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Is This the Future of Public Notices?

Hopefully you saw the link in last week’s newsletter about three newspaper chains striking a deal with a company called Column to streamline their public notices.

As the article mentioned, Column has grown significantly in the past year via deals with the Washington Post and numerous state press associations.

By now I hope you know how significant the money generated from public notices is for many newspapers’ bottom lines. And I hope you know about the constant push from lawmakers to end requirements that certain legal notices have to be published in a printed newspaper. 

West Virginia Press Association executive director and NewStart founder, Don Smith, is currently in the midst of his yearly battle to save the requirement in his state. And due to a Republican super majority in his state legislature, that battle is quite intense, to say the least.

The alternatives that are proposed by lawmakers are less than ideal. It’s not that they just want to open it up to online publications because that’s where public eyeballs are trending. They want to house these on their own government websites where few people may ever visit, providing less transparency into what is happening in communities across the country.

State press associations have been fighting the good fight for their members, and some, like West Virginia, have created their own websites to help satisfy requirements for a digital presence and improve the experience.

Column is another tool for publishers and state press associations in the battle to keep public notice transparency alive. The company is a public benefit corporation that was started by Jake Seaton, who comes from a long line of newspaper publishers in Kansas.

I got a tour this week of Column and wanted to share some of the details for anyone thinking about upgrading their public notices systems — both individual publishers and press associations.

First of all, let’s start off with the price, because we all know publications are strapped for cash. 

It is free for press associations to join the platform, and it is also free for individual publications to use the service. There are no initial costs or maintenance fees. 

So ... how does Column make money?

It charges a processing fee on all transactions done via the service. Column suggests passing that on to those placing the ads, so publications do not have to absorb that cost (credit card fees are baked into that processing fee, BTW).

What does it look like?  Here’s an example of how the Colorado Press Association uses Column for public notices.
The statewide database is searchable via date, location, publication and notice type.  Users also can sign up to get email alerts based off of search queries daily, weekly or monthly.

Individual publishers can have a similar look. The Washington Post went as far as to add a mapping feature, allowing people to locate trustee sales, for example, across the D.C. region.
Column can also help publishers manage their notices and streamline the process. 

There is a self-service option for those placing ads. Column can help create custom affidavit templates for the public to use, provide rates and show a preview of how it will look in print. It can even help paginate notices as they come through the system. 
I could see Column creating some additional tools down the road so publishers could insert legal notices into their existing editorial newsletters, or exporting the data in a format that investigative reporters could use to find story ideas or track trends over time.

Joey Young, majority owner of Kansas Publishing Ventures, said his company has enjoyed its experience with Column so far.

“We have had very little trouble with clients adapting to it, and when we have had issues the Column staff have been super easy to work with in getting those issues fixed,” he said via email. “We have most of our customers converted to using Column, as we took a slow and steady uploading process approach. Our hope is to get to about 90 percent adoption for our three legal newspapers.”

There is one other Column feature to note — a donation platform.

Column offers a set of out-of-the-box donation tools that the foundation arm of an association can use to send donations to newspapers. Column can help foundations customize the page, keep track of donations and email receipts to donors.

Here are a few examples from the New York Newspaper Foundation and the Florida Press Foundation.
The Orlando Sentinel is one newspaper that has benefited from this arrangement. You can read about the publication's efforts here.

As long as newspapers still have public notices, they will have to find a good way to make the entire process of acquiring and publishing them happen with as few pain points as possible. In general, turning over valuable content to a third party is a risky proposition, but if your newspaper or association can't do it alone, Column may be a good option. The terms seem to be solid (for now). And hopefully efforts like this will help in the battle to ensure that government agencies continue to be transparent for years to come.

NewStart Update

We've got a lot of tremendous updates this week from our NewStart cohort.

First up, a big congrats goes to Victor Hernandez for being named the new Chief Content Officer for WBUR in Boston! 

Here's a portion of the announcement to the staff from WBUR CEO Margaret Low:
I’m delighted to report that after a long national search, we have found our Chief Content Officer — Victor Hernandez brings a rare constellation of skills and experience to the job. He is a journalist, an editorial leader, a digital innovator and a strategist. He has been looking around corners for more than a decade.

For the last two years, Victor has been executive editor at Cascade Public Media, created through the merger of Seattle’s 60-year-old PBS TV station and the much newer digital news outlet Crosscut, a nonprofit news site. ...

Victor was a Poynter Ethics Fellow, is a frequent public speaker and trainer and, as if he isn’t busy enough, he’s a few months away from getting a master’s degree (online) in media solutions and innovation from West Virginia University.
This is a tremendous opportunity for Victor and is well-deserved! All of us in the NewStart program can't wait to see Victor thrive in this new role.

Congrats are also in order for NewStart fellow Miles Layton and his wife, Nicole, for collecting a boatload of awards in the North Carolina Press Association contest. Miles, in particular, was honored with the Henry Lee Weathers Freedom of Information Award, which is presented to journalists or newspapers for exceptional work advancing or upholding the cause of freedom of information.

Miles won that award for his reporting and editorials about taxpayer-funded trips by council members and his calls for reforming the town‘s travel policy.
In a video, awards emcee Shannon Vickery of PBS NC noted that Layton’s ”public record requests led to the uncovering of cost associated with travel and led to a halt of any new council travel, as well as a review of the town’s finances and a revision of the (town’s) travel policy.”

