Black and White and Undead All Over

Black and White and Undead All Over

September 15, 2021

Welcome to a special edition of The NewStart Alliance. This week I’m turning things over to recent NewStart grad Tony Baranowski who, as part of his yearlong master’s degree program, took a deep dive into what’s working at rural community newspapers across the Midwest.

What you are about to read doesn’t match up with the national narrative you’ve come to know and (perhaps) believe about newspapers across the country. Tony found a much different outlook and numerous stories that needed to be told. So with that being said, I turn it over to Tony to provide the rest of the story.

I’m so tired of hearing newspapers are dying. My entire career, approaching 25 years now, that’s been the dominant narrative in the business. Even I believed it for a time and clearly many still do.

But there’s a delineation to be made between those that have struggled mightily or even folded and those that are going strong. It’s a tough argument to make because, like any other misinformation battle in this era, the myth has been repeated so often by so many influential media people, when someone who works for a tiny weekly in Iowa says otherwise, we’re dismissed as an aberration.

But we’re not an aberration. On the heels of my year in thNewStart program in Media Solutions and Innovation, I polled and visited with a number of successful community news organizations across the country with a focus on my backyard, the upper Midwest. What I found affirmed what I’ve come to realize through the second half of my career.

Community papers face challenges, but most of them aren’t going anywhere. They are the foundation for not only the storylines and coverage you see go national, but for the business practices and defiance of the “newspapers are dying” portrayal. Small outlets still have the faith of their readers and loyalty of their customers.

Community newspapering is both the past and the future of the best, most important journalism in America.

Tony Baranowski

Director of Local Media for Times Citizen Communications, Iowa Falls, Iowa

[email protected]; @tonyapb3

The following excerpt is from Tony’s full report. Because space is limited in this newsletter, you can read the entire report online or download it here.

The strongest community news outlets are locally owned and managed by families or individuals with local ties that stretch back decades. That’s not an easy circumstance to replicate for a would-be publisher looking to buy or launch a news organization in a rural town, but it’s not a prerequisite, either. In fact, the common denominator is less longevity than fostering community spirit and pride within both staff-generated content and advertising in a traditional newspaper’s pages.

Jim Slonoff and his team launched The Hinsdalean in an affluent Chicago suburb in 2006 after more than two decades working for a chain that fell victim to corporate buyouts. They parlayed the buyout money into a simple business plan that yielded quick results, both in terms of acceptance and financial success. The Hinsdalean is distributed free to every household in its circulation area with little attention to online presence, which is also freely accessible.

“It was amazing to us when we opened up our office here because we were right downtown,” said Slonoff. “People walk in our door, people bring us stories or, if we’re lucky, people bring us cookies. It’s everything you dream it would be. The fact of just getting the paper in people’s hands has really contributed a lot to our success. We’re the face of the newspaper as well as the owners. In our situation with our community… a strong local newspaper is something that people wanted and embraced faster than we thought.”

Central to the local mission of the most successful small newspapers is an observable local presence. Small newspaper chains in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin all echoed this core belief in interviews. Julie Bergman dropped out of college and bought her first newspaper in Baudette, Minnesota, at 19. Thirty-five years later that same paper remains the flagship of Page 1 Publications, which she runs with husband Rollin. Page 1 quickly added banners under Bergman, but she remained committed to maintaining an office in each of their communities. 

“We do have an office in each community, we feel strongly that that presence is needed,” Bergman said. “Each one is staffed by an average of two full-time people and each of those people are local. In fact, almost without exception, they’ve all grown up in the communities where they’re running the papers.”

It’s antithetical to the strategy of many corporate chains and even smaller publishers that have sacrificed local presence in an effort to cut expenses.

Kurt Johnson grew up as part of a Nebraska newspapering family and considers the Nebraska Press Association part of his extended family. Johnson left the family operation to get a journalism degree and build on his background with experience as a managing editor and executive editor at dailies. When the opportunity arose to buy the Aurora News-Register in 2000, Johnson pounced on a return to community newspapering.

“I just kind of jumped in and engaged like I had in previous roles, being involved with economic development and just being very much part of the community. We devoted space to a local business page, which really tuned me into new businesses and what’s happening in the community, which was good for the newspaper,” Johnson explained.

Now 58, Johnson has begun to consider what an exit strategy might look like and says there’s no shortage of corporate suitors. But if they aren’t dedicated to journalism, he doesn’t take the call.

