UNR Master’s Project

Community Newspapers In The Digital Age

The Sullivan Journal’s relentlessly local approach to the community news business

Nov. 22, 2010

William K. Sites

Reynolds School of Journalism

University of Nevada, Reno

Dean Jerry Ceppos, Committee Chair

Donica Mensing, Ph.D., Committee Member

Thomas Nickles, Ph.D., Graduate School Representative

(revised Nov. 21, 2010 at 12:50 p.m.)

Abstract

For the last few years it has been difficult to defend a positive outlook for newspapers. It seems that even the business of the Fourth Estate has put itself on life-support. I have never endorsed such a notion. On Sept. 16, 2008 I set out to prove the naysayers wrong by starting a new paid community weekly broadsheet, the Sullivan Journal. “You’re wasting your money and time, son,” said many veterans of the trade. “Haven’t you heard newspapers are dying?” Yes, I have heard, and two years later I’m laughing all the way to the real bank, not the proverbial one. Business has never been better and I’ve never had as much fun in journalism as I’m having now. Why? Because there has never been a better time to be in the business of journalism. In two years, the Sullivan Journal has branched beyond newspapers into social media, niche publications, blogs and magazines. In the following pages, you will read about my intrepid journey into the brave new world of the Digital Age, and how the barriers of entry have fallen for just about anyone with entrepreneurial spirit and determination. This is a story about reinventing community journalism and how a few dollars and a lot of sweat equity can turn an impossible dream into a successful endeavor.

Table of Contents

Abstract pg. 3

In The Beginning pg. 4

The First Big Step pg. 6

The Next Big Step pg. 8

Head For The Mountains pg. 9

Start The Presses! pg. 10

Let’s Do Launch pg. 13

Growing Pains pg. 14

Nothing Screams Like A 2-Year-Old pg. 16

Socially Speaking pg. 17

Finding A Community Niche pg. 20

Joining Forces pg. 22

Advertising pg. 24

What’s Next? pg. 26

Current Strategies pg. 27

Conclusion pg. 31

The Journal Team pg. 32

Journal Products pg. 34

Business Toolkit pg. 35

Websites pg. 36

In The Beginning

On Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008 I did something journalistically insane: I began printing a weekly newspaper. Even crazier, I planned and plotted the launch with a husband-wife couple I barely knew – she a dental assistant and he an engineer with a local telecom company. My business background is traditional print and online journalism. Theirs? Beef cattle and apartment leasing. Competition? Just a local paid weekly with 40-plus years in a monopoly market. Not a problem, I said, it’s a great time to be in the journalism business!

And for us, it has been. After more than 112 consecutive weekly issues of the Sullivan Journal, business has never been better. Today, beyond publishing a successful hyperlocal community broadsheet and profitable news website, the Sullivan Journal also prints a variety of popular niche publications – including fall home/garden, car care, local high school sports previews, bridal, winter holiday and summer tourism. Our intense focus on readership interaction through social networking, push-then-filter policies and transparency has undoubtedly made the difference between success and failure. Everything we do right, it seems, is anything but traditional.

To back up a bit, we didn’t exactly start the Sullivan Journal as a print product. The newspaper began about a year before, in 2007, as an online experiment in hyperlocal Web news and online advertising. While working in online for one of Lee Enterprises, Inc. St. Louis properties, I felt a strong desire to develop something beyond their clunky, archaic content management system (CMS). Nobody liked it, few people understood it – I hated it. But although I wasn’t a code guru, I knew that a better CMS system had to be available. I knew because of lessons learned a few years before.

In the late 1990s I launched a rather expensive and cumbersome hyperlocal news website that attracted rave reviews from the handful of online households wired in my particular slice of rural America. After two years of failing to capture an online advertising audience and a consistent deluge of technical issues, I shut down. From the experience I learned that highly localized communities crave good online news, but good CMS systems – like high-speed Internet and willing advertisers – arrive slowly. I knew, or at least hoped, it was just a waiting game.

Fast-forward to 2002, one year into the dismal post-9/11 mood but a decent time for newspapers. By fate of my wife’s government job, I landed back in my hometown – Sullivan, Mo., population 6,500. Situated an hour outside St. Louis along historic Route 66, the city is home to a successful family-owned telephone company that has parlayed technology into a very profitable cable and Internet enterprise. Unlike my previous attempt at an online journalism venture, my hometown was now wired and ready for the Digital Age. But running an online news site wasn’t going to pay the bills, I thought, so going the traditional route was my only option.

I founded and started publishing a paid weekly newspaper in the fall of 2002. With little experience beyond the usual post-journalism school route – reporter, editor, etc. – I dived into the research, developed a business plan, sized up my skills and readied for business. Part of the research indicated that I would need $35,000 – $50,000 to get my first issue on the street. As time would tell, that was far too conservative. After all, I had competition and I was publishing in a town of 6,500 with a limited amount of ad dollars.

Two years and a plethora of troubles later, I was beat. Although the print advertising was steady, the online ad revenue plan was a failure – not enough local business websites and/or those who believed in the nascent advertising model. Also, as technology increased, my local labor pool decreased, and what was available was simply too expensive. Labor, technology and debt-load forced me back to the corporate newsroom. It was either that or continue the madness of nonstop, low-profit 100-hour workweeks.

