Associate Professor, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media
Simon & Garfunkel’s lament—“nothing but the dead and dying”—may be the haunting anthem for a struggling newspaper industry, but not for Bill Horner III’s town of Siler City (population 8,078) in rural Chatham County, North Carolina.
There the publisher and editor of a feisty community newspaper, the Chatham News + Record, is working to defy the odds, providing a light out of the wilderness for other family-owned or independent journalism enterprises.
Just as Chatham County sees gains in population and median household income, Horner reports increases for average weekly circulation revenue, digital subscriptions and weekly newsletter open rates, though print sales and advertising revenue have remained frustratingly flat.
|The paper has partnered with a local coffee roaster.|
Drink coffee while you read the newspaper? Now you can buy the same brand. Read all about it in the newsletter, which is sent on email three times a week to 3,800 recipients.
Taking the bold move of publishing a spinoff of the newspaper all in Spanish, La Voz de Chatham (The Voice of Chatham), Horner saw his gamble pay off handsomely with seven full-page ads in the 18-page publication.
Mailed directly to 2,500 Spanish-speaking households in the market, the publication gained more than moral support among its new readers. The spinoff project is expected to generate a total of $32,000 in new sponsorship revenue with $24,000 in hand and an additional $8,000 in the works.
The new revenues came mostly is a $16,000 sponsorship from a local chicken processing plant, Mountaire Farms, which employs many Spanish-speaking workers in the community.
Chatham Hospital contributed an $8,000 sponsorship and is entertaining a request for an additional $8,000 to keep the new publication rolling.
Follow-up print editions of La Voz are planned for August, December and April as interest increases.
Horner is doing a lot of things right. He has received national recognition through a featured webinar for America’s Newspapers and acceptance as one of only 30 publications nationally into a Facebook Membership Accelerator grant program, and an article on the Medill Local News Initiative site.
But they are not always the things he learned from his grandfather, who founded the Sanford Herald, 20 miles south and now chain-owned, in 1930. In fact, Horner has developed a new skill for a new age: learning to unlearn habits of general-interest newspapering.
Coaching on alternate ways of thinking from the Facebook training program and Table Stakes, a Knight Foundation and Lenfest Institute initiative, brought Horner to the brink of despair.
So did the realization that the strategy “build it and they will come” has largely fizzled for him and his two business partners in the last two and a half years since they purchased two money-losing weekly newspapers, the Chatham News and the Chatham Record.
Horner’s goal in Table Stakes is to fill a $100,000 annual revenue gap in loss of advertising that he attributes to multiple factors: the pandemic, a come-and-go ad sales staff, and national trends.
Shifting from subscriptions to memberships with varying benefits levels, launching a parenting newsletter, and gaining sponsorships for a video newscast are among the future revenue-generating ideas.
It’s a gamble, for sure, and one as great as trying pull Chatham County officials and citizens together for the public good.
|Google map, adapted|
These are the times that try a community newspaper publisher’s soul. To share some common sense, Horner agreed to take a break for an interview.
He hopes his hard-fought epiphanies can benefit his journalism colleagues nationally. Here goes the Q&A:
You got hit from both sides—Table Stakes and Facebook—with the coaching advice that “the general-interest newspaper is dead.” That stung pretty hard. How did you get back on your feet?
With lots of conversations on this topic with friends and colleagues in the industry who are succeeding. The feedback I got was everything from, “That’s ridiculous—just ignore that!” to “Well, as much as I hate to admit it, there’s a lot of truth to that.” Ultimately most all of us agreed that you have to produce a product that has specific appeal to your potential audiences because there’s so much competition for attention, especially in the digital sphere.
Table Stakes emphasizes the “s” at the end of “audiences” and talks about “growing the audience funnel.” That means moving readers from wide but shallow interest down the funnel to loyal, paying customers.
To create more customers like that demands a strategic approach, not the traditional general-interest, scattershot product. Getting from “A” to “B” requires deep thinking about your audiences. The noise of the digital landscape is so loud that if you don’t, you’ll get pushed aside.
We all have to think really, really hard about what we’re doing, what we’re publishing for. If we’re not out there trying to solve a specific problem for our readers, then why are we working so hard?
You’re now most of the way through the year-long Table Stakes program, facing a final presentation in September on meeting your goals. What would you say are your top three lessons learned at this point?
