In May, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet spoke before the INMA World Congress of News Media audience and shared his dismal prediction concerning the future of journalism—that most local newspapers were going to die in the next five years.
“The greatest crisis in American journalism is the death of local news,” he said. “Their economic model is gone.”
It’s true that the traditional economic model may be gone, but many local and national newspapers are using their ambition and creativity to explore new and exciting business models with hopes that it will create sustainable revenue for many years to come.
E&P spoke with several of these newsrooms to discuss their clever ideas.
Going the Distance
In an effort to introduce something new to readers, the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. looked to its past—more specifically, the city’s longtime love for horse racing. In January, the newspaper acquired the Steeplechase of Charleston, a National Steeplechase Association sanctioned race meet. The association was founded in 1895.
Chris Zoeller, Post and Courier chief revenue and marketing officer, said the event is more than just a horse race: it’s a style, it’s tailgating and rich history.
“(It) has been rooted in history for so long…and we thought what a perfect way to align ourselves with an event that celebrates this history, beauty, strength and community to reach new audiences,” she said.
Before finalizing the purchase, the Post and Courier spent time analyzing ticket sales and attendance as well as speaking to key stakeholders and the National Steeplechase Association to better understand how other sanctioned events are conducted.
“The thing that kind of stuck out for us is that there were a lot of ticket revenue and sponsorship opportunities,” Zoeller said. And because they are a media company, there were a lot of other opportunities to help better promote the race and bring in a larger audience and attract out-of-town visitors.
This year’s race will take place Nov. 17, and Zoeller told E&P there is a designated Steeplechase leadership team already in place, including a contracted race director whose job it is to work with the National Steeplechase Association. The newspaper also has a contract with a production team who worked on the event last year and is maintaining all of the relationships with the vendors. The previous owner is on board acting as a consultant, and the newspaper also has in place an event marketing team. In addition, there is one Post and Courier staff member designated to work on the event—senior director of partnership development Sterling Eason. Her role is to work with the sales team and drive new paid relationships on a regional and national level.
Zoeller is optimistic their first year as owner will be successful.
“I think we, along with the community and other media companies, have traditionally thought of ourselves as a media company,” she said. “We can be so much more. We have powerful reach. We have talented people. We have the ability to produce quality experiences, quality events and quality content. We need to take more risks otherwise we’re not going to grow.”
Bringing Authentic Stories to the Screen
The Alabama Media Group recently created Advance Originals, an independent development and production company arm of Advance Local. The goal of Advance Originals is to pitch, develop and produce compelling content for television, digital streaming services and feature films.
“This is a different path to revenue,” Michelle Holmes, head of Advance Originals, said. “This is someone financing this content, which means essentially that we’re selling both intellectual property and we’re developing—we’re potentially producing.”
Holmes said as a news organization, the Alabama Media Group has hundreds of years of stories to source from and reporters on the ground daily finding new ones—stories that can be told in this new innovative way.
“What (Advance Originals) is really focused on is stories of real authenticity,” Holmes said. “We’re really connected to different kinds of stories—stories that might get overlooked elsewhere.” The production company aims to not only use their own content as a base, but work with other great ideas that are “out there in the world.”
One of the stepping stones to the creation of Advance Originals was “Chasing Corruption,” a weekly series that follows video journalist Ian Hoppe and a team of reporters across the nation meeting some of America’s toughest watchdog journalists to discuss stories they uncovered. The show was sold to Facebook Watch and launched mid-September 2018. Shortly after, the company began developing plans for Advance Originals.
“We brought in a veteran Hollywood producer to run ‘Chasing Corruption’ for us and then once we had the talent here, we recognized that we had everything already in house to do the kind of work that we believed offered a significant revenue opportunity for us,” Holmes said.
While “Chasing Corruption” was a major influence on the genesis of Advance Originals, the idea also stemmed from an experimental project that was released in 2017. Known as “Whitman, Alabama,” the project invited Alabamians to recite verses from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” on camera, and it really helped set up the company on a national scale for video production, said Holmes.
Currently, the company is working with a Hollywood management firm to develop projects from their Advance newsrooms as well as original programming with a variety of partners.
“To be able to create programming for new audiences and diversify well beyond an advertising model (is what) it’s really about,” Holmes explained. “We need to rely less on the advertising model and begin to diversify into new models. And for us, that’s what this is.”
The Ferndale (Calif.) Enterprise is a 141-year-old weekly newspaper located on the city’s historic Main Street. Positioned behind the newspaper’s office is the Ferndale Victorian, a seven-room Airbnb. The historic home has a lot to offer guests: a cozy pub, an original clawfoot bathtub, prime location and a copy of the Enterprise’s annual Souvenir Edition, which features the newspaper’s history as well as all awards the paper has collected over the years.
Caroline Titus is the Airbnb host, publisher, owner and staff of the Enterprise. After her husband lost his job, the couple moved into the 135-year-old home. Titus’ oldest daughter was aware her parents needed extra income so she suggested the idea for the Airbnb.
Titus and her husband built a wall to separate the newspaper office from the rest of the home and turned an old laundry room into a studio apartment where they can stay when there are guests in the main house. The Enterprise began offering the Airbnb in 2015 with the main house, and in 2016, the old barn on the property was converted into a second Airbnb. Currently, a night in the main house costs $175 per night and the barndominium costs $155 per night.
Running a newspaper and an Airbnb requires multitasking, Titus said. “Often times, I’m writing a story, creating ads, editing— and putting a load of laundry into the dryer or getting ready to welcome guests.”
While it’s a juggling act, the Airbnb allows Titus to supplement income in order to keep an aged, small weekly newspaper going in this remote part of California.