I soon found my way to Lee Enterprises, where I enjoyed life as an editor surrounded by the mountains of southern Idaho and a steady paycheck. I kept my old newspaper office key as a reminder to never, ever walk through that door again. Life was good for me, but not so much for the newspaper business. But I loved journalism as a journalist, not as an owner – I really didn’t care.

Eventually I transferred to one of Lee’s online operations in St. Louis, which put me back in my hometown and into the commuter lifestyle.  Although only a handful of years had passed, firing up the old community newspaper absolutely, positively never crossed my mind. My first – and as far as I was concerned my only – foray into newspaper publishing was gone and buried. But time, technology and fate was about to change all of that.

The First Big Step

Shifting seats in St. Louis from a newspaper editor’s desk to an online position was interesting. However, the online management system that Lee was attempting to use for a 34-website operation was beyond cumbersome – it simply didn’t work very well. The system was an unfortunate leftover from Lee’s $1.46 billion acquisition of Pulitzer. Understanding that change comes excruciatingly slow in newspapers, I decided that maybe I could work on a solution in my spare time. I soon discovered Joomla! and other open-source website templates that are designed with monkey-proof CMS packages. It was like nothing I had used or seen before – absolute simplicity at its finest.

Within weeks, I was able to develop extremely low-cost ($1,000 or less) news websites that were better, easier to manage and more attractive than what Lee was using in St. Louis. As part of a personal online research and development project, I mixed hyperlocal news content with local advertising – in the beginning the ads were free, so getting participants was easy. Eventually, I would receive excellent corporate training in online management and sales at the first Lee Online University held at corporate headquarters in Davenport, Iowa. That training would soon be invaluable to my community online ad sales efforts.

In October of 2007 I launched Sullivanjournal.com, a robust hyperlocal news website based on Joomla! open-source software. A local Web and technology company designed the site for about $4,000, borrowing site design ideas from a Scandinavian news site – the beauty of open-source. Much of the expense came from over-designing the site, meaning that the site could handle exponential growth and a plethora of extras and add-ons. The CMS was – and remains – extremely easy to manipulate, including the management of advertising clients and their banner, peel and square ads. It is somewhat similar to Lee’s TownNews sites, but based on open-source and not a closed system.

On the very day that Sullivanjournal.com was launched, I realized that I was part of a revolution, that the journalism business was forever changed. I was a backpack journo, making a living as a sole practitioner, with only virtual ink rolling through my veins. I was part of something big, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. I just remember feeling free and unencumbered by the low-tech heaviness of traditional community journalism models.

The Next Big Step

Within a few months I was covering local beats (remember, this is a town of 6,500) and selling online ads. My overhead was coffee and some bandwidth, so profit margins were very high. I worked exclusively out of my home, car and the local Wi-Fi-wired coffee shop. The number of households getting wired was soaring and local Web gurus were slammed with churning out cookie-cutter websites for local businesses. The only local newspaper in town had total disdain for the Web and was wholly without the technical savvy to react. It was the perfect storm for disruptive innovation in journalism and advertising. I wasn’t just in the eye of the community news hurricane – I was the hurricane.

After a successful nine-month run from Nov. 2007 to Aug. 2008 selling $25-per-week banner ads and breaking news stories over the heads of the local weekly, I was convinced that online-only community news was financially viable. Page views jumped twenty-fold in the two-month period between November 2007 and January 2008, ironically retreating only after the launch of the print product eight months later on Sept. 16, 2008. Although several online readers suggested adding a print product, I didn’t see the need to move backwards into the laborious days of my newspapering past. Besides, I didn’t have an extra fifty grand to burn on a brick-and-mortar presence. But going it alone also had an unaccounted for pitfall – my readers demanded constant attention.

Burnout. That’s what I didn’t plan on. Online journalism is a game about numbers, much like print, but certainly more measurable and meaningful on a daily basis. As I became increasingly addicted to what spiked and tanked online readership (I coupled Joomla! with Omniture stats), the ability to report the news and sell the ads became problematic. Like my first foray into newspaper publishing, success came with a steep and dangerous price – the loss of sleep and downtime. I decided to abandon ship and get my life back.

Head For The Mountains

Shutting down a website is far more palatable than shutting the doors on a newspaper – I know, I’ve done both. Financially, killing the website was easy because it had no debt-service and few, if any, advertisers would be significantly harmed. It was alarming – and somewhat amazing to me – how easy it was going to be to walk away from a successful community news site. I had a lot of readers, an acceptance and credibility in both the advertising/business community and in my beats. But for the first time, I had no address (I used a P.O. box on my business card), no keys, no utility bills – it was a real business existing in the virtual world. I never realized how unique it was until I decided to flip the switch and walk away. That, I firmly believe, will forever remain an issue with bloggers and Web-only businesses. But in this case, real fate, not virtual, intervened like the proverbial call from the governor.

