Charleston, S.C. is known for its hospitality, terrific food, and now…its innovative approach to generating news revenue.
It’s all thanks to the Post and Courier, the robust, family-owned newspaper that can trace its roots back to 1803. It’s not exactly the type of publication you’d expect to be a hotbed of successful innovation, but as they say, “Don’t judge a broadsheet by its cover.”
Executive editor Mitch Pugh recently spoke to me about the newspaper’s success launching a handful of “mini-publisher” groups throughout the newsroom. And it’s not just because the initiative has helped bring in millions of dollars in much-needed revenue—Pugh’s hopeful editors across the country can steal what has worked in his newsroom and adapt it to benefit their own.
Never heard of the “mini-publisher” approach? It’s an idea that comes out of the Post and Courier’s involvement in the Table Stakes initiative, and it basically calls for a news organization to choose a target audience segment—say high school sports coverage—and build a mini-publishing group around the audience for that content. That could include newsletters, events, or products like podcasts—basically anything you’d associate with a stand-along publisher attempting to monetize content.
Pugh said one of the reasons he and his team gravitated towards the mini-publisher idea was it took the newsroom’s top-down culture and effectively flipped it, reengineering it to more of a bottom-up approach, led by employees across multiple departments. At its core, the approach requires newsroom employees to move past a focus on content creation to think about all aspects of the business, which includes content distribution, audience development and revenue generation.
As an example, the Post and Courier’s food mini-publishing group has been a huge success for the paper, bringing in multiple streams of revenue thanks to a widely-read newsletter, a food podcast, and the Now Open event, a quarterly event in Charleston where readers can taste samples from all the new restaurants that have recently opened.
“Talk about a change in newsroom culture, it’s not unusual for Hanna Raskin, our chief food critic and editor, to ask, ‘How much money did we make on that?’” Pugh said.
The Post and Courier also built out its real estate coverage into its own group, and the content is the newsrooms top converter into subscriptions. Politics has also been a bit hit as far as a return on investment is concerned, thanks to its Pints and Politics event, where local and national politicians come in to discuss issues with readers and home-brewed beverages. Recent guests include several 2020 presidential candidates, including Andrew Yang and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Both candidates have since dropped out of the race.
Financially, the initiative has been a boon for the newsroom. According to Pugh, they fell just 10 percent short of reaching their ambitious goal of $2.5 million in revenue last year, which was raised from $1.4 million just the year before. The initiative has also helped push their digital subscription business model to new heights, with total digital subscription revenue up an eye-popping 48.2 percent over the previous year and new subscriber acquisition up 24.5 percent year-over-year.
“It’s revenue we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Pugh said. “And we now have a 2025 business plan that gets us to a point where audience revenue is paying for the entire newsroom.”
But not every mini-publishing group met their expectations. One area they experimented with is a vertical not often associated with many local newspapers—professional wrestling. Pugh said weekly columns written by Mike Mooneyham are insanely popular and attract a very different audience than the readers they normally attract, but there wasn’t enough content to justify charging readers $2.99 a month for a newsletter subscription.
“We did a book that did well. We had an event that did well…We still do a newsletter and some other things that make a little bit of money,” Pugh said of the professional wrestling group. “But it ended up not being a big one for us.”
Pugh has been candid about the Post and Courier’s failures as well as its successes, which is motived by the desire to help inform other newsrooms. Among the other ideas that didn’t pan out was a plan to create smaller, niche subscriptions around the mini-publishing groups. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t catch on with readers and was nixed early on in the process. In fact, Pugh said they’ve been militant about not discounting their digital subscription price, and as a result, a one-day sale they offered recently really moved the needle.
“It turns out people are willing to pay the full price. And if you do too many of these offers, you can cannibalize the revenue from your top line audience,” Pugh said. “The thinking now is if you’re going to do a mini offer, it should be about 80 percent of your full price, so, you don’t want to discount more than 20 percent.”
Thanks to its success, the Post and Courier isn’t slowing down. They’ve already launched a new mini-publishing group called Hurricane Wire, centered around the newspaper’s storm coverage (possibly the only benefit of publishing in hurricane alley), and they’re looking into launching groups around military and sea rise content. The best part of this approach is even small news organizations with limited resources and employees can afford to experiment.
“We’re not spending a ton of resources on them. It’s half a person here, a quarter of a person there, that kind-of thing,” Pugh said. “In our case, these mini-publisher teams are usually somewhere between four and six people, with one or two leads. But a mini-publisher can be two people, it can be one person.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.