When One Door Closes, Another Opens

Aug. 20, 2020

Amy Duncan used to work for Gannett as a vice president in charge of a group of Des Moines Register weekly newspapers -- publications that made a profit. 

But a little over two years ago, she was told her position was going to be eliminated.

And that led Duncan to do a lot of thinking.

"People kept telling me that nobody cared about news," she said. "I wondered if that was true."

After taking a short pause in her career, Duncan built a WordPress site to house her clips and started applying for jobs again. Around that time she also posted an article on the site and on Facebook about her son's baseball game. To her surprise, that article got more than 400 views.


A little while later, she posted a column on a restaurant opening and that got about 800 views.

At this point the wheels started turning.

"Maybe people do care about local news," she thought.

So she kept reporting and posting, and at the same time she created a business plan to start her own publication. That plan eventually turned into the Indianola Independent Advocate, a website that launched in January 2019 and is dedicated to the city of nearly 16,000 residents.

The Independent Advocate amassed more than 700 digital subscribers in less than a year, and now in year two that number has climbed to about 1,200. There was some concern after the first year when subscription renewals were sent, but so far, so good. The number continues to rise.

"That says we’re doing something right," Duncan said. "To the community, we’re doing a lot of things right."

Duncan has a small staff -- two writers, a sales rep, her husband (a photographer) and, of course, Duncan herself.

There has been a lot of learning and experimentation going on during these early days of her online publication. 

That includes digital subscriptions. Currently the Independent Advocate has four subscription levels, as seen here:

Duncan said she sees comments on Facebook posts from folks who say they're not going to pay to read her articles behind a paywall (of course), but "a lot of people have stepped up and said, 'Hey, this is how they're making a living. If we want to have this, we have to pay for it.'"

At the same time, she does provide some content for free -- "things people need to function as citizens," as she put it. That includes stories on COVID-19, weekly columns from state reps and the city manager, and, wait for it ... obituaries. Free to read and free to submit. That, in particular, is a major break from print traditions. 

Duncan has experimented with newsletters, including a Saturday morning email that acts like a weekly recap of everything they've published throughout the week.  She said she also found that subscribers treat the weekday morning newsletter like a daily paper. 

Clearly, the experiments and learning opportunities are paying off. Duncan is now expanding her coverage area.  She is soft-launching a new website that will serve some of the rural communities surrounding Indianola. They kicked it off by livestreaming their county fair, and then followed that up with a print results section that is being distributed in the communities.

That's right, print is still a part of the mission, even if it isn't the main focus. 

"We chose not to do print (as a main product) because it's such a huge expense in paper and postage," Duncan said. "So online was an inexpensive way to get into it."

Duncan calls her use of print products "judicious."  Her current print products include a graduation section, the previously mentioned county fair wrap-up, and some event-driven community sections, including ones on the local opera season and a hot air balloon event. 

Those guides give the community a taste of print, but Duncan hopes those who love print will follow her, and pay for her content, online. She said she's starting to see some cracks in print's armor.

"One lady said, 'Oh, we'll never give up our print paper. ... I don't think (a website) is something I would use." Duncan recalled. Two months later, the woman told Duncan she and her husband were leaving for a weekend in Florida and she bought her husband his own iPad so they could both read the Independent Advocate online.

That's a good sign for the future of the Independent Advocate, as Duncan attempts to grow her audience in Indianola and beyond.

"They're figuring out that it's the content they care about, not the way it comes to them," Duncan said.

And at the same time, media entrepreneurs like Duncan are figuring some things out that can allow them to take on the corporate chains. 

"There’s such a vibrant world of people who have left Gannett and other corporations and are finding communities that do want news, and are hungry for it, and are finding ways to provide it," Duncan said.

"Now we can do what fits our town," she added, "instead of the corporate world."