On a hot, humid Missouri afternoon I received a call from a friend that works as a political adviser. He wanted the scoop on a local man that was thinking of running for state representative. I didn’t know the guy, so I had no opinion or knowledge, but was talked into going along on an exploratory lunch. The political wannabe turned out to be a neighbor and lifelong community resident. We had a lot in common and became friends.

Before long, I was visiting Chad Johnston and his wife, Heather, for neighborly chatter. They were intrigued by my one-man news operation and offered to help. I didn’t hesitate, soon turning Heather into a Photoshop and content management professional – anything beyond the spit and grind of her dental assistant job, she would often say. She was my first (and then only) employee and was a natural at designing ads and working the insides of Joomla!’s CMS. I paid her 25 percent of billing for every ad she designed, sending info and photos through e-mails. Before long, she was selling ads, shooting photos and even writing short articles – all with absolutely no prior media or technical assistance. We were having fun and making money, but I was ready for a 9-5 and some semblance of a normal life. I decided to move back to Idaho. However, killing the site was now going to affect real people, real faces – a significant emotional crossroads that would soon change my life.

Start The Presses!

I had founded and published a paid community newspaper before. It was one hell of a grind, almost a cathartic experience for anyone suffering from the trappings of a great life. But there is something about entrepreneurship – the incredible highs and equally incredible lows of actually owning a real community newspaper can never be explained to those who have never taken the ride. So one night Chad tossed out the notion that we fire up a printed version of the website. I laughed, knowing that I’d never go down that lonely road again.

But moments later, while driving a strip of gravel home, several things began to gnaw at me. Although only a handful of years had passed since my last ownership experience, it may as well have been 50. I had learned a lot from Round One – getting punched repeatedly in the financial face toughened me. So, I immediately went home and made a “That Was Then, This Is Now” list. I was soon shocked into the reality of Chad’s proposal. The actual list:

What Has Changed From 2001 to 2007?

–       The cost of actually starting a weekly newspaper has gone from $50,000 to about $5,000 (knowing that Round One included some overhead I now either currently own or wouldn’t need, such as software, brick-and-mortar presence, website, furniture, etc.)

–       The sullivanjournal.com website, built inexpensively with Joomla! open-source software, already has a large local following and is creating significant cash flow.  The website is red hot and getting hotter.

–       A lot of businesses own websites (corralled by local “Web designers” and nowhere to advertise on the Web. Lee’s strategy of Web/print combo is custom-made for the area).

–       The area is in a growth boom, both in commercial and residential.

–       I am now corporate-trained in many facets of the business, including website marketing/sales/analytics, newspaper ad strategies, demographics, newsroom management, and community niche pub strategies.

–       I have already failed in almost every aspect of owning a newspaper.

–       With the website running, we can temporarily forego a brick-and-mortar presence. And our homes are very close to each other.

–       Lots of bandwidth for sending FTP files, upload/download to Web, and Chad’s access to online demographics, etc. (Chad works for the local telecom – cable, radio, Internet, local access TV).

–       Printing costs are stable and commercial printers will bargain.

–       With some cash flow and other jobs, we can temporarily forego salaries.

–       We are veteran entrepreneurs who understand local markets and risks. And we can establish lines of credit, if needed.

–       We are locals with lots of friends, family and contacts ready and willing to help.

–       Most of all, our newspaper competition is significantly weaker (personal issues and problems with owner) and does not believe in the Web or change.

Days later I sat down at the Johnston family kitchen table, on a hot August night with the smell of cow manure and heat just outside their country home. I brought examples of weekly community broadsheet newspapers. We noted what might work, what to avoid, and sketched out our own designs. We made and went over financial checklists. I was adamant about incorporating several strategies, all of which would prove to be essential. For anyone starting a newspaper today, I believe these basics (beyond good product) are absolute:

–       Don’t borrow, use available cash only.

–       Establish premium rack/point-of-purchase locations and make deals with store managers if needed (offer ad discounting and/or higher per copy handling fees – we currently return anywhere from nothing to 8 cents per copy). Our highest sales location is our local Wal-Mart, where we sit on two shared racks and one stand-alone that we own – our competition doesn’t have their own rack. There’s a reason for that: We work on community service projects with Wal-Mart and we make our racks look good. We check our racks daily, straighten them up and generally act professional.

–       Make sure that single-copy sales will pay the printing bill. The paper must hit that on the first day; the ad revenue – minus some circulation and mailing costs – go into the bank.

–       Pay the printer at the loading dock. Don’t run a tab. In exchange, ask for a discount. We immediately received a 10 percent discount by paying cash.

–       Work the print and online versions as separate news entities, but package the advertising together. The website is for breaking news, pending community events and newspaper copy that is nearing the end of its rack time. The website is not a mirror of the newspaper. Under most circumstances, ad rate cards should reflect one price that includes online and print advertising – make the business opt out of one or the other. Know your demographics for both print and online – the allure is that they are often very different audiences, an important point in a community news operation.

–       Community ownership. This is the community’s newspaper and website. Leave as many real and virtual doors open as possible and answer every knock. Website commenting, e-mail systems, Facebook sites, phones and a physical address must be as common as nameplates, URL’s and logos. Act the same with beats and community contacts – be consistent and pay attention. Establishing listening posts (barber shop, favorite bar, Starbucks, etc.) is vital for monitoring the community’s pulse and mining the information that often lies just below the surface.

