By: Heidi Kulicke
Newspaper success stories are everywhere. Critics may proclaim otherwise, but newspapers aren’t dead. In fact, they’re springing up in new places and formats, reaching out and covering news that would otherwise go unnoticed. Even in the Internet age, with cynics aplenty and limited resources, newspaper start-ups continue. With the right amount of hard work, business savvy, and community support, these six entrepreneurs have what it takes to make a start-up newspaper succeed.
Darrell Maurina, publisher
Pulaski County Daily News
Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Darrell Maurina, owner and publisher of the online-only Pulaski County Daily News, said the idea of an online operation excited him. After working as a reporter for GateHouse Media-owned Waynesville Daily Guide, Maurina saw an opportunity to start an online news site catering to Web-savvy citizens of the small communities that surround Fort Leonard Wood, a military base near the Missouri Ozarks. Launched in late 2008, the Pulaski County Daily News has attracted a strong following, with online readership surpassing the local daily newspaper’s print circulation.
He speculates that long-term, the atmosphere of online journalism will become comparable to that of print journalism in the 1800s when there were numerous competing newspapers in every city. “The ‘buy-in’ factor for running an online news operation is now low enough that competent reporters who have some business know-how can realistically hope to own their own business, whereas it is virtually impossible to start a print daily newspaper even in a small town due to the costs of running a printing press and trying to compete head-to-head with an existing daily,” Maurina said.
Using an analogy to compare modern journalism with the automobile, Maurina said there are some things the Model T couldn’t do as well as a horse (heavy loads, for example), and in some parts of the country the road infrastructure was so bad that horses remained more useful than cars for a long time; yet “the future was with cars, not blacksmith shops.”
The Pulaski County Daily News is an advertiser-supported operation, based on the model of broadcast TV and radio news rather than the mixed subscriber/advertiser-supported model of print journalism. Maurina said a news operation with a paywall in his community would meet near universal opposition, and comments regarding paywalls in general have been overwhelmingly negative.
Although originally from Grand Rapids, Mich., Maurina has immersed himself in the local community and tries to cover just about every aspect of life in the rural Southern town.
“Here in rural America, we never forgot what it’s like to be in a community with neighbors who know each other and discuss issues,” Maurina said, emphasizing why message boards are a strong priority for his site. Maurina has volunteer moderators do the work that would normally be done through the paid staff of a print newspaper. Participants on the message boards include a wide cross-section of residents and public figures, including the state representative, county sheriff, county prosecuting attorney, county presiding commissioner, and city administrator. The participation from public figures “helps a great deal in establishing credibility as well as providing a way for [public figures] to interact with sometimes very angry constituents and to clarify or stop false rumors,” Maurina said.
Sam Apple, publisher
The Faster Times
New York, N.Y.
The Faster Times, described on its website as “a new type of newspaper for a new type of world,” is based in New York City and is an online-only news operation. During the summer of 2009, the timing felt right to try a journalistic experiment, said Sam Apple, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Faster Times. “With so many great papers struggling, I wanted to see if we could create a new model for the newspaper,” he said. By cutting out most of the overhead, Apple and his team have succeeded in producing a quality product with a loyal following, especially on Facebook. Four full-time editors, including Apple, work together to keep the site rolling smoothly, and more than 100 freelancers do the rest.
For Apple, the biggest pro of launching an online newspaper is it’s possible to do so without a huge investment and build an audience fairly quickly; however, because there’s so much content online, “it’s hard to get anyone to pay for it, even if it’s good,” Apple said. Unfortunately, that’s an issue all newspapers face, whether online or in print.
As newspapers experience dwindling classifieds and greater competition from around the Internet, Apple believes all newspapers need to look for revenue models that indirectly support the less profitable part of the business. In his case, they spun off a separate division called Faster Times Media that helps manage blogs and social media accounts for other brands. “We realized after a while that our most valuable resource was this huge pool of really great writers who are available for jobs outside of the paper as well. It’s been very successful and allowed us to grow into a bigger business, but we, of course, always have to be careful about keeping a clear line between the two halves of the business,” Apple said.
