Tuesday, July 18, 2023

To sustain themselves, innovative rural newspapers develop alternative revenue sources, including a nonprofit element

Jack Rooney, left, and David Woronoff spoke to the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America.

Two of America's most innovative rural newspapers, a weekly and a daily, are following very different strategies to sustain their journalism in the digital age. They were the focus of a session July 7 at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, sponsored by the Institute for Rural Jouranalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog).

Alternative revenue sources are the reason The Pilot, a twice-weekly in Southern Pines, N.C., has 11 newsroom employees, Publisher David Woronoff said. At The Keene Sentinel in southwest New Hampshire, reader donations are supporting journalism, especially a nonprofit subsidiary focused on health, said Jack Rooney, the daily's managing editor for audience development.

Woronoff led off the session by saying, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If the only tool you have is a newspaper, then the solution to all of your community's information and marketing needs is going to be – surprise, surprise – more newspaper.  . . . Sometimes you need a glossy magazine to to solve that information need. And sometimes you need a daily email newsletter, or sometimes you need a annual phone book, or sometimes you need a independent bookstore. And that and that's what we do. . . . We're in the community-building business, and news just happens to be the service we render."

Woronoff said The Pilot is 30% larger than it was when he and his partners bought it 27 years ago, "but it only represents 25% of our total enterprise. So we have stretched that overhead across a lot of revenue, which gives us the ability to finance our journalism. So that's why, in a relatively rural community, we have an 11-person newsroom. . . . We're able to produce that sort of journalistic heft because we have expanded beyond just being a newspaper."

More than half of The Pilot's revenue comes from magazines and similar products: PineStraw, a free-circulation monthly; The Sway, an email newsletter aimed at millennials; Business North Carolina, which has several products including a daily newsletter and events; South Park, a monthly delivered to some Charlotte Observer subscirbers; the North Carolina Tribune, a daily politics and public-policy newsletter; and Walter and O. Henry, magazines for Raleigh and Greensboro, respectively.

Eleven percent of revenue comes from a local bookstore that "was getting ready to fail," Woronoff said. "Not the wisest investment I ever made, but I just couldn't imagine our little town without an independent bookstore in it. And I think it says something about our community that we can afford one and it's become part of the cultural tapestry of our community. Last year we had a hundred authors come to the town, most of them for free. . . . I would argue that that's part of serving your community is not just putting news in the newspaper. It's creating this cultural appreciation. And by being a convener of our of the people in our community, we are making ourselves more relevant."

"Relevance is the coin of the realm," Woronoff said at another point. "If you are it not relevant to your community, if all you are as a newspaper, then your relevance is going to diminish." An example is The Sway, produced by "a bunch of 20 somethings," which has 20,000 free subscribers. "It's written in the voice of a 20-something female, a very sassy, irreverent tone. . . . It makes us relevant to an important segment of our community that we don't, we wouldn't, reach with just the newspaper."

Woronoff acknowledged that he's in a catbird seat, in a golf-centric area with above-average income that is comfortably close to, but not overwhelmed by, three metropolitan areas. For his formula to work, he said, "You have to have a vibrant commercial business community. You've got to have a vibrant retail community. . . . but we think there are a lot of communities out there who can do this . . . If you want to try it in your market. The first thing you have to accept is that you have to be more than just a newspaper."

The Keene Sentinel is doing that, in another way. Its Monadnock Region Health Reporting Lab, which "operates as a nonprofit, essentially," is "a testing ground to develop new ideas and find ways to reach new audiences and grow revenue," Rooney said. "The lab is completely donor-funded through a combination of grants, some individual kind of high-dollar donors in our community who we've identified and who really see the value in what we're providing," plus "constant crowd-funding."

"Journalists, historically, are not very good at telling their own stories of their organizations to garner that support," Rooney said, so the paper does annual community-impact reports, and does a seperate one for the health-reporting lab, which says, in effect, "Here's the the return on your investment." And it has things to crow about; the lab won the first-place investigative-reporting award from the New Hampshire Press Association, for its report on 21 gallons of Fentanyl solution that went missing from the local hospital. 

The Sentinel launched the lab in February 2022 after monthgs of "listening sessions with all sorts of folks in our community: health care providers, patients, nonprofit leaders, social service agencies, and some initial rounds of of fundraising," Rooney said. "We picked health care for this initiative largely because it's one of the issues [for which] rural communities are so well known."

The lab has a free email newsletter on Mondays with more than 1,000 subscribers and an open rate of 45%. Its content is published in the Sentinel's health section on Wednesdays as well. And it has a podcast, "Invisible Illness," with interveiws of "folks who have a diagnosis that's not outwardly visible and kind of shines the light on on their experiences," Rooney said. And the lab goes beyond journalism, to community service; it held a health fair that attracted 300 people.

The National Summit on Journalism in Rural America was a hybrid event, with in-person and online audiences. A Zoom recording of the morning session, at which Rooney and Woronoff spoke, is here

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