It’s hard to narrow it down to just three, but I’d say:
A. You have to be audience-driven. The days of our front pages setting the news agenda, and assuming the audience would take cues from us, are long gone.
B. You need to go to where your audiences are. You can’t expect them to come to you. Meet them where they are. That’s the only way connection and engagement are created. I think our Spanish-language newspaper is the best example of that.
I think our collaboration with a local coffee roaster to create The Chatham Brew blend is a good example. We spent $600 to buy at a wholesale price bags of coffee we’re offering as gifts to entice new subscribers. That way we can support a local business, add value to our new readers and bring a smile to our e-newsletter readers who see the promotion.
Your Facebook Membership Accelerator grant lived up to the warning: “Beware of gifts that eat.” You devoted one full workday a week with staff to Zoom coaching sessions in a 12-week program. Now that the sessions are complete, how did it go, what have you learned and how will you spend the grant money?
Since the program began, our weekly digital subscriber revenue grew to $1,600 a week from $1,100, so that was a real “win” for us.
Each of the news organizations in my cohort of 30 publications is getting $50,000. We had to create a budget on how we would spend the money, and most of it will go to vendors to help us work more profitably.
The new vendors will include BlueLena, designed to convert anonymous website visitors to registered customers and support audience growth, engagement and monetization; Second Street, which will help us manage contests and collect and manage email databases; The Newspaper Manager, software to improve ad sales; and Pico and Stripe (through BlueLena), which will help us accept and send payments more efficiently.
For the Facebook training, we were split into two groups — larger and smaller news organizations—and we were in the smaller organization group.
There weren’t many legacy print organizations like ours in the program, which surprised me at first. Most were online-only, but all were doing good journalism and were focused and driven.
The Accelerator program has really reinforced what we’ve talked about in Table Stakes about the audience funnel, but it’s much more focused on things like being agile, moving audiences into the funnel and creating a great UX (user experience). So much good stuff through this program. But one thing that stands out is taking a critical look inward, at everything we do, and tossing aside old assumptions.
One of the things we said in our final presentation is that just because you build it, that doesn’t mean they’ll come to you. And “they” isn’t one single unified “audience.” We now have the tools at our disposal to determine how to reach and connect to and engage with our existing audiences and potential audiences to drive loyalty.
We already do great journalism and outreach. Our e-newsletter, for example, was named the best for North Carolina community newspapers the last two years. That in itself is not enough. We have to do “the other things” to deliver quality to our market in a way that creates strategic engagement, which leads to sustainability.
The “backlog” we’ve created in Accelerator — the list of things we want to do, to do differently, to test, to experiment with — is pretty long. It involves looking hard at social media platforms, testing a video news program, adding a new podcast and so much more. We don’t know what’s going to work best — that’s why we test — but we know that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, sustainability will be out of reach.
You’ve seen average weekly circulation revenue grow and e-newsletter open rates skyrocket. To what do you owe this success?
Well, I think we have a stellar product, first of all. But I think the bulk of that growth is because we’ve focused on it and are measuring it. As the old management expression goes, “What gets measured gets done.” You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
We’re asking people to read us, to subscribe, to check out our newsletters. We are no longer just casting fishing lines and hoping for the best. We’re now more purposeful, making direct asks.
Also we’re paying more attention to how to measure our impact. We now can say our weekly e-newsletter reaches 3,800 readers, up from 2,100, because we updated our email list by adding registered website users. Our goals are to increase print newspaper sales by 25 percent, to 2,002 from 1,601, and digital subscribers by the same percentage of increase to 3,351 from 2,681. But we’re not there yet. Most of our print circulation is street sales from convenience store purchases.
One of the most common questions from participants in an America’s Newspapers webinar dealt with the differences between subscriptions and memberships, particularly the benefits from a membership. How did you explain that to other owners of family-owned or independent newspapers?
A subscription to the News + Record, whether it be print or digital, has a set cost. For us, it’s $52/year for print plus digital. We have so many people in our market who have the capacity and desire to support us financially with more than just a subscription. Creating a membership program, with benefits, allows us to tap into their desire to support good journalism in various other ways and with a higher level of financial support.
We are planning to roll out a membership program at different prices for individuals as well as companies and organizations as a result of our Table Stakes coaching.
We can provide added value, for example, through events that share expertise and provide networking opportunities. We saw success with holding events before the pandemic, and now that Chatham County is opening up more and more, we will be able to get back on track with that strategy.