Entrepreneurs shouldn’t expect overnight success and must be prepared to stick with the project during the rough patches, he said. “That being said, I think the process of starting a paper and working with a group of people you like and respect is amazing. Even though it’s been tough at times, I would definitely do it all over again.”
Matt Bunk, publisher
Great Plains Examiner
Starting a newspaper from scratch may seem like a daunting task. Not so for Matt Bunk of the Bismarck, N.D. newspaper Great Plains Examiner. He said he still believes in newspapers, so he started one. “The timing was right. The market conditions were right. I think the newspaper industry is going through a much-needed reawakening.”
Bunk started the Examiner in June as a monthly print product and updates the website with new content daily. Over the past 15 years he watched corporate newspapers lose their readers to the Internet, while professional journalists began small start-up news organizations. He knew there had to be a solution to the problems facing the industry.
“The newspaper model has changed, and I think it’s going back to the way it was in the old days when family-owned newspapers were run by people with ink in their veins, not dollar signs in their eyes,” he said.
The paper has already been able to capitalize on local news by covering events as they happen. “We launched right before the worst flood central North Dakota had seen in 100 years, and we provided some unique coverage during a time when everybody along the Missouri River was scrambling for the latest news. So, we were able to generate readership the old-fashioned way: Our news was relevant, exclusive, and accurate,” Bunk said.
When it comes to revenue, Bunk keeps both his print and online products free for readers in order to generate a loyal audience. “If ad sales keep us in business, then we won’t have to charge people to pick up our paper or log on to our website,” said Bunk, who’s not a fan of paywalls. “So far, ad sales have been good, so we’re going to try to hold the line as long as possible.”
To survive in the long term, Bunk said he knows he’ll have to change the deep-rooted habits of his community. “You can provide the best and most accurate news coverage in your market, but people will still gravitate toward what they’re already familiar with. You really have to go above and beyond the call of duty to convince people to start reading your paper instead of the one they’ve been getting for the past 30 years,” he said.
Part of his strategy is simply to stay one step ahead of his competition. “When the press corps goes one direction, go the other direction. When your competitors are slow, you need to move fast. When they move fast, you need to dig deeper and provide a broader perspective of the issues.”
Blake Maxwell, publisher
Bozeman, Mont. is a college town of 38,000 people nestled in pristine natural surroundings. Blake Maxwell, founder of alternative online newspaper the Bozeman Magpie, said he discovered a great deal of interesting stories that no longer had a mouthpiece once the valley’s monthly alternative newspaper was sold out-of-state. What remained didn’t do the audience justice. “The Magpie simply aimed at the void in a way that was unburdened by the expense and waste of a printed publication,” he said. “I felt there was an economic opportunity, sure, but first I wanted to establish a venue for a much-needed alternative voice.”
Maxwell and his team take pride in the fact that the Bozeman Magpie is online-only: “no paper, no ink, no landfill.”
While a blog connotes a singular perspective, often in the form of a rant, Maxwell aims to differentiate the Magpie from earning a blog label. He said he contributes 20 percent of the content and his co-editor, Mike Porco, another 10 percent. The remainder of content is submitted by a revolving bullpen of talented, locally based freelance writers. “Some contribute once a month, but there are one-timers in there, too.”
According to Maxwell, he wants his product to stand out from the rest of the pack. His priority is a greater emphasis on quality writing. “There’s a market for fluff, but there’s no soul in it, and good, compelling writing takes soul. I strongly urge a newbie to push the pendulum back and commit to learning the craft. It’s self-satisfying, appreciable in the marketplace, chicks dig it, and against all other principles of life, writing can improve with age.”