Vickery said the contest’s judges considered Layton’s coverage of town government in Hertford “a great example of using the press to protect readers‘ and taxpayers‘ interest and holding public officials‘ feet to the fire.”

“It was nice to see that some oversights unearthed by the paper resulted in positive and forward-thinking change for the town,” Vickery said, quoting the judges.
Congrats to Miles and Nicole!

NewStart fellow Crystal Good continued her Black By God coverage this week with a commentary published in 100 Days in Appalachia titled "Racial Disparities of COVID-19 Shed Light on the Disparities in West Virginia Journalism."

That piece, in turn, led to this.  

Which in turn led to this

Think you have what it takes to be part of our Year 2 cohort? If you are interested in enrolling in the online master's degree program and earning a degree in Media Solutions and Innovation, the application period is now open to everyone! We have a limited number of slots, and they are already starting to be filled.

You can find out more about the program at this link, and then you can apply by clicking/tapping on the button below and following the instructions:
Apply Now
As a reminder, we started a Facebook page for the NewStart program. So feel free to like or follow our page to check out some interesting links and thoughts each and every week and join in on the discussion.
Join Us On Facebook

Beer Me Update

Last week we mentioned a few publications teaming up with a local brewery and tapping into the proceeds.

Well, a Nebraska newspaper said "Hold my beer," and opened a speakeasy in the back of their building. 

Not to be outdone, the owner of the Toronto Sun said "Hold my Canadian Club," and is opening an online casino.

Can't wait to see who ups the ante next...

Help Wanted

When I saw a message pop up from one of the journalism professors who taught me in college, I thought the worst. Did I forget to turn in a paper for his class back in 1996 and he wants to revoke my degree? Gulp.

It turns out I'm in good standing (I think) with dear old State. Berner wants to start his own local publication and was just looking for some advice.

You can read all about it here, and call him if you want to fund his new venture.

Help Wanted Part 2

Remember the focus of last week's newsletter, the Big Bend Sentinel? Sounds like a really cool place to work, right? Well, here's your chance...

The Big Bend Sentinel and the Presidio International weekly newspapers are currently hiring for a full time reporter. The right candidate will be responsible for researching, reporting and writing newsworthy stories from the Big Bend area of Texas.

They must be able to produce multiple stories each week and meet deadlines in a region brimming with news. Stories in our coverage area are not only pertinent to our local readers but also touch on topics that are often being discussed in the national landscape.

The reporter will have the opportunity to cover news, culture, politics, art, education, sports and the border. Being able to complete interviews in Spanish is strongly preferred.

The Big Bend Sentinel is an award winning Marfa-based newspaper founded in 1926 and dedicated to providing weekly news in print and online to readers in Marfa, Presidio, the Big Bend and beyond.

Marfa is a town of almost 2,000 residents in far west Texas, known for its art, ranching and a burgeoning tourist economy. Presidio is a sunny border community of nearly 6,000 on the Rio Grande river, boasting a growing port of entry, and close proximity to a state and National Park. Former Sentinel/International reporters have gone on to report and work for Texas Monthly and New York Times Magazine among many other state and national publications.

The right candidate:
-is curious and self-motivated to find stories and diligently report them
-enthusiastically takes on assigned stories
-is able to work well in a collaborative newsroom
-is always ready to chase a story and develop sources
To ask questions or apply, email Application emails should include a cover letter detailing why this job interests you, a resume, two references and links to three of your articles.

Quick Hits

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

Learn: This is a super-long read, but Jeremy brings up some very interesting points. It also reminds me of this NewStart newsletter from a few weeks back... "Last year, two journalism professors started an oral history project to document the work of local newsrooms in mid-America. They found the community in community journalism." "The new report presents an assessment approach tested and refined across nine U.S. communities of various sizes. Accompanying the report is a playbook designed as a tool to help funders and other community organizations evaluate strengths and opportunities in their locale."  "Though some outlets found ways to resume publication after shutting down—and, in some cases, new publications set out to to fill news voids—the Tow Center reports the shuttering of sixty-six news outlets: fifty-six newspapers, three digital outlets, five magazines, and one radio station." This is a great Twitter thread on listing to your audience from Les Zaitz. It's pretty easy to get your content set up on Flipboard. You should do it, because you never know when it might take off in your area. "Our 10 news publishers (and honorable mentions) had to learn how to navigate a brand-new world. Whether it was pivoting to virtual events to offering creative and innovative advertising packages to address the needs of their communities, they were able to find a silver lining during a very tough season."  This one reminds me of our newsletter on Pittsburgh City Paper last year. "This is a very happy, grateful day in our newsroom. Why? This is the day we get to announce that a record number of individuals and organizations have chosen to step forward and become Newsroom Partners in 2021." "Here’s how you can get that editor to open up to trying something new." "Previously only available in India, Indonesia, and Nigeria, the search engine recently opened up the hub to U.S.-based publishers. Question Hub collects unanswered questions from its search engine and makes the data available to content creators to help fill in the gaps."

This An' 'At: "This is the mission of our new Western Iowa Journalism Foundation: 'Educate, inform, and engage residents throughout Western Iowa by supporting community journalism to ensure long-term access to accurate local news and investigative reporting.'” "I joined this initiative to underscore the importance of protecting student journalism  in a small town that is heavily influenced by the hysteria around “fake news” and a general distrust in the media, which many times fuels their pushback on important issues like mask-wearing."


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

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