A Surprising Goodbye

Saying Goodbye

August 27, 2021

Welcome to the NewStart Alliance, everyone!

No, not THAT new “alliance” involving college football conferences across the country. (But if anyone can give me some inside info on where WVU will land in a year or two, I’d appreciate it.)

Our Alliance deals with local news, not billion dollar TV deals or Name, Image, and Likeness battles. It’s why you signed up for this newsletter. And we’re glad you’re here.

I don’t have a big feature for you this week, as this has been the first full week of my in-person undergrad classes in Morgantown, and I’m still adjusting to our new “normal” of teaching in masks, filling out seating charts, taking attendance and remembering how to plan and conduct classes in person again. It’s a weird feeling, no doubt. But I’m glad to be with students in “real life” instead of Zoom, even if I can’t see the smiles on their mask-covered faces when I crack my witty jokes.

Well, I’m just going to pretend they’re all smiling and laughing at my jokes.

Let me have this moment, OK?!?

Anyway, on with the show…

We’ve become pretty numb to seeing “we’re closing” columns penned by newspaper owners and publishers over the years. But when I saw one from an online news outlet yesterday, well, I admit I was a bit surprised.

The Bklyner, which serves the Brooklyn area of New York City, announced that it would stop publishing Sept. 10, with “no immediate plans or date for resuming.” The site originated as a network of neighborhood blogs, if you will, with some dating back to 2008. But as of next month it will be no more. At least for now.

Here’s some of the explanation from editor and publisher Liena Zagare:

Zagare, whose husband is New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, added a bit more context as to why operations were being shut down now.

This is a good reminder that while running a newspaper in this day and age isn’t easy, running a local news website is no walk in the park, either. Finding a sustainable business model is key for both, and being able to create a staffing model that can lead to the kind of work that needs to be done without causing burnout is equally important.

Want to Help a Nonprofit News Startup? You Can!

A Primer on Building Sustainable Local Civics News

August 12, 2021

Greetings, everyone, and welcome back to another edition of The Alliance. We’ve got some really exciting news this week, so let’s get right to it.

Becky Pallack (NewStart class of ‘21) and Irene McKisson are work partners who co-founded a digital news vertical called #ThisIsTucson (thisistucson.com). It operates as a startup venture and learning lab under the umbrella of the Arizona Daily Star (tucson.com). The team learned how to attract and grow a younger digital audience, how to sell digital advertising products in new ways, and how to build a membership program to support local journalism.

They recently left their jobs to take on a new challenge: Build a sustainable local civics news model that can meet digital readers where they are now. They’re in startup mode to build an ambitious nonprofit civic news organization for Arizona. 

Here’s Becky with more on this new venture, and how they got to this point. Becky, take it away!

We’re working on two big questions at the front of this startup process: Who is local civic news for (who is the audience)? And are there enough philanthropic dollars in Arizona to make our news organization sustainable?

Irene and I have spent a lot of time finding ways to bring lean-startup and product-thinking methods to audience development work in journalism. That just means we’re trying to apply proven innovation methods to make products that audiences will love — and pay for.

We’ve learned that “who is it for?” should determine what the product is. To do that, you have to start by deeply understanding the audience and its news and information needs, then come up with an idea that will meet those needs, test it with actual audience members, iterate based on what you learned from the test — and then build, test and learn some more. 

A lot of journalism projects get this work backward — they create something they assume is needed and then they go looking for an audience.

Here are the steps we followed to get started on our audience research. Anyone can do this! 

  • Step 1: Pick a Target Audience

Who might our future loyal readers be? Who do we want to get to know better? We think our target audience member is someone who will show up for a community cause. They are engaged in civic life in some way, or they would be if they knew what to do. We pictured people who care about a cause so much that they’d hold a sign for it.

  • Step 2: Write a Hypothesis About a Problem the Target Audience is Having

We made some assumptions about what we think the audience’s needs are. This is like a hypothesis at the school science fair.

Our hypothesis was that local civic news often isn’t relevant, it’s hard to find, and it feels old-fashioned. Often the helpful information our audience needs wouldn’t be considered newsworthy by the old guard. Civics news sometimes doesn’t exist at the local level, and at the state level it’s not made relevant for them. They’re actively seeking out news and information about the causes they care about (education funding, anti-racism, environmentalism, local social issues) but the news often shows up at the end of this process, which is frustrating for our audience.

