Seismic Shifts in News Industry Continue

Seismic Shifts in News Industry Continue

January 21, 2022

Greetings everyone, and welcome back to the NewStart Alliance! A lot has happened since our last email. There have been new investments in local newscontinuations of groundbreaking dealsexpansion of local news newsletters across the countryacquisitions of national sports properties and more.

I also wanted to highlight a pretty big shift in the newspaper industry that Gannett kicked off about a week ago. Most of the newspaper chain's properties will stop printing a Saturday edition, and instead put out a full replica edition online. This idea is becoming more popular among newspapers. I experienced it during my time at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. We started by eliminating one print day per week and continued that trend to where I believe the PG now publishes a print edition just two times a week. Heck, when you try to subscribe on their website today the only print option is Sunday home delivery, so I think we can all see where the trend is heading.

In order to do this in Pittsburgh, we had to make sure that our “digital readiness” score (shoutout to Pete D!) was high. That included getting many longtime print subscribers to activate their digital accounts and actually use them to get comfortable in the digital space. A lot went into this, but for smart brevity's sake the first step was to get them to open up the “print edition” PDF via the email sent every morning. And to the surprise of many, that was actually pretty effective. The open rate and click-through rate on that email was high. The whole idea was to get people to change their habit, even if it meant just opening an email to read the daily paper instead of stepping outside their front door and grabbing the physical product.

Once that habit is changed, it is much easier to transition the audience to more and more digital products, whether it be the 24/7 website, a native app, etc. 

I don't know how much work Gannett put into changing that habit ahead of time, but we will see if the move pays off. Are the “digital readiness” scores high in these markets? That answer could make or break the future of the publications as they transition to a (mostly) digital world.

Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Missed Deadlines…

Meanwhile, there are plenty of smaller papers across the country that rank low in the “digital readiness” department. That's unfortunate, because we all know that print is costly, subscribers are dwindling and the physical paper doesn't take advantage of the additional ways newsrooms can tell stories. 

Instead of focusing on digital, some are trying to cut costs in other ways.

To pick up on that story, I turn things over to WVU journalism grad student Hannah Morgan, who is no stranger to community newspapers. She's had a column in her local paper since she was about 14. She did this story as part of an independent study class in the Reed College of Media. Hannah, take it away…


One newspaper in Missouri is changing the way it delivers its print product to help offset revenue loss.

 

Joplin Globe Publisher Dale Brendel said that switching to USPS instead of newspaper routes was a difficult decision that they carefully evaluated before moving forward with it. They needed to find a way to reduce expenses to offset the revenue losses from the pandemic. Switching their delivery method to USPS seemed like the best alternative. 

“It's a challenging time in the industry, and papers and media organizations have been financially stressed exponentially by the pandemic. Although our readership — especially our digital audience — has grown, revenues have taken a hit as advertisers face their own financial challenges,” Brendel said. 

He said they also had a difficult time finding delivery drivers. 

“It is significantly less expensive for us to mail the paper to our reader rather than contract delivery drivers, which are in short supply these days,” Brendel said. 

However, he explains that there is one downside to this new delivery method. 

“So, the downside to mail delivery is getting the paper later in the day, rather than in the morning when most readers have become accustomed to getting the paper,” Brendel said. “A key for us was having same-day delivery. Readers get their paper whenever the rest of their mail is delivered.” 

Which is something that one subscriber, who prefers to not be named, said is one of the reasons they don’t like the new delivery method. They explained that the newspaper comes around 3 p.m. and that they don’t receive newspapers on federal holidays due to the USPS being closed. 

“The only upside to all of this is that the newspaper has been dry,” they joked. 

But Brendel said that subscribers also get a digital E-edition that is emailed to them by 6 a.m. in addition to the physical copy. 

He also explained that this allows them to maintain the quality of the newspaper. 

“The annual savings from this change will allow us to avoid other kinds of cuts, such as furloughs, layoffs, cutting pages of content,” Brendel said. 

He said the Globe has lost around 3 or 4 percent of subscribers from this change. 

“But we hope we can get them back if they still value staying informed and connected to the community,” he said. 


Tales of Journalism Past, Present and Future

Tales of Journalism Past, Present and Future

December 17, 2021

It’s the holidays, and like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I want to share a tale of Journalism Past, Journalism Present and Journalism Yet to Come.

Let’s start with Journalism Past. For this, I take you way back to June 1994. That’s when four high school friends started a publication covering the National Hockey League. They didn’t like the way traditional outlets like The Hockey News covered the league, and they thought they could do it better.

