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Welcome back, everyone. Thanks for opening this week's newsletter. We've got a ton to go over, including this new survey on local news.

The fine folks at Medill conducted a survey of nearly 1,400 members of the U.S. news media and found that, well, the majority is really concerned about the future of the industry.
I'm not great at math, but if I carried the one properly I'm looking at about 98 percent of those surveyed being concerned about the future sustainability of local news. Glad we all agree that it's a problem!

But what to do about it? Of course, there's no magic bullet that will solve all of the industry's problems. But there are several paths one can take toward sustainability, as noted by those who took the survey:
A lot of headlines focused on the top answer: "converting from commercial to nonprofit status."

Yes, it is a path forward, but you still need a good business model to make it work. I was pleased to see that 36.4% of respondents chose "All of the above." That's a very good sign, if you ask me, because we in the NewStart program keep pointing out that you need to diversify your revenue sources if you want to be sustainable for the long haul. I'm glad other people see the light, as well.

Now, of course, we all know the old business models are broken, or will break down in the next few years for those lucky enough to not be swept up yet in the industry turmoil. But there are plenty of other trouble spots in our industry that we should be paying attention to at the same time.

One that if often overlooked is customer service, and how we are treating our customers -- especially those who have been loyal to our products and services for years and years. Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association, makes mention of this in the Medill survey article when asked about the public's perception of local media sustainability:

“I think there’s a huge disconnect with the public,” Lane said. “The public does not understand the financial situation for local media. They do understand their newspaper is a lot smaller and they’re not getting as much news. So my parents, in their 70s, who subscribed to two newspapers their whole life, recently cancelled both subscriptions because they said there was so little news in both newspapers and it was nothing new and it wasn’t local enough anymore for them. And when my parents stop subscribing to a newspaper, we’re in trouble.”

I ran across another example of this while scrolling through Facebook a week or so ago. My friend Tina Hay, the former editor of The Penn Stater magazine, was having issues with the local State College newspaper she has subscribed to for decades. So I asked if she would share her experience with all of us. She obliged. Enjoy...

Why Is Local News Trying to Drive Me Away?

By Tina Hay

I want to support local journalism. I really do. I’ve lived in State College, Pa., for more than 40 years and subscribed to the local newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, for that entire time. I’ve worked in journalism myself and I know how crucial its role is. Plus, as a consumer, there’s something about having a paper waiting outside my front door every morning — as well as unlimited online access — that’s hard to give up. But lately, the CDT seems to be doing everything it can to drive me away.

The CDT was a fine local paper for many decades, with robust coverage of local government, local sports, and Penn State (the area’s largest employer). But in recent years, the paper has eroded to just a shred of its former self. It’s thinner, it publishes only six days a week, and it’s no longer timely: A story about a Monday night borough council meeting, for example, won’t appear in the paper until Wednesday at the earliest, if they cover the meeting at all. 

The steady decline in the CDT’s value has been matched by its rise in subscription price. I must confess that I haven’t paid too much attention to what I was paying — until last month, when I received a letter informing me that my rate would be going up to $78 a month. That’s $936 a year!

I posted a comment about this on my Facebook page, and quickly discovered that CDT subscription rates vary wildly. One friend had just received a similar renewal notice, except that her new annual rate would be $1,100. Another friend texted me a photo of his statement, showing he was paying just $260 a year for the identical level of service.

I called the CDT’s customer service number and quickly found myself in the thick of negotiations that seemed better suited to a used-car purchase. I asked about a lower rate. The rep tried to steer me to the e-edition. I told him the e-edition’s interface is lousy. He offered a “senior discount” that was pretty much what I already was paying. He said, “Let me see what I can do,” put me on hold, and came back with his “personal discount,” which was still exorbitant. I said, “OK, then I’ll just cancel,” and suddenly he found yet another discount. I actually agreed to that one — $312 a year for digital access plus Sunday delivery — but, after hanging up, realized it wasn’t that great a deal after all. So I called back and got a different rep, who quickly found me still another rate: home delivery six days a week plus digital access for a bit over $580 a year. I took it. By my estimation, I’m probably back to what I was paying three years ago — though I fully expect to have to go through the same negotiations in six months or a year, when the next renewal letter arrives. 

I understand what’s going on here: I’m subsidizing new subscribers, who pay an introductory rate that’s a fraction of what I’m paying. And I realize that the paper will charge what the market will bear; they’re counting on some percentage of readers not even noticing that their subscription price just went up by 25% or more. But it strikes me as odd that the rates are so negotiable; I couldn’t bargain my way to a lower price like that at the grocery store, say, or at my dentist’s office. 

I don’t pretend to know the economics of publishing a local newspaper in today’s media environment. I know it’s complicated. And my heart is with the local reporters, photographers, and editors, who earn little money and have even less job security. I’ll keep subscribing, in part to support them and in part because it’s just a hard habit to break. But it sure seems as though, with every renewal notice, my loyalty gets tested all over again.
--

Thanks for sharing your story, Tina.

Hopefully this will open some eyes around the industry. It's great to go out and acquire new subscribers. But at the same time we have to be mindful of our current (and long-term) supporters.

Churn is real, and is extremely costly to a news organization. Avoid it at all cost.

Political Aspirations


You may recall that last July we talked with Dawaune Lamont Hayes, the founder and director of NOISE (North Omaha Information Support Everyone), about the important work he is doing there to engage with his neighbors and make a difference in his community.