My friends and soon-to-be partners agreed on the basics. We decided to do it. The next moves were of general business nature: money, equipment, job descriptions, projections, etc. We spent many nights (they both continued to work during the day while I ran the online business) developing strategies, sketching out page designs, listing advertisers, developing rate cards and generally working ourselves into entrepreneurial frenzies. I was over the fear – we were having fun.

Let’s Do Launch

Within weeks we had met with a printer, established rack/POP (point-of-purchase) locations, and covertly met with advertisers that we trusted. There was good reason to fear that our unethical print competition would plant misinformation into the heads of local businesses – we didn’t need that. So we attempted to hit the streets in pure Normandy style – and to some degree, we did. The website continued to run normally, with online ads touting our blitzkrieg arrival sitting on website timers, ready to explode on screen at the same time our first print issues were landing on racks across three cities. The strategy was as effective as it was beautiful. We made phone calls, sent e-mail blasts, took copies all over town and to our advertisers – including free copies to schools, hospitals, barber and beauty shops – everywhere!  In one instant, the Sullivan Journal went from a virtual world to being ubiquitous in a hyperlocal physical one. On the day of our birth we sold enough newspapers to pay our print bill, just as we had planned many nights before.

Growing Pains

The first year was a plethora of peaks and valleys – financially, emotionally, and physically. While weekly combined rack and subscription sales quickly eclipsed our first-year target of 1,000 paid issues, ad revenue was anything but stable. We initially launched with several key weekly advertisers – including a local hospital and branded realtor – but decided against counting on most real estate and automotive. We launched at the same time real estate and the auto industry was dying, so we never looked to those entities as traditional sources of weekly display ads. In fact, we witnessed the closing of three Big Three local dealerships in our first year. We knew that we had to go beyond the traditional print models of selling ads – way beyond.

But getting there wasn’t going to be easy. After two months in, we felt comfortable enough to splurge on a small office, stocking it with used computers and office furniture left over from my first trek through the publishing world. Heather was learning Quark and Photoshop as we went along; I was writing and shooting nearly everything. I managed the website daily, sold ads and laid out A1 and jump pages while Heather struggled to finish the rest of our 12-14 broadsheet pages. Chad handled all of the billing and financials and sold ads when he could. Heather sent the paper to our printer’s FTP site, drove 120 miles roundtrip to pick it up, and then spent part of one night and part of the next morning doing location drops – and then mailing our subscriptions. The cycle never ended.

But six months in, we had a solid following. We were breaking stories and doing things far beyond our competition. Financially, we were on goal to gross beyond our $100,000 target. Our strategy of combining Web and print was paying off and we were easily holding 90 percent of online advertisers beyond their 12-week commitments. We were bold, innovative, and disruptive – breaking rules in advertising and taking things to the edge. For the first time, I was truly using what I had learned (and failed at) throughout the years. For the first time, my partners understood the incredible power, responsibility and financial promise that come with community newspaper ownership. But soon enough, it became apparent that the price was going to be steep.

Well before we marked the first six months of printing the Sullivan Journal, mental and physical limits were being reached. Avoiding debt was achieved only by avoiding the hiring of extra labor. While we baby-stepped across our competition’s stomping ground, we did so relentlessly. It seems like we never slept, but we didn’t borrow money either. We sold ads, we took photos, we covered sports and breaking news, we sent out bills, we covered our beats – we jokingly adopted the Pinkerton Agency motto: We never sleep.

And that’s what it takes. I didn’t have a life to give up, but my partners did. The business of journalism has never been kind to families or those craving normalcy. Some things never change. While eventually we became more efficient and added employees, it wouldn’t be until the second year of business that we finally found more financial breathing room and new directions.

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Case Study:

Sharing photos/Convergence

What goes around comes around. On Aug. 5, 2010 a horrific multi-vehicle fatal interstate crash involving two school buses full of children grabbed national attention. Underneath one of the buses was an unidentified victim in a pickup, who remained pinned in the crash for hours. We did not have a photographer at the scene because it was too far out of our circulation area. However, as the drama unfolded live on national TV, we began hearing a rumor that maybe the person in the pickup was the son of a local politician who just won a primary two days earlier – we had just posted exclusive photos of the family’s victory party (I shot the photos). I called the politician and he confirmed that his son was the person trapped in the pickup and that he was dead. We immediately broke the story on Facebook and our website (but did not use Twitter – see other story). Earlier I had asked for and received permission to use an accident scene photo from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Within minutes of our breaking story (identity of deceased in pickup), we received calls from the AP, Springfield News Leader (Gannett), and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – all asking for the photos (of the deceased at his dad’s victory party) that we had posted just a day earlier. We sent our photos to the Post-Dispatch and Gannett’s NBC-TV affiliate in St. Louis. Two months later, we needed a photo shot by the Post-Dispatch of one of our local veterans that was throwing out a first pitch at a Cardinals game. No problem, said the Post-Dispatch, we owe you one. That photo may have been responsible for making that issue the best-selling issue since we began printing.