There really weren’t many websites around back then (Netscape Navigator wasn't released until October 1994), so they started out on Usenet groups and asked people to give them their email address (newsletter subscription model!) to receive a .txt file every two weeks, or their mailing address to get it delivered via snail mail.

When web browsers arrived, these four young lads created one of the first hockey sites in existence. The NHL joined the internet a little while later, and literally stole the kids’ content and used it on the front page of their site. The World Wide Web was more World Wild West back then, to be honest.

Being at the forefront of Web 1.0 had its advantages. The kids gained a very large audience for their content – millions of page views a month within a few years – by mixing smart hockey analysis with some wacky hijinks. They drove a station wagon from Pittsburgh to Hartford to cover the NHL Draft (thanks for letting us borrow the car, Mom!), only to have their press passes taken away from them because they were deemed “too young” to cover it. The Shaft at the Draft, however, let to bigger and better things. They were offered web hosting for free from a place called Canadas.net (it was pricey back then if you needed more than Geocities could offer!) and were invited to have their own “keyword” home on AOL Canada.


They soon had unpaid correspondents in every NHL city (user-generated content model!) who just wanted to be a part of what these kids were building. Some of them even got press passes, which was unheard of at the time. There were Cool Sunglasses awards. And media coverage. And groupies in Sweden. Life was good!

But, alas, all good things must come to an end. What used to be fun and enjoyable turned into a slog. It didn’t help that the NHL became pretty much unwatchable in the late 1990s thanks to clutching and grabbing and the left-wing lock. And besides, there was no real way to make money on the Internet back then if you were four college kids with a passion for hockey. So they closed up shop, got real jobs that paid real money, and occasionally think back somewhat fondly on all of those hours they wasted, err, spent at Penn State University watching the CBC on cable TV and taking advantage of the university’s T-1 internet connection.

A Tale of Journalism Present

About a decade after that hockey publication rose to prominence online, another group of high school friends created their own sports publication during an era now known as Web 2.0. That site was called Bleacher Report.

One of the founders, Dave Nemetz, described the site’s evolution like so:

  1. The concept started as an amateur sports site run by a group of friends.
  2. While still at an early stage, the idea pivoted into an online community for sports fans, driven by user-generated content.
  3. Over several years, the site evolved into the professional sports media company it's known as today.

Around this time in 2006, the Internet was becoming established, and the major media companies, like ESPN, and the major sports leagues were starting to get their act together online. But there was still room for newcomers like Bleacher Report and Barstool Sports to enter the arena and grab a share of the market. 

And grab they did. Bleacher Report figured out UGC on a large scale, and also learned how to use SEO to its advantage to bring in massive amounts of traffic. It then realized that newsletters could get those eyeballs to keep coming back to them again and again.

They also figured out Series A funding – an unheard-of concept for online sports startups just 10 years earlier.

Oddly enough, the founders’ reign as owners lasted about the same length of time as the Web 1.0 hockey crew. But instead of just shutting things down, they cashed out to the tune of about $175 million.

A Tale of Journalism Yet To Come

A few weeks ago, one of the founders of the Web 1.0 hockey site (me) invited one of the founders of the Web 2.0 sports site (Dave Nemetz) to chat with our NewStart students about all things entrepreneurship.

During the chat I snuck in a question about the future of sports journalism. Nemetz lived through the starting and selling of a sports site in Web 2.0, and we’re all seeing the successes and struggles of newer sports sites like The Athletic. So what is next? What does the sports site of Web 3.0 look like?

“If I was advising someone or talking to someone, I think the DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) model could be really interesting to look at for sports,” Nemetz said. “I know quite a few people who are either starting DAOs or involved with DAOs to raise money to buy a sports team or buy a piece of a sports team … I’m not sure they’re going to be successful, but maybe in the long run. But I think sports is such a category that people feel such strong ownership over and kind of feel so invested in already. They don’t say, ‘My team won.’ They say, ‘We won.’ That space is kind of ripe for giving more ownership to the community and giving more say to the community in how a brand can be built. That’s something we even thought about in the early days of Bleacher, and we thought about how can we share ownership with the community or give them the ability to share in the upside, but the structures just weren’t there, and ultimately we moved into a more traditional direction.”

For those who aren’t keeping tabs on DAOs yet, or are still confused by their actual existence, this piece from Jarrod Dicker may help explain things.