“There’s a lot of money out there, but if it’s somebody that just looks at it as an investment, they [downsize] the newsroom, nobody lives there local and within a year or so you’ve got issues. Particularly if you (as the former publisher) continue to live there. That can be just a really tough scenario. So I would prefer not to go down that path.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t efficiencies to be identified within a small publishing company, or even partnerships with neighboring communities. Most of the group publishers interviewed for this project have centralized bookkeeping, design and layout, and in some cases shared advertising sales representatives to keep overhead low. Others coordinate print schedules with fellow publishers to share transportation expenses and time on the road.

Wayward or defunct newspapers aren’t the only hub of community activities that have, at times, lost sight of building real life connections in favor of convenience and technology. Jeff Wagner helms one of the most revered newspaper companies in Iowa, Iowa Information, and its companion printing company, White Wolf Web. He says newspapers have to take the lead on community building because without those tactile relationships, the communities themselves will fail.

“One of the stupidest things school districts are doing is allowing their athletic events to be broadcast online,” said Wagner. “Because when I go to a basketball game, or football game or whatever, I create a connection with the school district, I create a connection with my neighbors. But if I can sit at home, I really don’t know what condition the school’s in, I don’t care if they get new bleachers, I stop wanting to pass tax levies for my school district, because I have no connection with the school district.”

Bergman calls the basic human need for a dependable local news source “the big pumpkin theory.”

“They can get their national information and their statewide information from many different sources. Who else is going to run the picture of the big pumpkin their neighbor grew that they can talk about over coffee? I’m not making fun of that! I think that’s an important kind of feature news that makes a person and people feel a part of a place. And that’s why I’m so bullish on community newspapers, whatever form or shape they take.”

As mentioned earlier, this is an excerpt of Tony’s in-depth report. You can read all of it at the links below, and keep an eye out for a conversation that Tony had with Poynter’s Kristen Hare that will be published on

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 ( It operates as a startup venture and learning lab under the umbrella of the Arizona Daily Star ( 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.

Tips on Buying A Publication From a New Owner

Tips on Buying A Publication From a New Owner

July 22, 2021

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The NewStart Alliance.  Apologies for the radio silence the last couple of weeks, but, well, it’s all your fault. Judging by the low open rate and the amount of out-of-office replies I received when I sent out our last newsletter, I decided to slow down production during the summer.

But just because our output tapered off doesn’t mean we were’t putting in hard work. We’ve got a ton to cover this week, so let’s get to it.

We’re going to start with great news, as we’ve got two big items of note from first-year NewStart fellows.

Crystal Good, publisher of Black By God The West Virginian, was selected to be part of Tiny News Collective’s initial cohort!

What is Tiny News, you might ask? Well, let’s get one thing straight: it has nothing to do with NPR’s Tiny Desk Series (although it would be pretty cool to collaborate with Thundercat). Here’s a bit of an explainer from Tiny News Collective’s press release:

As part of the cohort, Crystal will receive a $15,000 stipend, a year of membership dues to both the Collective and to LION Publishers, and access to a promising new CMS, based on Google Docs, that eventually will power her website. I’ve seen a demo and it was fascinating.

So congratulations to Crystal on earning this next important step in her career.

If you want to hear more from Crystal, she will be a panelist at this year’s Radically Rural conference, which is being held Sept. 22-23 in person and online. Crystal is part of a session called “Building Trust: Measures to secure faith in local journalism,” which also features Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh of Trusting News.

For more details and to register, visit

But Wait, There’s More!

Congrats also are in order for NewStart fellow Miles Layton, who recently accepted a job as News Editor of the Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Mississippi.

Miles had been the editor of the Perquimans Weekly in North Carolina, but is now moving to a six-day-a-week, family-owned paper where he will plan newsroom budgets, manage the staff, edit copy and even cover a few things here and there. Miles’s knowledge gained in the NewStart program will help the Commercial Dispatch, which has been owned by the same family for more than 100 years, rise to a new level in the community.

Miles will be joined in the newsroom by his wife, Nicole, who was hired to be the paper’s Lifestyles Editor and sports page designer. 

Miles still has a long-term goal of owning his own publication, and the experience he’ll obtain in Columbus will help him prepare for that next step in his journalism career. So congrats to Miles, Nicole and the entire Layton family on the big move!

