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.”