And that article from Dicker about Creator DAOs leads nicely into Nemetz’s final thoughts on what the next innovative sports offering might be.

“I’m very bullish on the creator economy and the ability for individuals to become storytellers and creators to build a following,” Nemetz said. “So many athletes have done that and built their social followings and built massive brands around themselves. But I think there’s more of an opportunity to tap into that storytelling directly from the athletes, maybe by going toward younger athletes or thinking about how to remix that storytelling in different ways and take it off of Twitter, off of Instagram, into a different space. It has been tried before — there was The Players’ Tribune and other places — but I don’t feel like it’s really been quite figured out yet — how to get that story right from the athletes and how to follow right along with them on their journey.”

As you now know, the journey of online sports journalism has been quite an evolution over the past 25-plus years. And from the looks of it, it's a journey that is far from over.


A Correction

This is the 100th edition of the NewStart Alliance newsletter. Yay!

Out of the 99 previous newsletters, I can only remember one time where I had to make a correction. Now we’ll make that two.

In our last newsletter I discussed the great work that Alain Begun is doing with the River Journal and River Journal North publications. As someone who is constantly discussing weekly newspapers, I mistakenly referred to the RJ and RJN as weeklies. They are, however, monthly publications. Also, Begun’s partner in the River Towns Music Festival is Liz Goodyear of The Live Goods.

An updated version of the newsletter can be found here.


Former GateHouse VP Becomes Weekly Owner

From Sleepy Weekly To Vibrant Publication

December 3, 2021

Alain Begun has spent the majority of his career in marketing and business development, including a stint with GateHouse Media for about three years as the Vice President of Marketing and Custom Content for more than 500 local websites.

But he knew he wanted to launch his own publication at some point. And that point arrived in 2018 when he read in his local paper in Westchester County, New York, that the publisher was either going to sell the weekly paper to someone or shut it down.

That someone was Begun, who decided to get into local news ownership after making some interesting observations during his time with GateHouse.

“A lot of dailies at GateHouse — from the Austin American-Statesman to the Providence Journal — they were really struggling,” he said. “Of the publications we had, the small weeklies and monthlies that served small communities in Oklahoma or Texas or Iowa, they were the only game in town, but even though people said print was dying, in those communities print was thriving. … I knew we could do the same thing.”

And so his purchase began his adventure leading River Towns Media and publishing the free, USPS-delivered weekly River Journal.

“I acquired the name and the brand, and not a lot else,” Begun said.

The River Journal newspaper had been around for about 20 years, “but it was no longer trying to be relevant and no longer trying to bring in new accounts or advertising dollars,” Begun said. So he completely revamped the print product and sales team. He also brought in one of my favorite coworkers from my days with Internet Broadcasting Systems Inc., Rex Sorgatz, to revamp the website.

In the first year, Begun was able to turn a weekly paper into more of a daily product, and he grew print advertising revenue by 40 percent along with generating new digital ad revenue.

“We knew what we were doing, and the previous owner was coasting and not bringing in new business,” Begun said.

Where the previous owner coasted, Begun started to rev River Towns Media’s motor. At the end of 2019 he decided to launch a second publication that would extend his company’s footprint to the northernmost river towns in Westchester.

“There really was no media property serving those places in a long time,” Begun said. 

The new publication, River Journal North, launched in March 2020 and Begun said the very first issue turned a profit. March 2020, however, also brought the dreaded global pandemic, so Begun decided to temporarily combine the two publications into one in order to sustain the business. Any advertiser who bought into one paper or the other had their ads appear in all 50,000 copies.

“It actually helped us generate a lot of new business,” Begun said.

In January, the two papers were separated once again.

But Begun didn’t stop there. He has continued to launch new products and services in order to create new revenue streams, including an events calendar, a podcast and a newsletter.

And next year, Begun is getting ambitious by partnering with the local Paramount Theater to create a two-day music festival that will help draw tourists to the area in an effort to help local businesses and advertisers. 

While Pete Seeger started a very popular music festival in the area years ago, Begun envisions this festival to focus on indie music instead of folk music in order to attract about 5,000 people, including the hipsters, as he calls them, who have been moving into the area. Some of the bands Begun mentioned include Guided By Voices and The Felice Brothers. (GBV is an excellent live show, by the way, so this is exciting!)

Begun has done a lot in three years, and can envision even more in the years to come. 

“We’re still sort of only scratching the surface here,” he said. “There is so much opportunity to generate more advertising revenue.”

