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ProPublica’s new “50 states” commitment builds on a decade-plus of local news partnerships
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Nov. 15, 2017, 10:25 a.m.
Business Models
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Shan Wang   |   November 15, 2017

Most newspapers in the U.S. have circulations of less than 50,000. Some are headquartered in towns of fewer than 2,000 residents. Some are flying under the radar in metropolitan areas of half a million.

Among these smaller market newspapers, there is no “cookie-cutter model” to local news success, but there are many common challenges, useful frameworks, and many similar promising revenue opportunities, according to a Tow Center report published Wednesday by Christopher Ali and Damian Radcliffe that’s centered around the challenges and strategies of these smaller market newspapers.

Of the 7,071 daily or weekly newspapers operating in the U.S., 6,851 — nearly 97 percent — have circulations under 50,000, according to Editor & Publisher data. Through open-ended interviews with reporters, editors, newspaper chain executives, as well as industry observers, foundation staff, and other researchers Ali and Radcliffe put together a number of takeaways. I’m going to pull out some interesting bits on diversifying and strengthening revenue streams below.

The usual. Advertising and subscriptions, both online and print, as well as single-copy sales, are common among these small market papers. Journalists can sometimes be the best advocates in that regard:

Lauren Gustus, at the time the executive editor of the Coloradoan in Fort Collins observed how her reporters will often share details on social media of special subscription offers, telling their followers: “I’m proud of the work I do . . . Here’s the link if you wanna subscribe.”

Gustus contends that, alongside this, her journalists don’t simply leave these matters to the sales guys. “Anyone in our newsroom could tell you about the demographics of our subscribers,” she said. “They could tell you how many subscribers we have and they could tell you how much it costs to subscribe to the Coloradoan for print or digital.”

The paper has one of the highest digital-only subscriber bases across the Gannett group, with paid circulation up year-on-year for the past two years. Whether this can be attributed to the continued communication between the newsroom and the paper’s audience cannot be proven, but it remains, nonetheless, a model that others can potentially learn from.

Collaboration as a matter of necessity. Prominent success stories like Electionland have made the idea of partnership and sharing stories and resources a little bit more familiar and a little easier for some competition-minded news publications to swallow. (See examples and case studies here, and here.) There are cases of close, ongoing partnerships not just for the purpose of tackling big events like elections, but to keep publications alive:

In Virginia, a partnership between the hyperlocal news website Charlottesville Tomorrow and newspaper The Daily Progress has resulted in over 2,000 stories written by Charlottesville Tomorrow staff published in the Progress. According to its website: “Charlottesville Tomorrow pro- duces more than 50 percent of the newspaper’s content related to growth, development, education and local politics.”

As Brian Wheeler, executive director at Charlottesville Tomorrow, recounted to us: In 2009, The Daily Progress newsroom had shrunk dramatically, from about forty-five people to about eighteen. The managing editor approached us. He was looking for other things they could have on their website…and they finally reached the point where they said, “We could do more in partnership with you than trying to work against you.”

So, the partnership was a simple one-page, back-and-front memorandum of understanding between myself and the editor. There were no lawyers involved. And it was, in 2009, the first of its kind in the country where a nonprofit was doing beat reporting for a daily newspaper.

— Obituaries: to paywall, or not to paywall? Strategies on charging to publish obituaries — and worldviews on whether that’s an icky thing to do — also vary. Some papers choose to keep obituaries behind a paywall along with other more popular content such as recipes; others do not. A few papers publish obituaries for free; more have come around to charging:

The Courier Record of Blackstone, Virginia, is one such paper which has made this journey. As owner Billy Coleburn reflected, “We used to never charge for obits, then we charged for some versions and didn’t charge for others. Now, basically most obits in our paper are paid. Do a color photo, and it’s not a bad additional piece of revenue.”

At the same time, Coleburn readily conceded that “obits are a very important part of record of the paper, no doubt, [and a] record of the community.”

That little platform Mark Zuckerberg runs. Some publishers, such as the Calhoun County Journal of Bruce, Mississippi, actively avoid Facebook. Others acknowledge that it’s pretty tough to simply stay off platforms these days, but are wary of the monetization aspect.

As Amalie Nash, the Des Moines Register’s executive editor and vice president for news and engagement at the time of interview and now Gannett’s executive editor for the West Region, explained: “You look at something like Facebook native videos, which we all agree that’s great for brand, that’s great for getting yourself out there, and this and that, but at the end of the day, you’re making pennies on the dollar in terms of what those videos are providing as far as revenue sources.”

On other platforms, revenue may be even less. A cursory glance at the YouTube channels for many small-market newspapers, for example, shows video views often total between a few thousand and a few hundred.

“Getting five or six or seven hundred views on a single video isn’t a sellable item to an advertiser,” warned Lou Brancaccio, emeritus editor of The Columbian of Vancouver, Washington. As a result, he suggested this may not be a viable medium for smaller outlets to continue investing in so heavily. “The jury is still out on whether or not that is going to pull more viewers onto our website,” he said.

You can read the full report here. Columbia is also hosting a corresponding event in the evening for the launch of this research.

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