That work has now put him on a new path -- running for mayor.

Whoa.

"It came to me that I could write stories about change or I could actually step out and mobilize folks," Dawaune told me this week. "I chose the latter."

"Honestly, my work with NOISE was key to my doing this," he added. "When you hear people's stories and then go to City Hall and see them being ignored, it just doesn't sit right."

Just because he's getting into politics doesn't mean he's ignoring his past. He said he wants to see what role local government can have in helping to sustain local journalism.

Best of luck to Dawaune with his campaign!

New Jersey News


There is some big news out of New Jersey this week, as told by a press release from the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media: 
The Corporation for New Jersey Local Media (CNJLM), a nonprofit dedicated to building strong communities through journalism and civic engagement, today announced a landmark  agreement with the New Jersey Hills Media Group to work together to convert the group’s 14 weekly newspapers in Morris, Somerset, Essex, and Hunterdon counties to non-profit ownership.

Upon completion of the transition, the New Jersey Hills Media Group, which is currently the largest independent weekly newspaper group in the state, will be the largest weekly newspaper under non-profit ownership in the nation, covering 52 municipalities. The transition, detailed in this week’s newspapers, will be supported by a $500,000 community fund-raising drive.

This innovative collaboration between CNJLM and the New Jersey Hills Media Group was established to forge new ways to preserve the legacy of community journalism and is intended to serve as a paradigm for owners of quality newspaper groups across the nation who are looking for sustainable, community-based models to secure the future of local news.
More details can be found here, and check out CNJLM at newsweneed.org.

Quick Hits


Here is a lot of news from around the world of local journalism. Enjoy! 

NewStart in the News: "Nobody can expect to make big money running a small newspaper, said Thiel of the Edgerton Earth, which she bought when it was in a building that housed a hair salon with a back room for tanning. In 2011, she moved the newspaper to a downtown building with a separate area for her two tanning beds and one tanning booth. The newsroom consists of just her desk and computer in the divided room."

Learn: "In many communities, the platform has begun to step into roles once filled by America’s local newspapers. 'Anecdotally, Nextdoor has gone from being kind of sub-Facebook to actually being the main platform you hear people discussing as a vector for local news and events and discussions,' says Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University." "Stop invalidating careers in the audience space. The skills cultivated doing audience work make for an incredibly well-rounded journalist." "Mark Zuckerberg warned that small businesses will no longer be able to reach their customers with targeted ads due to Apple's planned changes to IDFA." "The Bloomfield Information Project aggregates news through RSS, websites, online search, and CrowdTangle, a social monitoring tool." "Email newsletters have long been regarded as a digital marketer’s best friend. The reasons for that are not hard to fathom: for brands, they represent a rare opportunity to get regular exposure to consumers who have opted-in to hear more about what their company has to offer and represent the perfect customer nurturing and retention tool. For media outlets, meanwhile, they represent an opportunity to drive both subscription and ad revenue." “SMS is a lot more direct and synchronous,” Chestnut says. “Also, it’s just a great new sales channel for e-commerce as well.” "So while it might be the worst of times for the business of local news, it’s also the best time for local foundations and high net-worth individuals to step up to support them." “No matter what happens to the business, people still need news,” she says. “Sometimes, what needs to be done is right under your nose.” "While other media operations shrank in 2020, LOCAL Community News successfully executed expansion plans, launching the company’s fifth hyperlocal market in March just before the pandemic forced many businesses to shut down." "It’s not the public that doesn’t want to pay journalists to do journalism, it’s management." -- 56% of Americans agree with the statement that "Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations." "News media companies are well-positioned to not only offer these reward programs to their audience, but they have the unique ability to offer and promote these types of programs easier than most businesses in any other industry." "Axios went as far as to name 'reviving local journalism' as one of the 10 promises to readers that CEO Jim VandeHei made earlier this month in the company’s new Bill of Rights." The “Fresh Start” initiative is part of a broader effort to rethink the Globe’s criminal justice coverage and how it affects communities of color, amid a national reckoning over racial inequity.

News: The former editor of the Idaho Statesman declined an offer from McClatchy to return to her position. "Under the new rate-setting system, the U.S. Postal Service will be able to increase the postage assessed to newspapers by roughly 9 percent annually over the next five years. Rate changes of this magnitude would be unsustainable for newspapers and could force small market and community newspapers to close their doors."

This An' 'At "In a community that has average or above-average economic growth prospects, and a publisher who has a mandate to meet the needs of the local community, they can have an average or above-average chance of crafting a sustainable for-profit, nonprofit or hybrid. It’s going to necessitate a variety of business models and you’re not going to have profit margins you had in the past, and you’ll have to have the capital to invest for at least five years.” "How do you get a good, factual news story in front of the twenty-six-year-old guy who works at the Casey’s gas station in Knoxville, Iowa? Because those are the kind of folks who don’t have a lot of time, or who definitely don’t follow all the news, who don’t have subscriptions to the Des Moines Register or New York Times, probably don’t even watch the local news at night."

Thanks!


That's all for this week. 

You can follow NewStart on Twitter @wvunewstart, and you can @ me @jimiovino.

Be like the fine folks at the Knight Foundation and the Benedum Foundation! Fund a NewStart fellowship position or a scholarship in Year 2! I'd be happy to talk! Seriously, I would love to offer more fellowships and scholarships, and you can help!

And don't forget, you can find NewStart online at newstart.media

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Thanks again, stay safe, and we'll talk soon.
Jim.
 
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