But one thing he can’t see — at least for now — is a paid subscription product. His market is suburban — it’s about an hour commute to Manhattan — and the community has a lot of disposable income. Those high-income residents want to shop local, want to know what’s going on in he community and they are engaged and invested in living there, he said.

“What we produce is good content, and you can’t get it anywhere else,” Begun said. “We’re writing about some local resident who was nominated for the Westchester Hall of Fame. You’re not going to get it in the New York Times — only here, and we’re the only one to interview him.

“I don’t want people to have to pay for that,” he said. “I want people to look forward to getting the publication and rely on advertisers to pay the freight.”

He said choosing the right business model depends a lot on what the competitive landscape is in any market. 

“There is an appetite for this type of content, either print or digital or a combination,” Begun said. “When you have a community that has no media property, serve it. We’re doing a service to the community, but at the same time generating revenue, and doing a service to the small businesses that are here. They’re an option for people to shop. There are not a lot of places that can get that message out. If you provide something of value, it works.”


How To Help The Next Generation Thrive

Support the Next Generation

December 2, 2021

News about the journalism industry is often dark and gloomy these days, with hedge funds gobbling up newspapers at a prolific pace while other publications — both print-focused and online — either closing up shop or dramatically reducing staffing and coverage, leaving the public to fend off misinformation and political and economic turmoil.

But there are bright spots, as well. New publications are popping up across the country, and many existing outlets are finding creative business models to help them reach sustainability and profitability. We like to share those stories whenever we can here with you, our valued NewStart Alliance readers. From Tony Baranowski's deep dive into newspapers in the Midwest, to Victor Hernandez's look at publications finding ways to keep philanthropic-funded positions, we are shedding light on the stories that often aren't told.

But we aren't just telling stories. The students in our program are out there doing the thing.

Take our first cohort of NewStart students (a.k.a. The NewStart 6), for example. They just graduated a few months ago, and have already found success:

  • 2 created media startups

1 statewide digital nonprofit in Arizona

1 digital/print publication in West Virginia

  • 2 are in talks to purchase existing newspapers
  • 1 was hired as Chief Content Officer of WBUR in Boston
  • 1 was promoted to co-publisher of Times Citizen Communications in Iowa

Our next cohort is already building upon that success:

  • 1 created a nonprofit organization to address diversity issues in journalism
  • 1 created a print publication in Indiana
  • 3 are developing online publications across the country
  • 1 is searching for the right opportunity to purchase in West Virginia

I'm probably a little biased here, but the NewStart program is one of the bright spots right now in journalism.

However, we want to do more.

And you can help.

We recently received several generous donations totaling $10,000, and would love to match that via more tax-deductible donations from supporters like you.

What would that funding mean for a small program like ours?

  • We'd be able to offer scholarships to more students, starting with our next cohort in 2022. 
  • We'd be able to invest in additional industry-led curriculum development that keeps pace with rapid changes in the media landscape.
  • We'd be able to invest more in audience, community and publication analysis to help students make the best decisions when purchasing existing businesses or creating new ones.

“I believe small, hyper-local and independent is the path forward for the business of news and that’s really at the core of NewStart’s design,” said inaugural NewStart fellow Tony Baranowski. “I’m not aware of any other program that takes the wide view of community news like NewStart, drilling down on business models, journalism, social media, analytics, circulation, tech tools and everything in between. I felt prepared to be a publisher before NewStart — now I feel even more confident and have a cohort of savvy journalists and experts to lean on as I look to continue advocating for community newspapers moving forward.”

During this giving season, we know there are a lot of outstanding organizations vying for your attention. We hope that, as a supporter of our NewStart program, you’ll demonstrate the value we add to the future of journalism by making a donation today.


Thanks, as always, for your support. It takes an Alliance to make this happen, and I appreciate all of you who have contributed to the cause in many ways. We'll be back tomorrow with a regular edition of the NewStart Alliance, so I'll see you then!

Jim.


Introducing the Philanthropy & Newsrooms Playbook

Finding a Sustainable Way Forward

November 17, 2021

Welcome to a special edition of The NewStart Alliance. This week I'm turning things over to recent NewStart grad Victor Hernandez who, as part of his yearlong master's degree program, took a deep dive into one of the biggest issues facing newsrooms that have created temporary, outside-funded editorial positions — how to turn those positions into sustaining permanent ones.

