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Defending the Digital Transition

A little over a year ago, the Chicago Defender made the decision to transition from print to completely online.

Did it work? What lessons have been learned? I recently talked with Hiram Jackson, the CEO of the Defender’s parent company, Real Times Media, to find out.

For those not familiar with the Defender, it has a long, important history in journalism in this country. It was founded in 1905 and was considered the nation’s most influential Black weekly newspaper.
Selling the Chicago Defender on the street in 1942. (Photo credit: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information photograph collection; Library of Congress)
In the 1950s it transitioned to a daily paper, making it the largest Black-owned daily in the world, according to PBS.  Eventually the Defender added several more papers to its portfolio, which now includes the Atlanta Daily World, Atlanta Tribune, Michigan Chronicle and the New Pittsburgh Courier.

It eventually returned to its roots of being a weekly product in print, but now is all digital, all the time.

The transition hasn’t been easy, but Jackson believes it is the best thing for the future of the Defender, and eventually the rest of Real Times Media’s publications.

“It was really difficult in terms of which one would we do this with,” Jackson said. “I had a real deep desire to go all digital with one of them. … I felt like it was inevitable. I still feel like it is inevitable that at some point the paper business model just doesn’t work like it used to.”

Jackson said the Defender was chosen because that brand had very strong name recognition. 
Of course, any time there is change, especially significant change, there is going to be pushback. The Defender’s move to digital was no exception. Jackson said the publication’s younger audience applauded the move, but baby boomers, in particular, didn’t take kindly to it. The nostalgia factor certainly played a role in that.

“We had a lot of people who were really disappointed,” Jackson said. “They walked to the corner store and got their Defender and remember their mom or grandma had the Defender. It was such an important newspaper, and there is a certain level of fondness you associate the Defender with. It’s not just a newspaper, it’s an emotional attachment.”

At the same time, the audience realized a change might be necessary considering the state of print media. Of course, that narrative often comes with another one — that the publication is struggling financially.  Jackson said those two didn’t go hand in hand at the Defender.

“They saw it as the first step to going out of business, quite frankly,” Jackson said. “Maybe we just didn’t message that well. To us, it was a necessary step to ensure that we had a future. We wanted to be proactive about it as opposed to waiting until we got to a point where we were financially impaired and it was a mandatory move.”

There were bumps along the way in the transition to a completely digital offering, including monetizing the site. 

“We learned that it is not a matter of just traditional ad sales,” Jackson said, adding that a local community newspaper cannot thrive with a revenue model based on CPMs and tower and banner ads.

“With a local, small community niche organization, it is difficult to drive enough traffic to monetize enough pennies to support a payroll,” he said. “We have to have multiple streams (of revenue), not just monetizing visitors and uniques.”

So how did the Defender do it? The publication was able to make the transition to digital because Jackson felt the brand recognition was strong, but also because it had diversified its revenue sources through events and an integrated marketing agency called RTM360.

“We carved out our niche where clients come to us to create a unique avenue to engage their consumers,” he said.

The events space, like everything else, has changed this year due to COVID-19, and the Defender has had to adjust. Jackson said they usually do about 65 events each year. The recently completed Men of Excellence event is an example of that. Normally that would be an in-person event for 600-800 people in Downtown Chicago. But this year the event was streamed on Facebook, and had thousands of views, Jackson said.

Continued adjustments will need to be made going forward, as the entire media industry continues to change along with technology, the economy and the world at large.

“We have to continue to evolve,” Jackson said. “The business continues to change. The challenge is reaching the 18- to 30-year-olds. That continues to be a challenge for us.”

Instead of reaching them through the Defender in print or online, they’ve developed sub-brands and programs to target them.  

“I may not be able to get that 25-year-old with the (New) Pittsburgh Courier," Jackson said, "but I can get them with the development of programs in that community.”

Those things include the Fab 40 in Pittsburgh, The Front Page in Detroit, and outreach to young professionals in Atlanta.

“They may not have same appreciation for the history and reverence of the Courier or Defender," Jackson said, "but we have been really effective at creating programs for them and highlight the people they are following.”

Jackson said when protests started across the country, the Defender’s traffic increased significantly, as it did when COVID-19 first hit the U.S.

He said the evolution of the Defender won’t stop at just going digital, and that the speed of change this year has been productive. He’s also learned a lot about his own publication and how the community views it.

“We don’t do sensationalized news. When people see our name on it they assume it is true and trust it,” Jackson said. “We were always hopeful that people would accept the transition. Now we know that people want our content and need our content and they still feel like they’re not getting enough of it."

“I think the future is pretty bright."

Alaska's Calling

Last month we told you about a unique newspaper ownership opportunity in Alaska.

Well, it turns out it's hard to get people to consider moving to Alaska during a pandemic, and the paper is still available. If you or anyone you know of is at all interested, please reach out to Larry Persily via email at and tell him NewStart sent you.

And really, who wouldn't want to enjoy views like this?

NewStart Update

It's hard to believe it, but we're already thinking about Year 2 of the NewStart program. We're going to do a series of Q&As in October for people interested in joining the second cohort, which will start in Summer 2021. 

So if owning and running your own publication sounds interesting to you, now is the time to consider becoming a media entrepreneur via our NewStart program and taking over a rural publication somewhere in the country. Email me at and I will let you know when those information sessions will be so you can register.

And 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.

100 Days, 100 Nights...

The NewStart program isn't the only cool thing going on at WVU's Reed College of Media these days. If you haven't heard of 100 Days in Appalachia, you might want to check it out. It was created in the days after the 2016 presidential election as a way to tell the story of Appalachia, from the actual voices of real Appalachians, and challenge flawed narratives.

Well, 100 days has turned into three-plus years, and the publication is still going strong. Now, it is venturing into new territory:

"We are announcing the launch of the Appalachian Advisors Network, a set of coverage guides, a freelancer hiring database and a network of Appalachian Advisors that make up a resource for national and international journalists who want to cover our region."

You can read all about this great resource here. Congrats to Ashton Marra, Dana Coester and everyone else at 100 Days. 

The Power of Local Media

Local news is still relevant (but is in serious trouble), example No. 412:

Quick Hits

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

Learn: "If the experiment works, I hope it provides a blueprint for how to do meaningful journalism amid the wreckage of a collapsing industry." "This recent growth in reader revenue has been experienced by publishers across the industry. 53% of publishers reported revenue growth in Q1 2020, helped by strong growth in subscriptions, according to the latest quarterly Digital Publishers Revenue Index (DPRI)." "Community editorial boards — or to use another term, community advisory boards, although both essentially serve the same purpose — are one way to start more of your journalism from a place of listening." "Everyone who cares about media — and about democracy itself — recognizes how vital it is to save local news. The Column team doesn’t just have a passion for that mission; we actually have a strategy." "A story published by a local newspaper was seen as less newsworthy than one that hadn’t been published at all. Not surprisingly, this effect was stronger among journalists who didn’t work for small, local papers." "Since March, The Tow Center for Digital Journalism has been collecting data on US newsroom cutbacks that have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic." Now it's all in a handy map. Read at your own risk.

This An' 'At: "The industry will need to rely on the independent owners that have journalistic mission as a top priority to 'try to figure out how to craft a business model that serves their community.'”


That's all for this week. Thanks, as always, 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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