An Unlikely Newspaper Owner Succeeds

According to the latest report by Dirks, Van Essen & April, more than 100 newspapers have changed hands during the first six months of 2021. Forty-four of those papers were part of the acquisition by Paxton Media Group of Landmark Community Newspapers. 

Head over here to read the full report, which includes mention of NewStart’s own Maggie McGuire, who purchased the Moab Sun News in Utah.

Continuing with the newspaper acquisition theme, in our last newsletter we talked with Jamey and D’Anna Honeycutt, who recently had purchased their first weekly paper in Clinton County, Missouri.

Today I want to introduce you to another first-time weekly newspaper owner in Missouri. Ron Schott purchased the Wright County Journal in April, but if you told him when he started his journalism career 20 years ago that he would eventually own his own paper, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.

“In 20 years I went from freelance journalist to being the owner of a newspaper,” Schott told me. “I didn’t have the desire to run my own paper until about three years ago.”

Ron Schott, right, shakes hands with former Wright County Journal owner Dalton Wright. (Photo courtesy Ron Schott)

“This was not my end game,” Schott said of ownership. “I was just trying to make extra money (as a freelancer when he started his career). But as years went on of working for other people, I used to kill myself for others, now I do it for myself.” 

Schott was kind enough to share some advice for those who are contemplating the ownership route.

First of all, he encourages any young journalist to start off working at a weekly paper in order to get experience in all areas of the business. He remembered at one point when he was a sports editor of a weekly, he took on the task of increasing circulation in a neighboring community because he was covering their teams and knew that area would benefit from seeing all of the coverage. That experience led him to the business side of the newspaper industry.

Later, when he became a newspaper general manager, he knew that he could always fill a variety of roles because of his experience at weekly papers earlier in his career. That included delivering papers, creating ads and more.

“It’s like a restaurant owner with no experience,” Schott said. “You just can’t buy it and let others run it for you.”

As for a newspaper acquisition itself, Schott offered the following tips:

  1. If you like a particular town where a newspaper is located, talk to the owners or the people who know the owners to see if they’re close to retirement age or if they just want to sell. (In his case, the owner of the paper was indeed interested.)
  2. When you look for a bank to deal with, try to find one that has experience with newspaper transactions. “When I went to them and had the numbers — this is what I think it will take to do it, here’s what we’re making right now, projections for the future — almost instantly they made their decision. … They’ve done it before. They’re not worried.”
  3. Think hard about why you want to purchase a newspaper. “Why do I want to buy it?” Schott said. “It can’t be strictly financial. You have to think about community value. Right behind it, of course, is ‘Can my family make a living with this.”

Schott has been pleased with ownership so far. His projections have be on target and he’s comfortable with what the future holds for the publication.

“I love this business,” he said, “and I love documenting what’s happening in our county.”

From Corporate Overlords To Ownership

From Corporate Overlords To Ownership

July 1, 2021

I wanted to introduce you to another fellow in our second NewStart cohort. Brennan Stebbins, who lives in Joplin, Missouri, has been around community newspapers for seemingly his whole life. I mean, he wrote his first weekly column at the age of 14 for his hometown paper. He has earned regional and national recognition for editorial writing, has covered state government, higher education, city councils and school boards as well as high school and college athletics, and has even published a book. Big Red Dynasty: The Championships, Tradition and Dominance of Webb City Football, chronicles the history of the program and the school’s run of five-straight state championships. 

Let me pass the mic to Brennan and let him take it from here…

For a once proud newspaper with a history dating back more than 130 years, the end was swift. The announcement that the corporate-owned publication was shutting down for good came in a morning meeting with a regional publisher, who said the final edition had to be finished by early afternoon. Equipment was already being hauled out of the office before we were done that day.

Suddenly, after seven years working as a sports editor, I needed a new job at a time when other area newspapers were downsizing. I’ve worked as a freelance reporter and photographer since, but a years-long desire to own my own newspaper and try things a different way remains. 

The last decade has been an eye-opening experience. When I was hired, that newspaper printed five days a week and had a staff of at least nine people. When it closed it was a struggling weekly with two employees and many more empty desks. Decisions were made hundreds or thousands of miles away and never in the best interest of the local paper or its readers. A community that once considered the publication vital essentially shrugged its shoulders at the news it was closing. 

For someone who has grown up around newspapers, it was especially disappointing. But I know there is a future for local journalism and I want to be a part of it.