Victor, who entered our program as the executive editor of Cascade Public Media in Seattle and exited as the chief content officer of WBUR in Boston, talked with numerous newsrooms across the country to find out what's working, what's not, and how other newsrooms can learn best practices when it comes to making these often temporarily funded positions long-term wins for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Victor, take it from here.


The idea came about in late 2020 while overseeing the newsroom at Cascade Public Media. After checking in with several industry peers, I had been informed that a healthy percentage ratio of newsroom staffing supported explicitly by outside funding — such as journalism grants — was about 12 percent. That's because going much over that would present great difficulty in attempting to maintain anything close to resembling sustainability because of the high turnover and uncertainty with grant awards.

But where did that 12 percent come from? Was it verifiable? And who exactly determined that and when? Did it apply to newsrooms of all sizes, scope and mission?

These questions and others lingered in my first year overseeing the public media newsroom in Seattle and considering the opportunities and challenges of philanthropy-enabled additions to our news operation. I desired a playbook for my newsroom and others to glean insights and wasn't aware of something like that existing at the time.

As part of the Media Solutions and Innovation graduate program at West Virginia University, I've been able to spend the better part of the past year analyzing different approaches for how newsrooms manage philanthropy-funded journalism opportunities. The academic research turned out to be the perfect professional excuse to spend time with news leaders, grant-funded journalists, association professionals and foundation executives to better understand and record the emerging best practices, breakthroughs and rich resources available for drawing on community foundation support.

The industry is experiencing a surge of local support dollars available to newsrooms — for both nonprofit and for-profit publications. Our hope is that through this playbook you'll be able to more effectively cut through the noise to gather the community support and operational strategies necessary to grow your reporting capacities and achieve long-term sustainability.

Oh, and that 12 percent rule of thumb. It's BS. The experts and contemporary news leaders I spoke with shattered that myth, citing ambitious and opportunistic strategies rather than a set cap approach.

Victor Hernandez

Chief Content Officer, WBUR

[email protected]@ToTheVictor


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

Whether it’s through foundations, grants, endowments or other forms of external funding, temporary, outside-funded editorial roles can provide an important shot in the arm to community reporting capacities. However, they are also often presented as temporary solutions only. The pathway to developing longer-term sustainability through these opportunities remains unclear for many news organizations.

Certain objectives continue to prove elusive for many publications. Namely, what are the operating goals for establishing and evaluating the return on investment for leveraging and converting the results of temporary positions?

Erin McIntyre and her husband bought the Ouray County Plaindealer community weekly newspaper in Western Colorado in April 2019. They recognized early into their new venture that if the publication, which dates back to 1877, is to remain operational and reliable for years to come, that sustaining long-term business and journalistic momentum from the recent award of a grant-supported reporter through Report for America (RFA) was crucial.

“The truth is any time you can retain an employee that you’ve invested in, it’s worth so much more than having this revolving door, especially in an industry like journalism, where you have a historical knowledge of an area, you’ve made contacts, you have a connection to people,” says McIntyre. “They trust you. It takes a long time to build that in a community.”

Insights from McIntyre and others are included in this playbook with an aim to share so that others may craft and implement improved strategies for future opportunities via outside-funded editorial roles.

In addition to my academic research and acumen from NewStart, I’ve led newsrooms in nonprofit and commercial sectors. I’ve personally grappled with these very questions surrounding recommended approaches to integrating externally funded news positions into the operation. I’ve experienced first-hand the exploratory setbacks and anxieties, along with the necessary shifts in thinking that newsrooms need to take ambitious leaps forward with their strategies. 

The best practices, expert accounts and industry insights in this playbook provide tools to help you think about developing effective termed position strategies for your newsroom. 

We’ll examine how to intentionally shape approaches for identifying suitable needs for these roles, questions to consider for operationalizing and measuring their impacts and strategies for converting them into full-time staff positions.

The case studies and newsroom snapshots will give you ideas for how to craft key strategies within your own publication. 

And we go behind the scenes of the application processes and deep inside the editorial and business examinations for unfettered access into how contemporary newsrooms are using philanthropy for broader, long-term gains. You’ll be exposed to critical takeaways from industry leaders leading, performing and determining how these outside-funded positions are awarded and what success looks like.


As mentioned earlier, this is an excerpt of Victor's in-depth playbook. You can read all of it at the links above, and keep an eye out for a conversation that Victor had with Poynter's Kristen Hare that will be published on poynter.org.

Meet the 143-Year-Old Startup

Don't Be Afraid of Change

November 12, 2021

There are two ways you can view ownership of a community newspaper that has existed for decades (or for more than a century, even).

