Thursday, October 31, 2019

Weekly in small New York town illustrates the benefits of local ownership and an innovative micropayment structure

The sign on the side of the Shawangunk Journal's building is purposely backwards. (Amberly Jane Cambpell photo)
Local ownership can play a critical role in helping small-town newspapers stay afloat, writes James Fallows in the newest installment of his "Our Towns" series for The Atlantic.

"Times are tough for little newspapers everywhere, but the papers least likely to survive are those that have fallen under the control of hedge-fund and private-equity chains, which are starving them into short-term profitability and longer-term demise," Fallows writes. "The successful counter-examples are mainly family-owned, community-owned, or in some other way bolstered against the pressure to cut the publication into insignificance."

Fallows has illustrated the principle in previous pieces; for this one he profiles the weekly Shawangunk Journal in Ellenville, a struggling former factory town of 5,000 in New York's Catskills region. Partners in both life and business, Alex Shiffer and Sharon Richman decided to start the paper in 2006. They met in college nearby and moved to Ellenville in the 1990s to operate the town's first internet service. Why start a newspaper? "The community had no newspaper, and we wanted one," Shiffer told Fallows. "We resurrected an older community paper that had been out of print for a few years . . . We didn’t do much more than take its name, but it was the start of something the community seemed to want too."

Ellenville, New York (Wikipedia map)
The Journal has had tough times, especially three years ago. But through a local fundraising campaign and an appeal to readers, the paper was able to raise enough money to stay alive. "Despite the economic problems here, there’s a strong sense of community, which is why the newspaper has survived," Shiffer told Fallows. 

Today, the paper has a paid circulation of about 2,000. Shiffer and Richman have employed some innovative strategies to make money and stay relevant for readers. Because of their background in internet technology, the duo planned to increase the paper's online presence from the beginning. That has required them to condition readers to accept that they needed to pay for news that they read online, Fallows writes.

The Journal does this in steps: After an introductory offer expires, articles cost nonsubscribers 25 cents apiece. "For as long as the internet has existed, I’ve heard journalism leaders talk about the coming era of micropayments. Here’s a tiny newspaper in rural New York that has put the plan into effect," Fallows writes. "Subscribers to the paper, for as little as a few dollars a month, get unlimited access to its articles. Occasional visitors can sample the stories for a low price, with the hope and expectation that some of them will be attracted to become long-term readers and subscribers."

Shiffer and Richman's daughter is doing her part to cultivate future subscribers and, possibly, journalists. Jasmine, a 17-year-senior, was annoyed that her school didn't have a newspaper, so she created a student-run news app called The Devil's Advocate that local teens update daily. Jasmine told Fallows she plans to stay involved in student journalism at least through college.

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