Nothing Screams Like a 2-Year-Old

In 2009 the newspaper turned 2 years old and the website, a year older, was already a virtual community landmark. With added labor – which included a full-time salesperson, a managing editor, part-time sports editor and part-time ad designer – we began the painful process of letting others take the wheel. I nearly recognized this necessity too late, and now feel that many media ventures in the future will be doomed by the traditional inclination to micromanage newspapers. Luckily, the partners at the Sullivan Journal recognized early on that the business belongs to the community – not us. It was excruciatingly important for me to learn that it wasn’t my newspaper anymore. A new byline and an infusion of creativity undoubtedly had a significant positive impact on our ad (online and print) and single-copy sales. Above all else, it gave us a break from each other and ourselves.

Year two was great for us financially, climbing past $200,000 in gross ad sales – almost doubling from our first year. Our combined (paid/unpaid) weekly print circulation was stuck on a plateau, but online continued to dominate any site that was even remotely considered a rival. We were killing our local weekly competitor, watching their racks stay full week after week after week. But beyond making good hiring decisions (people skills plus technical in equal measure), we made three significant decisions: One was an intentional concentration on social media; the second was to move a line of community-oriented niche pubs; and the third was to directly engage other media outlets in the sharing of news.

Socially speaking

Well into our second year we decided it was time to join the Facebook crowd. We obviously understood the popularity of the social media site, but had previously recoiled at the idea of adding yet another online responsibility to someone’s job description. Recoiled, that is, until a bet was waged between myself (editor), the publisher and the sports editor. It was a bet that, ultimately, we all gladly lost.

On Feb. 21, 2010 we flipped the switch on the Sullivan Journal Facebook page. The three of us – I was in a coin laundry in Reno, Nev.; Chad was tending to cows outside of Sullivan, Mo.; and sports editor Marty Tiefenbrunn was at home in Sullivan – placed bets via texting on the number of “fans” (now known as “likes”) our Facebook site would achieve in one week. We activated the page without prior advertising of any kind, deciding instead to see how fast the local Facebook network would spread the word. What happened next is nothing short of amazing.

The first 24 hours was (we thought) impressive, attracting about 40 fans. One of the bettors was an early out at 25 fans. By the third day, more than 150 had joined and by the end of the seven-day betting period more than 400 had signed up. The highest guess? 150. As of November 2010, we’ve seemingly leveled at about 1,300. Several big breaking news events added significant numbers to our Facebook site, including the tragic death of a local politician’s son, which may have added about 200 fans over a 10-day period.

Today, the Sullivan Journal Facebook page is an invaluable social media tool for both the Sullivan Journal business and the community. The page is primarily used to break news, highlight community events, and to directly engage the community with ideas and issues derived right out of our newsroom. Last summer we used our Facebook page to break a national story when our website was down. National media – including the AP – found our breaking story through Facebook, as did the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Gannett’s Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. We routinely use the page to ask readers about ethical issues and to elicit information for stories.

Case Study:

Decision-making through social media

When I decided to run a photo of a bare-breasted statue on the front page of the newspaper, the two females in the newsroom balked. Yes, the statue is relevant to the story, I assured them. They, in turn, assured me that many readers will go ballistic and subscriptions will get cancelled. So, I decided to post the photo on our Facebook site to elicit feedback. Wow! It didn’t take long. The first feedback post came in four minutes and two dozen more soon followed. Some questioned the relevancy of the photo, others said “too much,” while a few said we shouldn’t be afraid to show art that sits in front of the state Capitol The female employees were right about one thing – people definitely had something to say. The learning experience was incredibly valuable to us because it was the first time we let our social media network make an ethical decision, as well as have a hand in the layout of a front page. We didn’t run the photo.

We intentionally use our Facebook page to direct traffic to our website through teasers (with hyperlinks) placed on Facebook. While our website traffic has possibly suffered some traffic erosion/migration due to our popular Facebook page, we have recaptured some of the traffic via the linking strategy. We view the website as the story mothership and our Facebook page as a floating social satellite, sent into the universe of community networks with a virtual lasso to gather the interested.

Facebook comments continue to be a significant source for guiding our news budgets and business direction. While our 800-plus registered online news site (sullivanjournal.com) users consistently prove the 80-20 rule correct – 20 percent of registered users make 80 percent of the comments – they have always done so anonymously. Interestingly, our 1,300 identified/known Facebook fans make far more comments than our anonymously registered news site users. Most of the anonymous users (that we can identify) that frequently commented on our news site have migrated to our Facebook site – and are quite vocal there too. In other words, anonymity does not seemingly promote more commenting in an online community news setting. In fact, the opposite may prove to be true.

As for Twitter, we seem to be in an area that either hasn’t found the value of it or doesn’t seem driven to use it. While we have attempted to promote Twitter through various means – including advertising in print and placing logos next to our Facebook logo in print and online – we seem to attract politicians and evangelists. We continue to tweet breaking news stories, but the final word on our Twitter experiment is far from maturity.