One view: the publication is a community mainstay, and has to remain what it always has been because that’s what people expect.

Or you can view it the way Bill Horner III sees the Chatham News+Record: “It’s a 143-year-old startup.”

Horner worked for his family newspaper, the Sanford Herald in North Carolina, for 30 years, and learned a lot about the business during that time. He came out of retirement a few years back when he and a few others purchased two weekly newspapers — the Chatham News and the Chatham Record.

Those papers have since combined into one, but that was just the start of a transformation that Horner has enacted since 2018.

“I cut my teeth (in the newspaper business) full time in 1985,” Horner told me. “Reading newspapers was what everyone did. Now with social media and digital, you have to figure out ways to go to new audiences. That’s been hard making that shift. If you had a great product, people would find out and buy it. Now, I look at what’s happening in the industry and see a lot of bad papers.”

Horner quickly realized that the “appetite for good print journalism just isn’t there” like it used to be. With print numbers flat, Horner started innovating elsewhere to gain new subscribers and new forms of revenue.

“Bill embraces change,” said longtime journalist Dennis Hetzel, who recently dubbed the News+Record “one of the best weeklies in America.”

“He realizes that things have to be different to succeed,” Hetzel told me. “He’s willing to try stuff.”

Hetzel said Horner has been one of the few weekly owners around who has gone through both the Table Stakes program and the Facebook Accelerator program.

Programs like these (along with the excellent coaching by Cierra Hinton) led to the creation of a robust website (there was no website when they purchased the paper) and three newsletters, including Chatham Brew, which is sent out three times a week and includes top news and information, and The Carpool, which is “everything you need to know about parenting and education in Chatham County.” That one is sent out twice a month.

But that’s not all. The News+Record, which has a staff of 6.5, also created a new Spanish-language publication called La Voz, which is described in great detail here.

And then there are the out-of-the-box ideas, like the Chatham Brew coffee blend that was created in partnership with Aromatic Roasters. 

Originally, the breakfast blend coffee was used by the sales folks when they went out to visit clients, but is now offered as a prize for those lucky enough to win the publication’s Brew Quiz, which can be found in the newsletter. If you win the coffee, you have to go to Aromatic to pick it up — which means more foot traffic and potential business for a local establishment. Horner said they’re also working on retailing the coffee, which he describes as “a great, fruity morning blend.”

The coffee partnership is just the first. Horner also is in talks with a local brewery on a branded beer, and a collaboration with a local independent bookstore, as well.

At the end of the day, however, Horner hasn’t lost sight of the N+R’s mission — to provide quality news and information to the community. The opportunity to create a great newspaper after seeing so many in the area crumble is what drove him out of retirement. And he feels like his staff is capitalizing on that opportunity.

“We want to provide the market with a great product,” he said. “We want to have a newspaper that has some bulk.”

There are, however, some in the community that have been turned off by the change that has occurred under the new ownership, whether it be because they feel too much time is dedicated to Spanish language stories, or because of other content Horner’s staff is now covering, like a series on the remembrance of a 16-year-old’s lynching 100 years ago.

“We’ve lost some subscribers because of the reporting we’ve done,” Horner said. “I was told there hadn’t been a person of color pictured on the front page of the paper in 40 years, and now we’re covering the Black Lives Matter movement in Pittsboro.”

With all that said, however, Horner said “total readership is up significantly” since they purchased the paper, and that’s a good sign for the future. Horner knows there is still a long way to go.

“How sustainable are we? Right now not very,” he said. “But we’re working on it.”


Reminder: Support Small-Town USA

Thanks to all of you who read and shared our newsletter from earlier this week on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. If for whatever reason you didn't get a chance to read it, shame on you for six weeks. But we'll let it slide since you can find a version of it online here.

That op-ed pairs nicely with Bill Horner's story above. Yes, it is one thing to (hopefully) help your newspaper via the LJSA, but that's just the first step. The next is to do the work that owners like Horner are putting in to make sure their businesses are sustainable for the long term and that they're meeting their audiences wherever they are and are providing them the news and information that will help them live their lives.

Programs like Table Stakes and the Accelerator are wonderful, and I might also humbly suggest our own online Media Solutions and Innovation program at WVU, which can help you learn new ways to improve your relationship with your current audience, grow new audiences and diversify your revenue sources — all in the name of business sustainability and growth. So keep that in mind if you're serious about ensuring that your publication is a mainstay of your community for years to come.


