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Insanity and Prosperity in the Midwest

When Joey Young was 27, his friends told him he was insane. 

The reason? He wanted to buy a newspaper.

"Why sink a lot of money into that?" he remembers them asking.

Young didn't listen. He bought that paper -- a weekly in south-central Kansas that just happened to be his wife's hometown paper. Seven years later, Joey is now the owner of Kansas Publishing Ventures, which publishes six weekly papers in four Kansas counties.

OK, so perhaps his friends were right. You've got to be a little insane to be in this business, but Young also is successful. Editor & Publisher recently named Young one of their 2020 25 Under 35 in the news industry.

Young said he doesn't buy into the talk that newspapers are dying, and he's trying to prove it.

"I’m personally a print guy," Young said. "I think most of the money is in print right now. Until I see differently we will continue to print a newspaper.  Certainly it is not helpful the coronavirus decided to kill off a chunk of our business. But that’s been everybody. For us there are ups and downs every year for every business."

Kansas Publishing Ventures prints The Hillsboro Free Press, Newtown Now, The Clarion, The Hesston Record, The Harvey County Independent and The McPherson News-Ledger. Three are free weeklies and three are paid-subscription weeklies.
"Newspapers in some way or some form will never die," Young said. "Unlike TV or radio, etc., we create original content. People still want to know what's going on in their town. We create content and people will pay to read that content. That business model has been working for hundreds of years. Now, you have to tweak it occasionally. We're in a tweak right now. But in 20-30 years, will people not care about how the government is spending their tax money?"

As far as digital subscriptions go, KPV is all in, but keeps it simple. If a weekly is free in print, you don't pay for it online. But if a subscription is required for the print product, you need to have that subscription to read it online. Very little is given away for free. There are no digital-only subscriptions, however, unless you live out of state. If you're in-state, you get both print and digital. If you're out of state, the paper won't be mailed to you.
Screenshot of Newtown Now subscription page
KPV also practices what we've been preaching here at NewStart -- diversification of revenue.  The company has a custom printing division that works with writers to self-publish books and with area high schools and colleges to publish yearbooks. It also has an IT division to help area businesses and residents with computer issues and services. 

But that's not all. Young said they're also hosting community events, like an annual blues concert that brings in a "decent chunk of cash every year."

The key, Young said, is to find ways to bring in more cash during the normal downturns each year in newspaper advertising.

"Normally newspapers struggle in June and July, but we bill our yearbooks in June," he said. "That way you have this nice 20 to 30 percent profit margin right when the other starts to dip."

He realized that he couldn't have all his eggs in one basket soon after buying his first newspaper, The Clarion.

"Four to five weeks into buying The Clarion, our second-largest advertiser was a bank that merged with another bank, and that one had no money for print advertising," Young said. "So we knew that customer was gone. That was our second-biggest advertiser. We had to scramble and hustle to make things work."

So each year, Young, his wife (who quit her teaching job to work for KPV), and his other business partners "sit in a room, drink some beer, throw stuff against the wall and see if it sticks." Some of those ideas are successful and add to the company's bottom line, while others are not.

One example, which Young details on his blog, is the first newspaper he tried to start on his own -- the Maize Free Press. He said he lost a lot of money on that venture. But without that failure, he wouldn't have been able to succeed with the next one he tried -- Newtown Now. 

"We should be doing a better job. Lord knows we could be," Young said. "Sometimes the ideas have hit, and sometimes they don't. We try to experiment. If one of the ideas pans out, we keep doing it. If not, we don't."

That constant experimentation allows KPV to learn on the fly, and gives him opportunities to try things that other chain newspapers are not able to.

And speaking of chains, that's a sore spot for Young, who battles them in South Central Kansas and has seen what they have done to competing papers that used to be independently owned.

He wrote an "obituary" for one competing paper when it was purchased by a chain, and got a little bit of flak for it. But he stands by it, and says that the way chains and hedge funds have run community newspapers is the main reason for the negative outlook on local ownership.

"It bothers me that these giant companies bought newspapers at 10 times cash flow thinking they would be able to print money for eternity," Young said. "But they couldn’t see the writing on the wall. They made a bunch of mistakes.  ... 'We can’t print money any more, but we bought a bunch of newspapers.'  That’s not newspapers dying. ... All of the big companies were greedy. And they’re paying for it now."

Young says it is still possible to buy a community newspaper and make a good living, despite what people hear about horror stories at corporate chains.

