Right now a lot of publications are seeing an increase in subscribers because folks have a renewed interest in local journalism, or they finally realize that it may be necessary to pay for quality reporting. 

But remember those membership rate numbers from earlier? The DMN is getting about $3.35 per week from every digital subscriber. That will need to increase over time. How can outlets justify those increases? Rewards for maintaining a subscription might be what it takes.

Oh and ponder this: as more paywalls go up on local content — whether it be newspaper websites, newsletters, SMS services, etc., subscription fatigue is bound to set in and publications are going to have to up the ante. Providing added subscriber benefits like those offered at the DMN may eventually be the industry norm as outlets fight for their slice of the subscription pie. 

Building Bridges in the Black Community

Building Bridges in the Black Community

Apr. 23, 2021

We’re going to lead off this edition with a NewStart update. In particular, we’re going to call your attention to a Columbia Journalism Review article published Thursday that focuses on one of our outstanding fellows, Crystal Good.

We’ve talked in the past in this newsletter about the work that Crystal has put into creating her new publication, Black By God: The West Virginian. This CJR article goes a little more in-depth on Crystal’s vision and process of listening to her potential audience.

Good and the other students in the first year of the program have been presented with a lot of ideas, business models and theories about what couldwork for them as they attempt to transform existing publications or create their own.

I say “could” because there is no magic bullet here. Each publication is different. Each community is different. What works in one may not work in another. As you can read in the CJR article, Crystal makes an extremely good point when she says, “To be honest, I feel like I could fully launch Black by God tomorrow, if I wanted to make it a paper for the progressive white community in West Virginia and outside and have their support.”

But that’s not her target audience. Reaching that audience and gaining trust with that audience will take much more work, but it is work that Crystal is not shying away from.

As Crystal says in the article, “…there’s a lot of work to be done that allows for Black leadership, that allows for Black voices to have their own microphones, not the microphone passed to them and then taken back.”