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Case Study:

No Twitter, Some Of The Time

We don’t have very many Twitter followers. Maybe it’s the location, maybe there isn’t any need – we have a website and Facebook page that is frequently updated. Whatever it is, we have less than 50 followers. One of those is Dave Schatz, a local politician that uses Twitter a lot. When I confirmed – through Dave – that his son had just been killed in a traffic accident, we were suddenly part of a national news story. We broke the fact that it was a politician’s son who remained trapped underneath a tangled mess of school buses and an 18-wheeler. I sent out an e-mail blast, used Facebook, and posted it to our website. But I didn’t use Twitter. I knew that Dave followed us on Twitter. I knew that Dave, like many politicians, followed us. I couldn’t stand the thought of intentionally sending out a tweet to Dave, telling him something painful that he had just discovered. It wasn’t worth it. It was a judgment call. In a larger newspaper, I wouldn’t have hesitated. But we’re relentlessly local, and sometimes we have good reasons for not reporting the news.

Finding a Community Niche

Perhaps the brightest financial success for our third year will be in niche publications. These are tabloid-size theme publications that are distributed free via our point-of-purchase display racks, countertop drops and as inserts in the newspaper. Our first “niche pub” was a 3,000-print run, 24-page Home & Garden template from Chicago-based Content That Works (contentthatworks.com). While covers and content come prepackaged – the ads are simply sold and dropped into the pages – we choose to find a local person for our covers and then localize inside content. The InDesign pages are easily manipulated, making the niche pubs extremely easy to produce. The slickness and high-quality content – as well as the free price and wide distribution – makes it a relatively easy sell for our ad department.

While we continue to see success with prepackaged niche pubs (Fall Car Care was a recent hit, bringing in about $7,000 in revenue), we also produce in-house a successful local sports preview. Using the same size and general layout as the aforementioned tabloid publications, our original high school sports publication is broken down into three sports blocks: fall, winter, and spring sports. This allows us to spread distribution and advertising over three publications in a nine-month period. The publication is distributed at home games, at our usual point-of-purchase locations and hand-inserted deep enough for distribution but avoiding waste (we insert our rack papers only as deep as we usually sell). We package the advertising with online specials, as well as offering deep discounts for advertising in all three. We also advertise a companion blog for each sports preview publication (http://www.shseagles.wordpress.com). The sports preview niche pub has been very well received by the community and has been very easy to sell. Because of the temporary nature of the issues, the use of WordPress has been a time and money saver.

Joining Forces

The City of Sullivan is along Interstate 44 and Old Route 66, about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis. The rural area maintains a healthy economic base catering to outdoor enthusiasts and tourists, who are mainly attracted to float streams, caving and camping. The area is home to Meramec State Park, one of the largest state parks in the Midwest. Invariably, the Sullivan Journal staff spends much of the summer covering swimming accidents, lost cavers, and people that generally do wildly dumb things in the wilderness. A very large percentage of the unlucky victims come from the St. Louis area. However, St. Louis media rarely cover events in our circulation area. Thanks to us, they don’t need to.

That’s because we’ve discovered that sharing has a lot of benefits. During the last three years, the Sullivan Journal has forged friendly non-contractual agreements with Lee’s flagship newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as well as Gannett’s NBC-TV St. Louis affiliate KSDK-5. Typically, the Sullivan Journal will cover a breaking story and then timely contact the Post-Dispatch and KSDK-5. If interested, we package photos, cutlines and all necessary text for each entity – making sure to use different photos (if possible) for each one. In turn, we receive on-air, online, and/or print credit. In the last three years, the Sullivan Journal has had everything from the entire front cover of the Saturday Post-Dispatch (tornado) to lead stories on the KSDK-5 nightly news (drownings, accidents, etc.). Recently, the Post-Dispatch covered an event for us – something rarely, if ever, done for a weekly community newspaper.

The credibility generated goes both ways. When we recently ran a front-page sports/human interest photo (“Veterans Throw Out First Pitch At Busch Stadium”) shot by the Post-Dispatch, the community was very grateful that the big-city newspaper shared the photo with us. And, of course, we looked good because we had an exclusive photo from an event that we couldn’t/wouldn’t cover. Less than two months earlier, the Sullivan Journal supplied the Post-Dispatch with a photo concerning the death of a politician’s son – an exclusive photo we shot two days before the fatal accident. It was big news to both of us and we helped each other.

Ditto that for the NBC affiliate. We helped one of our former interns land an internship at the TV station. In return, they allowed her to work with us on breaking stories. And it worked. During the summer, we shared several breaking news stories involving city folks getting in trouble out in the country. We covered the news and shipped it to the TV station; in return, we received credit. Do you think that helps our credibility with the local folks? Absolutely.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Case Study:

How social media saved our butt

During a huge breaking news story (candidate’s son killed in accident), we were caught with our news website down due to maintenance. We didn’t send a reporter because it was too far out of our circulation area and we didn’t know the local connection. This was the biggest story in at least a year, maybe in the history of our news operation. The story was rolling live footage all day on all the national TV news outlets: Two school buses full of students crash into a pickup and tractor-trailer, trapping a driver and killing a student and the pickup driver – it was a big story. The highway was shut down for hours and the victim in the pickup was extricated three hours after the accident. Rumor began filtering into our office that the pickup driver may be the son of our local state House candidate, who just won a primary race two days before and we were the only news outlet that covered the victory party. We likely snapped the last few photos of the victim. And our site was down, along with our ability to send out a breaking news e-mail. So what did we do? Social media. After I called the father to confirm or erase the rumor of his son’s death (confirmed just moments before my call), we went to our Facebook page and posted the story. The reaction was immediate. Our Facebook fans went from 935 to nearly 1,000 in a few hours; our story garnered 29 posts within a very short time. St. Louis NBC affiliate KSDK-TV5 called for photos and info, as did the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the AP. We also fielded calls from out-of-area news stations and newspapers – nobody was waiting on the wire.

All of this from our Facebook page.

While we worked the story as normal, we learned to stay connected to the world via Facebook. We had become the community’s social network hub for information. We broke the story and followed it, sending out info as we received it. And some of our information came from other Facebook pages that students involved in the accident were posting from the scene. We were beating CNN, Fox, AP – all the alphabet channels and masters of the news. Our little newsroom laughed at the TV as we posted breaking information on our Facebook page. We even used the victim’s Facebook page as a source because local students were posting to it. We learned that our website was not a sole source of breaking news, but just another source.

Advertising

The basics fundamentals and strategies of newspaper advertising have seemingly changed very little since I entered the business 15 years ago. A display ad continues to be measured in column inches (a necessity for those layout perfectionists) and classifieds remain the back-section bargains. But online, video and niche pubs are increasingly cutting larger slices of the ad-dollar pie. While this project paper focuses on sustaining a community news business through disruptive and innovative practices, I find it necessary to mention some of the advertising principles adopted at the Sullivan Journal.

Client assessment is the first thing we do, whether it’s an established client we haven’t sat down with in a while or a new customer – it doesn’t matter. Most small business owners think they know a lot more about advertising than they actually do. In fact, most know only that they need to advertise – that’s the extent of it. The important objective is not to waste their time or money. We use a checklist that covers annual ad budgets, past and present campaigns (radio/TV/print/online/mail, etc.), short and long-term objectives, new products/services/goals, and most importantly – expectations from advertising.

Whether the client is spending $5.75 per column inch for a small display ad or $2,000 for a flight of print and online ads, it is absolutely imperative to us that the campaign has a high probability of effectiveness. Clients tell us time and again that they appreciate our commitment to their business; we wouldn’t do it any other way. Part of that strategy comes from having economic empathy – something we know a lot about.

The Sullivan Journal was born during the worst newspaper collapse in recent history. Likewise, many small businesses in the Sullivan area have cut back or closed. We fully understand the tough times and shift accordingly, depending on each client’s situation. Unlike our competition, we do not use contracts (committing to a certain number of column inches per year, etc.). Instead, we take each business into consideration and tailor an advertising plan based on economic realities. Again, it’s personal attention that has won over many clients and keeps us smiling when they prosper.

Advertising revenue has steadily increased, thanks to a monopoly on niche pubs and online banner ads. We use a common strategy used by many multi-faceted telecoms – bundling. Our region is primarily served by Fidelity Communications, a locally based telecom that provides home phone, Internet and cable TV service. Those services are often bundled in a reduced-rate package that requires an Internet subscriber to also carry a land telephone line. We do something similar, packaging print and online advertising into one price, creating an ad campaign that reaches/penetrates the local audience across multiple platforms. While working for Lee Enterprises, I learned the value and effectiveness of bundling. It is not only effective for the ad client, but it is very lucrative for our business.

We are anticipating 2011-2012 to be a great year for video/live stream advertising, as well as an increase in online banner inventory when we move to the TownNews BLOX system in spring 2011. Other disruptive sources of ad revenue may be found in social media and Wi-Fi/WiMAX subscription services.

What’s Next?

So, where do we go from here? Certainly we will continue building on the print and online products while exploring disruptive opportunities such as local Wi-Fi and free classifieds. While our social media efforts continue to strengthen our network ties to the community, we are focusing on launching a variety of advertising platforms that encompass both social media and our online news and print products (embedding links on Facebook that take the reader to the news story on our website, but first they go through an ad, etc.). And continue pounding our print competition through relentlessly disruptive activities, shaving our competition’s ad revenue in the process. As our unofficial human mascot Wayne Gretzky says, go to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s at.

Current Strategies

Disruptive Innovation: While our competition maintains a print circulation advantage, we know that our disruptive strategy is having a paralyzing effect upon them. They simply are unable to respond. From the beginning we’ve done things backwards, upside-down and sideways. Going from a community news website to print completely took our competition by surprise. Waiting to launch our Facebook page seemed unusually delayed, but it came at a quiet time and by complete surprise. Our Facebook page has become the hub for discussing local news – there is no alternative. Ditto that for our niche publications, which continue to cannibalize our competition’s secondary and niche advertising streams of revenue (mom & pops, seasonal and specialty advertisers – home & garden/car guide/holiday, etc.). We have RSS feeds on two sites, one in Sullivan and another on an online news site in a competitor’s hometown (http://www.washmo.com).  It seems that launching new things over time is far more effective than trying to throw everything into the fire at once; and certainly far more manageable. Our competition would rather flee than fight – that’s why disruption works so well for us.