My introduction to the NewStart program came, fittingly, while reading a newsletter for the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, an organization that has promoted community journalism for decades. I knew immediately it would be a perfect fit. 

While I have years of experience with reporting, photography and page design, I want to learn how to own and operate a publication and discover new business models for local journalism. I want to be a part of something a community once again considers vital. The opportunities are there. 

Thanks Brennan! We’re excited to have you as part of our program! This week Brennan and the rest of our second cohort kicked off the first class of the master’s degree program in Media Solutions and Innovation from WVU’s Reed College of Media. For more information on what’s all involved, check out the program details here.

We Got A Newspaper!

‘We Got A Newspaper!’

June 25, 2021

Welcome to another edition of The NewStart Alliance! We’ve got A LOT to get to this week, including some excellent news from our inaugural cohort…

First up: NewStart fellow Crystal Good’s Black By God publication is officially in print! Her first edition of Black By God The West Virginian distributed across West Virginia last week. Here’s a look at how it went:

It has been great to see the reaction from the community once it got its hands on this inaugural Juneteenth edition. Crystal has worked so hard this past year to make her print dream come true while continuing to build her digital audience and platforms, and all of us at the NewStart program would like to congratulate her on making it happen. We can’t wait to see what’s next! 

If you’d like to check it out, you’re in luck. You can purchase a digital edition of the print publication here. There may also be some actual paper copies still available. You can reach out to Crystal on Twitter for more information.

If Crystal’s progress excites you as much as it does us, then you may want to consider joining our second cohort of the NewStart program and earn a master’s degree in Media Solutions and Innovation from WVU’s Reed College of Media. The master’s program starts Monday, so this is probably the last time you can apply until next summer. If you’d like to join us, check out the program details here, and then follow the instructions here to apply.

This Subject Line Left Intentionally Blank

Working Together for Something Better

June 10, 2021

Today I’d like to start off by introducing you to another fellow joining our second cohort of NewStart students. As you will see below, Jan Risher has worn a lot of hats both inside the journalism industry and adjacent to it. But rather than hearing it from me, let’s just have her tell you in her own words.

The floor is yours, Jan!

Why am I joining NewStart?


In short, I am joining the NewStart program because I’m a fan of democracy — and I don’t believe it will survive without a healthy free press.

My goal is for the program to provide the opportunity, time and place to be thoughtful while working with a diverse and smart group of folks developing a better way to do journalism and media. I am not under the allusion that a one-size-fits-all proposition will work. I relish the chance to wrangle the many and varied ideas I’ve been chasing and learn from and alongside others as we work toward something better.

The trajectory of my career has been more Jeremy Bearimy than a straight line, but the one piece that has been a constant throughout is storytelling.


I’ve been an English teacher, a public relations executive, a special events planner, a columnist, a reporter, an editor, a radio host, a television host, a ghostwriter and a business owner.


I continue to write a weekly newspaper column for The Acadiana Advocate, based in Lafayette, La. I was an investigative reporter, features writer, business reporter and columnist for The Daily Advertiser and managing editor of The Times of Acadiana — all in Lafayette, La.

As a reporter, I covered Louisiana politics, the Iraq war, Katrina and its long-term effects on the state and our community. In 2006, I won an International Fellowship for Journalism to travel to Thailand to report on their recovery from the tsunami compared to Louisiana’s recovery from Katrina.

My column writing goes way back (to high school actually), but in 1993, I wrote a weekly column for my hometown paper in Mississippi (the Scott County Times — a weekly) while I was teaching English in Slovakia. Upon my return to the States, I ended up in Washington, D.C., and worked for USA Today on the business side of the paper, as a special events planner. (The juxtaposition of the austerity of post-Communist Slovakia, piggybacked by the excess of the mid-1990s USA Today still makes me shake my head.)

Since 2014, I have owned Shift Key, a business-to-business public relations and content development company. At Shift Key, I’ve employed 37 out-of-work or under-employed reporters to write for newspaper special sections, magazines and various corporate America projects my company has managed. Additionally, we handle public relations for a number of clients and specialize in working with nonprofits and mid-sized companies to help them identify and recognize their stories and then find the best avenues to tell and share those stories.

In 2020, I started teaching virtual writing classes and developed a program to help students develop and write college or grad school entrance exams. In January, I launched a series of online memoir workshops. Having the opportunity to work business-to-customer has been a blast and I’ve loved an opportunity to teach again.

