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'We're Going To Make It, I Think'

You’ve probably read about the dire situation for alt-weeklies during the pandemic. Many of them have either stopped printing and gone online only, or have closed altogether. 

The Pittsburgh City Paper, the alt-weekly in the Steel City, has not had to resort to those measures — yet. And as editor-in-chief Lisa Cunningham puts it: “We’re going to make it, I think.” 

Taking the finances out of the picture for a minute, and the City Paper has had an incredible year. The paper has been applauded for its coverage of the pandemic, the unrest following the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing implosion within the newsroom of the longtime newspaper of record in Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette (full disclosure: I used to work at the PG).

By all accounts, this should be a banner year for the City Paper. But the financial situation can’t be ignored. The covid-19 crisis decimated local events, restaurants and music venues -- and in turn decimated the CP’s advertising dollars. That has led to furloughs and unfilled positions, a reduction in weekly printed pages and the ever-present threat of full-on layoffs.

But Cunningham, ad director Jasmine Hughes and director of operations Kevin Shepherd have kept the ship from sinking by getting a PPP loan, a small Google grant, a Pittsburgh Media Partnership tech grant, and by creating some new alternative revenue sources. 

For example:

They started a membership campaign in March, even though it wasn’t supposed to officially launch until later in the year. (For example, a recurring membership of $20 per month would cover the cost of the City Paper's email newsletter for a week, and you'll also get a photo print and a bunch of swag.)
They’ve started to sell merchandise, including coloring books, cookbooks and t-shirts. 
The “Over-The-Top Completely Ridiculous Yinzerrific Coloring Book” was a collaboration with 35 local artists, with 50 percent of proceeds split among those who helped draw the scenes for the book.

The “J’eet Jet” cookbook features 50 recipes from locals restauranteurs and others, with a portion of the proceeds going to the 412 Food Rescue nonprofit group in Pittsburgh. (Oh, by the way, you’ll be able to pick up the coloring book and the cookbook together for a special price in early August if you’re so inclined.)

As you can see from these partnerships, the City Paper is trying to help the community as much as it is trying to save itself.

“Our long-time goal is to help our community out, and that’s what we do with our stories, too,” said Cunningham, who has worked for the City Paper for more than 20 years. “That’s our mission — to always try to amplify the voices in our community.

“What’s been really special is that some of the artists I reached out to (for the coloring book) said they wanted to donate the proceeds they’re making back to us. That’s incredible.”

The love and support from the community and the City Paper’s longtime readers has made these painful last few months somewhat easier to deal with. 

“The only thing that keeps us going is getting the feedback from the community,” Cunningham said. “I told all of the writers to keep a folder and get a boost from it. It means everything. It really does mean the world.”

Because of the excellent community coverage the City Paper has done, especially recently by the likes of news editor Ryan Deto, the staff has been put in an interesting position — Cunningham said they’re now receiving more tips than ever, but because of staff reductions they’re not able to follow up on all of them.

“It’s a lot of pressure, too,” she said. “It’s harder now with things that are going on with the Post-Gazette. We’re getting more pitches than ever before. People are coming to us with harder news stories. But we have less staff than we’ve ever had before.

“What do we do? We don’t have the staff or the page count. So we pass on some stories to other media outlets in town that we trust. That says a lot about Pittsburgh’s media relationships and why it’s so important to keep places like the Post-Gazette and PublicSource and WESA and The Incline and not have them shut down. We’re not going to be the paper of record. We’re an alt-weekly.”

Cunningham said the future of alt-weeklies will be up for discussion at the industry’s annual conference  (now virtual) in September. There will be horror stories, of course, and there will be stories of hope like the one playing out in Pittsburgh.

“I think the City Paper can survive,” Cunningham said. “I do.” 

The Matchup vs. The Athletic

There was a lot of buzz this week about the new sports offering that will essentially combine the sports sections of numerous newspapers across the country into subscription service called The Matchup.

From the Local Media Consortium press release:
Phase one of The Matchup will enable content sharing between local news sites. During the coming NFL season, LMC members will share sports news and commentary between their sites via a feature that allows subscribers of one site to consume content regardless of which member site originated it, without any additional fees. Some beta markets will launch later this month, with full coverage expected by January 2021.