  • Step 3: List Your Knowns and Unknowns

We made a two-column list of things we think we know about our audience and things we know we don’t know. We focused our learning on the Unknowns, like “how do they participate in local civic life?” and “do they pay for news and information about the causes they care about?”

  • Step 4: Empathy Interviews

We turned the list of things we needed to learn into a questionnaire. We talked to 14 diverse people who were in our target audience of people who are engaged in local civic life. We asked them to talk about the cause they care about most, how they got involved, all the ways they participate or take action around that cause, and how they get news and information. Empathy interviews come from Design Thinking, and the goal is to deeply understand what problems we might be able to help solve. We get obsessed with understanding what the audience needs.

  • Step 5: Identify Gaps and Opportunities

We used the insights from that round of interviews to create a reader persona, including details like what they do, what they say, and what they feel. We thought about what “jobs” they might “hire” us to do, like helping them know what actions they can take to participate in local civic life, helping them identify service opportunities, connecting them to each other, and helping them feel like educated voters.

We also gained an understanding of where and how they currently get their news and information, what’s missing for them, and points of dissatisfaction with what’s available. We narrowed in on a few key topics that we might be able to cover so well that they would become members and pay us.

That led us to study local media ecosystems in Arizona, to look for more gaps and opportunities rather than doubling up or competing.

Ongoing audience research work will be baked into every aspect of our startup, including content strategy, product strategy, and revenue strategy. 

  • Want to Help Our Arizona Startup Launch?

We’re in full-time fundraising mode, with the goal of building a three-year seed fund before launch. We’d love connections to foundations, advice about fundraising, and chances to practice talking to funders.

You can reach me at [email protected] or @BeckyPallack on Twitter.

All of us at the NewStart program are very excited for what Becky and Irene are doing. It’s a bold move to just up and quit your job and start something from scratch, but they’re going to be successful, as they have the drive and ability to make this happen.

I will echo what Becky said above: If you have any ability to help them on their path to success, please get in contact with Becky at the email or Twitter account above. It’s the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. Thanks!

And because Becky always goes above and beyond, she also gave us a list of her favorite resources. So if you’re thinking about doing something similar, or just want to learn more about the process, this will be a great first step:

Becky’s favorite resources

If you want to do your own audience research to vet a startup idea or an innovation project, here are some of my favorite resources to help you get started:

Gannett Sells, and People Take Notice

Gannett Sells Pubs, And People Take Notice

July 29, 2021

Greetings everyone, and welcome to another edition of The NewStart Alliance. I’m your host, Jim, and I’m glad you’re here.

This week we’re talking about a new report from Northwestern and Poynter stating that more newspapers are being transferred from corporate chains to local owners across the country.

“As chain consolidation brings new uncertainty to an already fluid news landscape, another trend is emerging in which local investors buy news outlets from large chains and seek to reverse what they see as decades of disinvestment,” writes Mark Jacob in the piece.

Highlighted within the article is Gannett’s role in all of this, as Poynter found that 24 of their newsrooms have now gone back to local ownership.

Those who read the NewStart Alliance should not be surprised. We brought this to your attention back in February and included information Sara April, who works for the media M&A firm Dirks, Van Essen & April (which represented Gannett on some of these deals), discussed with our NewStart class in October 2020.

“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 back in October. “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.”

Here’s video of that session with our students if you’d like to watch it:

Sara April talks with NewStart students about Gannett’s future.

Just this week Sexton Media Group announced that it had agreed to acquire the Neosho (MO) Daily News and the Aurora Advertiser from Gannett with an expected close date of September 1. Look for even more Gannett deals to come. In fact, I’ve informed my NewStart students about several more Gannett papers in the Midwest that are now up for sale. There are a few more smaller newspaper groups that are expected to spin off some of their properties as well as they get a better handle on their business models and future plans.

What does this mean for the industry? Well, for smaller communities served by these papers, they’re going to see a return of local owners and operators, and that generally is good for everyone.

Penny Abernathy agrees, as she mentioned in the Jacob piece.

“All things being equal,” Abernathy said, “local ownership is always best for the community where the newspaper is located. That’s because a local owner is going to know that market and know the residents.”

At the same time, this does not mean that larger Gannett properties are going to pop up on the market any time soon. So those communities will still have to find a way to get by without local owners invested in their affairs.