Support Small-Town USA By Backing the LJSA

Support small-town USA by backing the LJSA

November 9, 2021

Stakeholders in journalism, news, and the general welfare of a fact-based democracy have been beside themselves in recent weeks as a little-known bill that they hoped would slip its way into the broader Build Back Better plan was treated as little more than an expendable remnant. 

In the interest of price chopping and compromise, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act has at various times been slashed, trimmed, or cut entirely in the deal-making process, seemingly with little consideration for what it could actually accomplish, or what’s at stake if it’s lost.

The common and simplified perception is it would be a life preserver offered to struggling newspapers across the country. Followers may have also read high-minded arguments that those very newspapers are necessary to preserve democracy as we know it in the United States of America.

None of those takes are wrong, and we wouldn’t suggest otherwise. But let’s face it: anything that might be considered a government bailout of “the media,” is an easy casualty for elected officials in the court of public perception. It’s easy to demean on Facebook and Twitter.

The more nuanced argument is this could be a game-changer for small-town USA and the rural voices that are frequently drowned out by more dominant coastal outlets. Those mom-and-pop storefronts that have dwindled under a tidal wave of Walmarts and Dollar Generals? They would be a primary beneficiary of LJSA. Local fundraisers of all stripes, community banks, development groups, teachers and schools… the list of winners when it comes to this relatively small price tag is as big as America itself.

How? The short answer is newspapers benefit the communities they serve, and it’s no coincidence that strong newspapers reside in strong communities. The intricacies of the bill have been laid out elsewhere, but can be distilled simply in three bullets:

  • A tax credit for subscribers
  • A tax credit for advertisers
  • A tax credit for news organizations themselves for employing journalists

There’s really no downside to any of these benefits no matter your political lean. A better-informed citizenry with a perk to supporting the local newspaper (which are small businesses, too!) is a win. It also offers a solution to small local government operations that are struggling themselves to combat misinformation on social media.

Small businesses with minimal promotional budgets have been dumping what little they have into sponsored ads on Facebook and Google, with predictably diminutive return on investment. You get what you pay for, as they say, and when it comes to generating business in rural America, there’s still no contest on what produces. No amount of geofencing can compete with landing on every single doorstep in town once or twice a week.

The first two provisions would be game changers in their own right, boosting circulation, revenues and page counts. That means more pictures of your kids at prom, on the football field, and in the fall musical. But the economic benefits aren't confined to the newsrooms themselves — small newspapers employ local community members — and this includes the journalists who can shed light on the bad things that can be the downfall of entire communities.

And let's not forget: this bill also comes in the wake of a confluence of impacts from public crises to corporate interests that have wrecked havoc on the stability of local news organizations and have seen tens of thousands of journalism positions lost.

Newspapers can benefit from this. But America needs it.


Tony Baranowski, Publisher, Times-Citizen Communications (Iowa Falls, Iowa) and WVU NewStart graduate

Crystal Good, Founder and Publisher, Black By God The West Virginian and WVU NewStart graduate

Miles Layton, longtime rural community journalist and WVU NewStart graduate

Don Smith, Executive Director, West Virginia Press Association

Jim Iovino, Director, WVU NewStart program and Visiting Assistant Professor of Media Innovation


Want to republish the text above? Contact Jim Iovino. Want to share it? Feel free to use this version here.


Learn more about this topic from Steve Waldman, who appeared Sunday on CNN's Reliable Source, by tapping on the image below:

‘Diversity makes journalism stronger.’

Focused on Diversity

October 29, 2021

Welcome back to the Alliance, everyone! We're starting off this edition with several big updates from current and former NewStart fellows, so let's get right to it!

On Thursday, current NewStart fellow Larry Graham officially launched his new nonprofit organization called Diversity Pledge Institute (DPI), which is dedicated to the advancement of diversity in journalism.

If you've ever been to a newspaper-focused journalism conference, or looked at the staffs of most local newspapers, it is clear there is a true lack of diversity within our industry, and because of that most outlets have tremendous problems reaching diverse audiences. Larry and DPI have a vision to change that, and that change can't come soon enough.

DPI provides media organizations with a bespoke service that improves recruitment, retention and advancement of employees from diverse backgrounds, with a goal of increasing profitability, employee satisfaction and audience growth. It also offers a free mentorship, training and advancement program for journalists, with an emphasis on journalists of color and members of the LGBTQ community. By providing hands-on training and coaching on career advancement at all levels, DPI is helping journalists find jobs, get promoted, become leaders and navigate newsroom politics.