Later in 2021, The Matchup will launch a destination sports site with content from all members. Subscribers to member media outlets will have free access to The Matchup. Any reader who wants to access the platform will need to subscribe to a participating local media outlet and will then have a free pass to the largest collection of locally produced sports content anywhere.
The idea has received praise from industry folks, and cautious optimism about what it might mean for newspapers and sports journalism going forward. Jacob Cohen Donnelly of A Media Operator had some thoughts about The Matchup in his latest newsletter.
Media alliances always come with major fan fair, but quickly die away. However, this one does feel a little different primarily because it addresses two subtle, but important points.

- It’s not a centralized subscription that might cannibalize local revenue; rather, it’s a local subscription that then opens up content from other papers a reader would never subscribe to
- It’s potentially additive to revenue—by reducing churn and theoretically driving new subs—without any additional work on anyone’s part.
Of course, The Matchup is a response to The Athletic, which has undermined in just a few years a lot of what made local newspaper sports departments great.  The Athletic swooped in and hired a ton of the best sports writers in the country away from newspapers. I know this from experience during my time in Pittsburgh

But there's more to The Athletic than just big-name talent. The Athletic doesn't bombard readers with a ton of stories on every bit of news and every transaction. The in-depth reporting and features are outstanding. And the city sites have built a sense of community for subscribers. A lot of that has to do with the reporters actually hanging out in the comment sections of stories and interacting with readers.

So I don't think those who have signed up for The Athletic are suddenly going to abandon ship for newspaper sites again, and they may not feel the need to subscribe to both, considering so many teams these days publish a lot of the day-to-day news on their own sites and offer up much more behind-the-scenes content than ever before (for free, for now -- although I imagine the day will come when that goes behind a paywall, as well).

What I can see this being useful for are those who play fantasy sports (myself included) who want to find out the latest injury news on a player in another city, or who is going to start the second game of a doubleheader, or which rookies are doing well in the minors. For that you are constantly jumping from site to site, and from incognito browser to incognito browser, to get around paywalls as much as possible because, well, you're not going to buy subscriptions to 30-plus newspapers to win your fantasy baseball league. But a one-time subscription for ALL of that information may make sense. And since daily fantasy sports is all the rage these days, it could be enticing.

I wish The Matchup the best, and there's a good chance it will succeed. There are still a lot more questions than answers, but just trying to create a product like this is a worthy effort.

NewStart Update

Hey, did you read this story in The Daily Yonder and think to yourself, "Self, that doesn't sound bad at all!" If so, you may want to 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.

And here's something to consider: If you're an owner or publisher who is grooming someone in your newsroom to eventually take over, why not consider enrolling 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 outlets are still relevant, example No. 90210:

Quick Hits

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

Learn: "A better, more sustainable path might be easier than you might think. One key is to foster deeper relationships with your audiences as partners rather than customers/audience members. Another is to write about how communities are rebuilding and reviving just as well as you cover breakdowns, problems and collapse." "As part of a June 2020 Data for Progress survey, we asked registered voters if they would support or oppose allocating federal funds through a coronavirus relief bill to enable local journalists to continue to cover the pandemic and its fallout. We found mixed attitudes on this proposal." "After all, digital-only means you don’t need massive presses or barrels of ink or fleets of trucks. The barriers to publication are low, so there’s great growth potential. Right? Well, maybe not. At least not yet." "The search engine dedicated almost half of the first page of results in our test to its own products, which dominated the coveted top of the page." "It’s not that we want criminals to run free, or that we’re motivated by kinship with protesters. In fact, if protesters sued us for unpublished footage to argue police had brutalized them, we would react the same way."

This An' 'At: "Haile is, simply put, one of the most charming and well-connected people in the business, the rare executive conversant in the boardroom and on Media Twitter." "The newspapers were the heart of the civic conversation here. Lately, I have been thinking about who and what has tried to fill that void." "This is a story we hoped we would never write." "We’re here to fund and foster watchdog reporting in the DC region."

See Something, Share Something

That's all for this week. As always, 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 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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