Maxwell said the town of Bozeman sometimes feels like the last sprig at the end of the branch. “Internet advertising has yet to mature out here, and since we don’t think a paywall will fly, we operate on a slow bleed and hammer away for a healthy future.” As such, he tends to encourage sponsorship rather than advertising. The people and organizations who support his venture don’t always agree with what the publication says, but they understand the inherent value of a publication unafraid to ask the hard questions of local and state administrators, even the town’s purveyors of commerce, Maxwell said. “It’s hyperlocal coverage that you’ll never hope to get from the big nationals, more chutzpah than the local AP, a quicker response time than printed weeklies and monthlies, and our point-of-view articles are miles better than your old eighth-grade girlfriend on Facebook.”
Maury Povich, publisher
TV host Maury Povich may seem like an unlikely candidate for a newspaper entrepreneur, but the self-proclaimed “newspaper brat” couldn’t avoid newspapers if he tried as a youngster. His father, Shirley Povich, was a sports columnist at The Washington Post for 75 years. “I grew up with newsprint ink on my hands and always had a great interest in newspapers,” Povich said. He wanted to work for the Post himself, but a strict nepotism policy derailed him. He chose news broadcasting instead, which later led to his own talk show.
Many years later, Povich bought a family vacation home in Montana and noticed a lack of local news coverage. Although a daily already existed in the Kalispell area, Povich felt something was missing. So, he recruited the help of the journalism school at the University of Montana as well as a local Web developer, and in May 2007, the Flathead Beacon was born: a printed weekly, with updates “almost hourly” online.
“I just thought the residents here should have another voice, and we’ve been very successful in putting out a fair, editorially balanced piece of journalism,” Povich said. The paper has been voted the best weekly in the state two of the past three years and has also been awarded as the best news website. “Not many people really know that it’s mine. But if they do, it’s the nicest thing to hear how much they enjoy it,” he said.
The key to connecting with readers is simple, Povich said. “Our mission is to be local, local, and more local. So even though we hit on the national and international stuff, we must provide an angle on how it will affect the people in this valley,” he said. He makes a point to recruit locals or people who have spent a lot of time in the area. “That’s how you win over the local citizenry. People have very strong views and want to feel represented. We didn’t want to be seen as an outsider,” Povich said, adding the newspaper has been “welcomed into people’s homes and is now part of the fabric of this community.” Not bad for a paper that’s been around for less than five years.
Eric Buskirk, publisher
The Henderson Press
Eric Buskirk, owner and publisher of The Henderson Press, said he started the newspaper to complement his Internet platform Verican, which is designed to be a one-stop-shop advertising solution for local businesses. The Henderson Press is a weekly, with a print circulation of 20,000. The website is updated several times a day and also has a daily e-newsletter.
“The newspaper industry is not terminal; it is merely going through a midlife crisis,” Buskirk said. By using the Verican platform, he presents The Henderson Press as an example to customers of a viable business model for newspapers. Buskirk said Verican helps newspapers increase revenue and compete with Internet giants who have tapped into different markets such as yellow pages, real estate, and personals, as well as radio, television, and direct mail companies.
Buskirk has an office in Beijing where ad production, telephone support, and Web and mobile offerings are outsourced. “This way our service is better, faster, cheaper, but this also creates a tremendous amount of focus on the core business: advertising sales and news gathering,” he said. When it comes to a sustainable business model, Buskirk advised newspaper executives to focus on the customer (small businesses) and build out the product to serve their needs, perhaps offering trade in a Groupon-like fashion. In addition, he suggested newspapers could create websites and brochures, and focus on keeping the overhead to a minimum. “Our costs to get a quality issue out are probably around 1/20th of what a traditional publication would need, yet the end result is nearly identical,” he said.
Buskirk advises aspiring newspaper entrepreneurs to “stay focused on serving local businesses, keep product management focus on where readers and the competition will be in three to five years, stay away from distractions, keep the overhead down, outsource whenever possible, and focus the time of the publisher and top managers on selling ads.”
By this strategy, Buskirk’s Henderson Press has been able to become profitable in a short amount of time. His success is largely due to low overhead and paying employees on an incentive/performance basis, he said.