“At DPI, we want to address the diversity pipeline issue from both the organizational and individual perspectives,” Larry said while announcing the new initiative. “We believe diversity makes journalism stronger.”

Indeed.

Larry has achieved an incredible amount in just a short period of time, and he's not slowing down. There will be much more to come in the near future from DPI, so feel free to follow along on Twitter @dpiDiversity and check out the website at thediversitypledgeinstitute.org. You can read more about yesterday's launch on Editor & Publisher's website.

Congrats, Larry!


Lighting the Way

In August, graduated NewStart fellow Becky Pallack introduced you to her new venture — an ambitious nonprofit civic news organization for all of Arizona.

Well, a week ago we learned the name of that new organization — Arizona Luminaria. Becky and her co-founder, Irene McKisson, also unveiled their new website, azluminaria.org, which includes information on how people can support this new venture by becoming a founding member.

And for those of you who are into mission statements and the like, the site includes that, too:

That message seems to be working. as people are already backing the new venture:

If you would like to become a founding member, head over to azluminaria.org. Becky and Irene would appreciate your support.

Local News Takes Center Stage

Local News Takes Center Stage

October 15, 2021

Welcome to the 93rd edition of the NewStart Alliance. When we started this little newsletter, hardly anyone reported on what we were focusing on — the community newspaper business. About the only thing you heard about were horror stories of corporate chains and hedge funds. 

And yes, those were (and still are) truly horrible.

But just look at the selection of stories that have been published the last couple of weeks. Editor & Publisher took a look at a number of new local owners who have taken over former Gannett properties. The same sort of thing was covered by the Seattle Times. And the Missouri Independent got into the act by looking into the takeover of former Gannett publications in that state.

What once was NewStart niche is apparently all the rage.

I'm not complaining, mind you. It is great to see coverage of something other than doom and gloom in our industry. It is much needed. And it will continue.

I was also happy to see this article from The Week, titled “A New Model for Modest Middle-Class Journalism,” which includes the following passage:

For the fine folks in our NewStart program, that “profitable media business” could take the form of an existing newspaper, or it may be a startup news organization. There are many different ways to go about it, but they all have to, at heart, revolve around the community you're serving.

Hey, this backs up what I just said.


This REALLY Matters

This REALLY Matters

October 1, 2021

Greetings, and welcome to a new edition of The NewStart Alliance!

The big news this week: the word of a potential merger between the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Public Media that brings about visions of “a new model of local nonprofit journalism” that will be supported “through the generosity of philanthropy, individuals and organizations who share the same belief in journalism’s role in having an informed citizenry, connected community and healthy democracy.”

This possible deal brings about a sense of hope that wasn't seen when Alden Global Capital purchased Tribune Publishing in May. It is clearly a very different business model, but there is no guarantee that it will work. Any major daily newspaper comes with a lot of financial baggage, and the Sun-Times is no exception.

And if you read the rival Chicago Tribune's story on the potential merger, they made sure their audience understood those financial difficulties, using the following wording:

  • “the financially struggling daily newspaper”
  • “the Sun-Times has been bleeding red ink for years”
  • “the money-losing Sun-Times”

It's not wrong, mind you. But now we will see if the nonprofit model can work for a major metropolitan daily in one of the largest markets in the country. Jim Friedlich of the Lenfest Institute believes it can, saying on Twitter that “the @Suntimes has a large, engaged & diverse digital audience that complements @WBEZ’s broadcast & audio reach beautifully. @WBEZ adds fundraising chops. Both organizations are deeply committed to public service journalism. Great marriage.”


Temperature Check

When our NewStart program was being formed a few years back, deals like the Sun-Times/Chicago Public Media one above were just a pipe dream. But times have changed. Creative business models are going mainstream. But there is plenty more to be done for the sake of newspapers … and democracy. 

For example, check out this assortment of stories that popped up in just the past two weeks:

So what does all of this mean? For all of the attention given to a one new ownership opportunity for a major market daily, there are 100 more crucial rural publications elsewhere in the country that need new owners and business models, because the work they do is extremely important on multiple levels.

And that's where programs like ours at NewStart can help.

Know someone who would be interested in what we do? Tell them about our program and what we do. Forward this newsletter to them and encourage them to subscribe. Or put them in contact with me, and I'd be happy to talk with them about ways they can help ensure that local news not only survives, but thrives.

Soon we will be announcing several new ways to take part in our program, so stay tuned…