The Victorian home has had hundreds of guests visit over the years and has even garnered a few Enterprise subscriptions as a result.
“I think it’s been successful because we are avid fans of our community,” Titus said. ”We love telling our guests about our special town and filling them in with the ‘insider’ information on where to go and what to do.”
The Airbnb also allows Titus to talk “newspaper” with her guests, such as the importance of journalism, why facts matter and why one should support their community newspaper.
“We get to educate and show our guests the value of a community newspaper and put a face to journalism and newspapers,” she said.
Locked In to Innovation
Escape rooms are still extremely popular due to the thrill of adventure the game provides. In Dubuque, Iowa, the Telegraph Herald built its own version for local thrillseekers and named it Escape Room Dubuque.
The escape room houses three experiences, which the Telegraph Herald changes every three to four months. The current experiences include Escape the Island, The Hunter’s Trail and The Cryptic Manor. Each experience can hold four to 10 players and costs $25 per person. According to Telegraph Herald publisher Steve Fisher, the escape room had 10,880 visitors in 2018.
The idea came from newspaper’s building maintenance manager, Dan Bellows, who went on a family vacation and visited an escape room. From there, Fisher, Bellows, Michelle Schmidt, director of promotion and community relations, and Bob Woodward, vice president of strategic planning and business development, developed a business model. Fisher said by June 2017, they began work to find a location to lease and to develop the room concepts. That November, they were up and running.
Escape Room Dubuque manager Renee Pregler was hired not too long after the launch to maintain the escape room and keep it operating separate from the newspaper. She then hired a staff to help operate the escape room as well.
According to Fisher, the Telegraph Herald has had an entrepreneurial spirit for quite some time, but this innovation is the first thing they have done that is a separate enterprise.
“I think it’s positive that we’re doing things that are looking at replacing our traditional advertising revenue,” Fisher said.
Faced with challenges when utilizing commercial or open source content management systems, the Washington Post chose to develop their own modern publishing system called Arc Publishing.
“It took many different components to stitch together all the different pieces of a publishing platform that a large publisher needs,” Matthew Monahan, director and head of product for Arc Publishing, said. “Once you look at the full stack of what any large enterprise scale publisher’s running, it’s actually a much more complicated answer than what’s your CMS.”
According to Monahan, the Post began building portions of the software platform that eventually became Arc Publishing about eight years ago with a team of engineers and designers. Most importantly, the team had people from the Post newsroom, such as key editors, to help really get to the heart of what the issues were that they were trying to solve.
As the Post built each individual tool, they began adopting them into the newsroom starting in early 2013. Then, by integrating the suite of tools together, and by offering the system and several tools a-la-carte items to other news organizations, the Post found a new source of revenue. In September 2015, the Willamette Week in Portland, Ore. became Arc Publishing’s first client. According to the Post, Arc Publishing currently serves between 175 and 200 websites.
One satisfied customer is the Philadelphia Inquirer. George Kurtas, chief information officer, told E&P that they were using a particular platform for a long time before making the switch to Arc and did so for several reasons, but the biggest reason was because Arc was the most modular.
“We were on a quest to provide the newsroom with a tool that allowed them to focus on the content and not the tool, and this platform does that,” Kurtas said. “It gives them the opportunity to just worry about what they’re writing and not what they’re using to write.”
Investing in a project like this can be risky, even for a paper like the Post. But as most newspapers look at year-by-year declines in print revenue, “without some sort of drastic action, the end state is clear,” Monahan said.
For the Foodie
Several years ago, the USA Today Network launched their Wine & Food Experience. The event showcases food, wine, beer and spirits from local and national chefs and mixologists through cooking demos, seminars and panel discussions.
The first event took place in 2015 in Scottsdale, Ariz. Based on reader responses, the USA Today Network believed they could build a strong connection with the community by hosting a culinary event. According to Doug Wilson, vice president and general manager of USA Today Network Events, reader feedback consistently supported the strength of their local dining coverage, which included restaurant openings, reviews, events and other related content.
Based on the success of the Scottsdale event, the Wine & Food Experience expanded to seven markets in 2017 and to 10 markets the following year in cities like Brooklyn, N.Y., Detroit, Mich., Indianapolis, Ind., Cincinnati, Ohio, Louisville, Ky., Las Vegas, Nev., Scottsdale, Ariz., Los Angeles, Calif., Chicago, Ill. and Naples, Fla. The tour stops in each market for one day, and this year, it will begin on Sep. 7 and end on Nov. 23.
According to the event website, tickets are $85 for “Grand Tasting” tickets. Presale ticket prices fluctuate in each market, starting at $50. There are also VIP and additional add-on tickets available as well.
Aside from building a stronger connection between brand and reader, Wilson said this was a new source of sponsorship and consumer revenue as well as an opportunity to create a new platform for advertisers to engage with the audience.
“News, marketing and sales had to be all-in for this to be a success,” he said. “News and marketing worked together on a promotional package that leveraged the strength of our editorial with the powerful reach of our advertising assets. This significant value was very appealing to participating chefs, restaurants and sponsors.”
Wilson added there were other factors involved with the event’s success: the mix in national culinary and wine celebrities, their ability to recruit the best restaurants and chefs in every market, the development of an upscale atmosphere where patrons can discover new foods, recipes and wines, the creation of branded elements for sponsors to participate in, a fair ticket price, and an experienced public relations and event production company.
“We make a concentrated effort to compile attendee, restaurant and sponsor feedback to improve our event each year,” Wilson said. “It is the critical that the entire team—news, sales, marketing and event operations—work together to produce a successful event. It definitely takes a village to execute a national culinary tour on this scale.”