"We didn’t buy any of our papers at 10 times cash flow," Young said. "I don’t think they’ll be sold at 10 times cash flow again. That era is over. (Young's papers) are enough to make money, and not have a lot of debt. You can live a relatively comfortable life."

If you'd like to learn more about Joey Young's work in Kansas, here's an in-depth interview from earlier this year with Mike Blinder of Editor & Publisher.

From Insanity to a 'Nut Case'

We now transition from Joey Young, who his friends considered "insane" for wanting to buy a newspaper, to Carl Butz, who was called a "nut case" by the owner of The Mountain Messenger for wanting to buy his paper and save it from extinction.
Butz did indeed buy the paper in January, and he still owns it -- in the middle of pandemic, no less.

Fast-forward four months, and Nieman Storyboard interviewed Butz and the New York Times reporter who wrote a feature on Butz, the paper and the community.

Turns out owning a weekly newspaper is hard work, but it is also rewarding.  (But you all knew that already.)

Perhaps the best quote from Butz in the Q&A:

"He (the former Messenger owner) was spot-on about me being crazy, but this is necessary when one takes on 'a mission — not a job,' as I was told by the editor of the Independent Coastal Observer recently. Anyway, I got myself into far, far more than i could ever imagine. The job is all-consuming, I fear every upcoming deadline, and I am thoroughly addicted to proving crazy to be a good thing."

The whole thing is worth a read, so get to it.

NewStart Update

Thanks to everyone who attended one of our virtual NewStart Q&A information sessions, or joined me for a one-on-one session over the past few weeks. It's been great to see so much interest in the program.

As a reminder, if you're interested in earning a one-year, online master's degree in Media Solutions and Innovation from West Virginia University -- and you should be interested! -- just email me at jim.iovino@mail.wvu.edu and we can set up a phone call or Zoom meeting.

Why is this program so important for rural newspapers, especially weeklies? Current owners are struggling with old business models, especially during the time of covid-19, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported yesterday.

According to media analyst Owen Van Essen, president of Dirks, Van Essen, Murray and April, a Santa Fe, N.M.,-based newspaper industry merger and acquisition firm:
“There are 200 to 300 small, weekly newspapers that will not be around by the end of the year” nationally, Van Essen said. And as many as 500 newspapers will reduce their publication schedule this year, he said.

The Power of Local Media

Local news outlets are still relevant, example No 7,011:

Quick Hits


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

Update: Remember when we talked last week about The Spokesman-Review's book-reading initiative? Well, the Chicago Public Library is doing the same thing (with some big names). The Chicago Sun-Times, which reported on it, held an art contest for local kids.

Learn: "Google is quietly testing a new experiment that would enable it to act as a sort of assignment editor for news sites by conveying Google searchers’ unanswered questions to them." "With the support of Democracy Fund, Election SOS offers free training for journalists covering the 2020 US elections, connecting them to best practices, resources and support around election coverage. We are now accepting applications for our first training cohorts, kicking off in June. Availability is limited." “A successful membership project isn’t just a subscription by another name—it’s an editorial mindset that values a strong relationship with readers, not just the one-way street most news organizations remain accustomed to.” "This report underscores and articulates how ongoing changes in the structure and business of media and journalism contribute to the gap between rural realities and public perception of rural America. It also highlights the outsized role that social media is playing in shaping public perceptions." “The Covid-19 crisis has shown us how essential local news and information is to us,” Ms. Cantwell said. “Now is not the time to cut newsroom jobs critical to giving the public regional data and news on Covid-19 outbreaks.”


This An' 'At: Watch a panel of three national journalists whose reporting has focused on impact of the virus on diverse parts of rural America. "A veteran industry executive has been named project director of a renewed effort to champion the importance of community newspapers across North America and to celebrate the vital contributions of press associations they represent." "News organizations have long hoped that tech platforms would pay them for news. Now regulators abroad are moving to make that happen."
  • And finally, a sign of the times for newspaper boxes...

See Something, Share Something


That's all for this week. Thanks for reading!

A reminder: If you have a success story, or know someone else doing something great, I want to hear about it, and share it in this newsletter. So reach out to me and we'll chat. You can reply to this email, or hit up NewStart on Twitter @wvunewstart, and you can @ me @jimiovino.

If you, your organization, or anyone else you know would like to fund a NewStart fellowship position or would want to offer a scholarship this coming year (or any other time down the road), 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 newstart.media

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