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.”