Monday, June 13, 2022

A revenue-raising tale of two rural community newspapers from the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America

Sixth in a series of reports on the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, held June 3-4 by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky. Previous articles were on the state of rural journalism, the Summit-driven effort for sustainability in rural journalism, nonprofit modelshelp from higher-education journalism programs and philanthropic support for rural news media.

At the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, journalism educator and researcher Clay Carey of Samford University said one way journalists in academia can help the news business is case studies of news outlets. For two and a half years, Buck Ryan of the University of Kentucky has been doing what he calls a "participatory case study" of the Chatham News+Record, a weekly paper in central North Carolina; at the summit, he moderated a discussion between Editor-Publisher Bill Horner and another innovative rural publisher, Terrence Williams of The Keene Sentinel, a daily in southwest New Hampshire. They have the same print circulation: 3,800.

In a report for The Rural Blog, Ryan notes that both are participants in the Knight-Lenfest Table Stakes program to master “the new essentials of sustainable journalism” and the Facebook Membership Accelerator grant program. "They generated ideas for changes in strategy, user experience ('UX'), product development and, mostly, increasing revenues," Ryan reports. "At the Sentinel, to reduce subscriber churn, staff members write letters thanking subscribers for their support and explaining how the paper published stories to help the community."

Horner's and Williams' presentations at the Summit showed some significant differences in the papers and their communities. Chatham County's population is up 17% since 2010 and is more than one-fourth minority; Cheshire County's went down about 1,000. The News+Record's revenue is dominated by advertising, with only 21% from circulation, while the Sentinel gets almost half its revenue from its audience.

In a written Q and A with Ryan, Horner said his paper will "have to focus on new revenue streams and be reader-driven." It is raising prices and getting "blowback from some readers and even dealers, but it’s a value proposition: sometimes you support the value of your work with higher pricing."

A chronic problem with audience revenue is "churn," the constant addition and departure of subscribers. Williams said requiring six-month commitments and recurring credit-card payments for all new subscription starts that are part of a discount or gift program "significantly cut churn and increased print and digital reader revenue. Our percentage of these EZ-pay subscribers grew from 30% print in 2018 to more than 50% today; and from less than 10% online in 2018 to 82% today. Revenue growth that came with the resulting increased retention rate has been significant."

Asked what partnership has been the most lucrative or profitable, Horner said the News+Record's promotion of nonprofits helped prompt the local Council on Aging, "which is really a county department but mostly funded privately," to use two pandemic-relief grants "to give us $10,000 to provide subscriptions to senior citizens they serve who didn’t subscribe. We also got $18,000 in financial support from Mountaire Farms, a poultry processing company with Spanish-speaking employees, for our La Voz project to bring a Spanish-language publication, La Voz de Chatham (Voice of Chatham), to the community."

Williams noted the Sentinel's partnership with the local Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship on Radically Rural, a multi-track community development symposium that includes a track on community journalism. The other tracks are entrepreneurship, downtowns, land and community, arts and culture, clean energy and health care. "It has been profitable for both partners and a boost to the local community," Williams wrote We have won numerous regional and national awards for Radically Rural, including third place for Virtual Events from the Local Media Association in 2020. Feel free to join us Sept. 21 and 22, 2022, either virtually or in person."

Ryan's final question: "Now that you’ve gotten to know each other, what’s the best idea you plan to steal from your new friend?" Horner said of Williams, "I particularly like the direct personal appeals he and his staff do by email to readers and contacts; we have already built a plan to replicate that. And I loved his Community Impact Report. What a great way to tell your own story and demonstrate your value to your audience." Williams said, "Bill’s team produces a handsome, helpful community resource guide (Chatham 411) that is heavily supported by advertising. We are looking at producing something similar for our market, and Chatham News+Record’s product is an excellent model for us. It’s very well done."

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