I also manage the Ex-Gannett Employee Facebook Group, which my husband (a long-time Gannett employee) started the week after he was laid off in 2008. The group now has 4,577 members. It is an interesting cross-section of memory lane, anger management, where-are-they-now, memorials and Monday-morning-quarterbacking (albeit years later).

Thanks Jan, and welcome aboard! 

If you’d like to join Jan 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 this month, so if you want in, check out the program details here, and then follow the instructions here to apply.

Oh Snap: Startup Serves Local News to Young Audiences

Startup To Serve Local News To Young Audiences

June 3, 2021

After spending several years as the head of news at Snapchat, Xana O’Neill paused to ponder the problems the entire news industry is facing. She kept coming back to the notion that there is no platform 18- to 34-year-olds could turn to to get trusted information.

So she decided to make one.

Enter Forth, a news product that is geared toward the 18- to 34-year-old age group and has the look and feel of social media. The product unveiled its soft launch late last month.

There’s no doubt that publications have been perplexed about how to acquire the next generation of news consumers. Over the years that age group has gone from MySpace to Facebook to Snapchat to TikTok to Twitch to … well, platforms we don’t even know about yet. And all the while, news publishers have failed to find a cohesive strategy to meet those users where they live online.

On one hand, people put little trust in the news that appears on their social media feeds. But on the other hand, the younger generation is more likely to get its news this way because it doesn’t engage with newspapers, TV stations or even websites. This age group’s brand loyalty lies with the social platforms or individual creators, not publications or TV networks.

O’Neill has some insight into what makes this age group tick from her time at Snapchat. She also knows the news industry, having worked at ABC News, NBC Local, New York Public Radio and the New York Daily News. And she has ideas on how to get quality journalism in front of this mostly untapped audience and have them actually consume it.

So what makes Forth different? Well, there’s a lot to go through, both on the audience side and on the publishing side.

Let’s start with what the audience gets.

The content on Forth will be concise, but will provide context, O’Neill said. It won’t, however, rely on the clickbait that publishers on social media have resorted to for so many years.

“We wanted to see how we could change the incentive structure to not reward clickbait and to surface important local stories,” O’Neill said.

Here’s an example of the type of content that will appear on Forth: a Q&A with some of the candidates for the local council race. The content, which can be text, photos, videos and more, feels like social media, especially a Twitter thread, but it is actual journalism, created by real journalists. It’s just designed to be consumed in a social media environment.

At launch, Forth will focus on New York City’s Upper East Side. That’s the home base of O’Neill and her team, so it made sense for them to start close to home. Plus, there are PLENTY of folks in the age group they’re targeting there.

Forth will include both local and national content.

O’Neill said the plan is to prove the concept works there and then expand into other areas of the country that include a high number of 18- to 34-year-olds — places like Austin and Boston, for example.

The Forth app works by geolocating you. You’ll get content for free in that location.

“If you want to follow what’s happening in your hometown, or in California (for instance), then you can pay a subscription fee to see what’s happening in another market.”

So where will the content come from?

The editorial team at Forth will acquire it in several ways. One is by tapping into the growing creator gig economy. The Forth staff will post assignments (and the amount they’re paying) to a stable of previously vetted journalists who agree to adhere to Forth’s standards and editorial policy. The journalists can then claim the assignments, do the reporting and post their work to the platform.

The other way is by working with existing local newsrooms across the country. Forth has developed a Reporting Management System, which it describes as an “internal newswire.” Basically, reporters and editors can organize their news gathering internally on each story in the RMS — both reportable and non-reportable — through the web, via email, Slack or even a text message.  The reportable information can be posted to the Forth app and to social media, and can be embedded into a website in a live blog format. The RMS also can integrate with Slack, email and Google docs.

The Forth team can provide the RMS to newsrooms for free. That means those newsrooms can then syndicate updates to Forth and get a rev share in return.

As far as journalism business models go, Forth is an interesting one. It focuses on an untapped audience. And it tries to provide content in a format that makes sense to that age group. And at the same time, it blends traditional journalists with the emerging creator economy. 

“There are reporters who have been laid off in last year and still want to cover stories, and there are so many stories at the local level that are begging to be told,” O’Neill said. “But the platforms aren’t built with news in mind.”

Will Forth finally be the local news platform that resonates with a younger audience? That’s yet to be seen, but it’s definitely worth a shot.

For more information about Forth, email O’Neill and her team at [email protected].

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.