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When One Door Closes, Another Opens

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."

NewStart Update

If owning and running your own publication like Amy Duncan is doing in Iowa sounds interesting to you, perhaps you should consider becoming a media entrepreneur via our NewStart program and taking over a rural publication somewhere in the country. Email me at and we can set up a phone call or Zoom meeting and chat.

If you're an owner or publisher who is grooming someone in your newsroom to eventually take over, why not enroll them in our one-year, online master's degree in Media Solutions and Innovation from West Virginia University? It would make a worthwhile investment in your publication's future.

The Power of Local Media

Local news is still relevant, example No. 123:

Quick Hits

Now on to the latest news and notes from around the world of local journalism:

Learn: "Broadband seems like a simple question of infrastructure until news audiences come into play. As print subscriptions decline and many nonprofit newsrooms focus explicitly on digital distribution, it’s something that few organizations have taken the time to consider or deal with. 'Newsrooms never explicitly discriminate,' said Katlyn Alo, a reporter for Outlier Media, an SMS-based information service based in Michigan. 'But it’s true that if you’re limited in the way you access information, you’re a certain type of [news consumer].'” "So this is cool: The Wall Street Journal just launched a six-week Money Challenge “course” to school you on personal finance basics — you get a weekly email of exercises, tips, and even homework, in case you missed that particular strain of structure. It’s a newsletter series of course (<-- media in 2020, in a nutshell) ..., but it’s also pretty neat for another reason: The series launches right after you sign up!" "Those papers that I had looked at—prior to covid-19—that were best positioned for success did so through a variety of ways. They held in-person events, they started lifestyle and business magazines. They looked at setting up in-house digital ad agencies, e-commerce. One even went so far as to buy a local bookstore. You’ve got to think creatively, but in a disciplined fashion, because you’ve got such small margins." “We’re starting with the business model as much as we’re starting with an audience and content model. This isn’t a ‘Field of Dreams'” situation, Williams said. "The cofounder of the Oakland-based "Hometown" is at work on what could be a paradigm shift in the way people consume news." "Coming very soon: A long-awaited playbook for those public media stations interested in acquiring or merging with a local digital news site in their region." "The citizens agenda is a powerful model for reaching new audiences and deepening your existing relationships, that allows newsrooms to focus their coverage on the most important issues and demand accountability for responses from candidates. This approach centers on a key question: What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?" "Fortunately, an ecosystem is beginning to emerge among those of us who are trying to create and support digital news startups. While each of us may have different theories of change, I’m confident we’re all after the same goal: To ensure that the future of independent media is equitable, impactful and sustainable." “We had these huge numbers, and it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for us,” explained Orson Francescone, the Managing Director of FT Live. “We quickly realized that we could do something bigger and bolder.” "Here are the four most important things you should know about why Madison365 has been so successful at generating earned revenue..." "At no time in our history has the value of high-quality journalism been as clear as it is right now, at this intersection of a global pandemic and a nation in turmoil over systemic racism and inequality,” stated Michael Reed, Gannett Chairman-CEO. "Lookout doesn’t want its local news sites to be a supplement or alternative to the local daily. They aim to be the news source of record in their communities, outgunning their shrunken newsprint rivals from Day 1." "There haven’t been many friendly public service announcements in the past few months that have been kind to our physical and mental well-being. Or our wallets. We at Daily Maverick are hoping that we’ll buck the trend with this one."

This An' 'At: "Innovation can take many forms, including taking more risks in funding; expanding the pool of who gets funded; rethinking how we assess impact and return on investment; and more. We invite funders to consider what equity looks like within our current funding systems — and what it might look like if we built something new altogether." "When farmers weren't able to plant crops in 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture compensated them for the money they would have made. The federal government could similarly compensate struggling community newspapers through a temporary subsidy program, rural publisher Reed Anfinson writes in an op-ed for the StarTribune in Minneapolis."


That's all for this week. As always, thanks for reading.

A reminder: Share your success stories! Share your innovations! You can reply to this email, or hit up NewStart on Twitter @wvunewstart, and you can @ me @jimiovino.

Be like the fine folks at the Knight Foundation and the Benedum Foundation! If you, your organization, or anyone else you know would like to fund a NewStart fellowship position or would want to offer a scholarship in Year 2, feel free to reach out to me. 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

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