While trying to maintain a focus on the “What business are we in?” mantra, we are exploring a variety of products and services for 2011, including:

International News/Embed: When a local Marine was killed in Afghanistan, it seemed that the St. Louis press couldn’t get enough of the action. We provided KSDK-TV5 the use of our offices and assisted their reporter throughout the week. We fielded calls nationwide – it was crazy. After the funeral, the press disappeared. However, the community’s desire for a greater understanding of the war did not. It was shocking to learn that our readers were not really paying much attention to the war – until one of their own died fighting in it. They wanted more, but not from the Post-Dispatch or St. Louis television; the locals rightfully feel that city media have abandoned rural coverage. Maybe they wanted it from us. Taking that cue, I have adopted a Spot.us (http://spot.us) approach to national and international coverage. My first offering will be an embed assignment to Afghanistan, which will likely take place in April/May 2011. The exercise is an attempt to explain the relevance of national news to our community. And like spot.us, the community must raise the funding; otherwise we won’t write the story. So far, it seems that there is a lot of interest in having the Sullivan Journal cover events/issues outside our normal circulation area – especially issues relevant to the immediate area.

Regional Magazine: We’ve had a lot of requests to publish a features-oriented magazine and advertisers seem very receptive to the idea. We shoot hundreds of excellent photos every year that never see print and many of our finest feature stories are cut to length or downplayed. Also, we’re lucky to have excellent freelance writers that would fit our Ozarks theme, relying heavily on the area’s love for the outdoors and local travel. The magazine name: 63080 (our ZIP code).

Wi-Fi Broadband Wireless: Our community is vastly underserved/unserved with high-speed wireless access. Two companies currently serve the area, a locally owned telecom (Internet/phone/cable) and St. Louis-based Charter Communications. Both companies sell bundled and tier-based packages for home use, creating an expensive path to home-based high-speed Internet – but no true wireless. Currently, there is no ability (beyond cell phones) to be completely wireless and only the local MacDonald’s offers Wi-Fi. We are attempting to acquire grant funding to establish a Wi-Fi broadband wireless access system that would be high-speed, completely mobile, and totally affordable. Currently, we have a proposal from Wavion Wireless Networks that we are advancing to several funding foundations and philanthropic entities and we have tentatively received tower permission from the city. We also plan a trip to Baltimore to see the network in action.

New website/CMS: While Joomla! open-source website development and CMS tools gave birth to Sullivanjournal.com, we have decided to launch a new website/CMS system through TownNews. The Moline, Ill.-based company – majority owned by Lee Enterprises – is respected in the newspaper business for its interactive online platforms and CMS systems. We will be among the first community newspapers to fully utilize the BLOX system, which allows online editors/administrators the ability to easily move portions of the website on the page, including ad blocks. The new system also allows full migration and flow of print classified ads into the website. More info at (http://www.townnews.com/blox_overview/).

Free Classifieds: To erode our competition’s strength in classifieds, we are rolling out free classifieds for all subscribers. After consulting with an Arkansas newspaper publisher, we are convinced that this strategy will significantly add to our subscriber list, while gnawing away at our competitor’s classifieds section. The idea is simple: When someone desires to take out a classified ad, simply inform them that for an extra $15 or $20 (whatever it is) they can place classified ads for free AND receive an annual subscription to the Sullivan Journal. This will also be offered to e-subscribers ($20 annually) after our new TownNews BLOX website rolls out in February. One Arkansas weekly publisher used this strategy to increase his subscription base by more than 10 times and severely weakened the competition’s classified section. We think this is a perfect strategy for boosting our subscriptions – currently a weak part of our newspaper business – and taking away classified revenue from our competition.

RSS Feeds: Sullivanjournal.com is currently feeding news to two separate online-only community sites. Both Washmo.com (based 30 miles away in Washington, Mo.) and Sullivanmo.com are running our Web headlines through an RSS feed onto their respective home pages. Both send a significant amount of traffic to the Sullivanjournal.com site and both sites are serving our circulation area. The feeds are at no cost to the Sullivan Journal. We are also linked under an “area newspapers” section of the Gasconade County Republican weekly newspaper website, which is near our circulation area.

Conclusion

On Sept. 16, 2008 I took a popular hyperlocal community news website to the most illogical of all next steps: I turned it into a paid weekly newspaper. While the rest of the world bemoaned the downfall of print media, I embraced the possibilities. The new Digital Age (open-source software, ubiquitous high-speed Internet, inexpensive computers/software) has significantly lowered the barriers to entry. While risks remain the same, the cost of failure is often negligible. Revenue streams nearly absent a few years ago are now delivering significant and steady streams of revenue. And as the large dailies contract towards their center-city headquarters, the grass becomes much greener for community weeklies willing to work in their wake. With the rising importance of social media networks, hyperlocal community newspapers are poised for a very long, prominent and important future in communities across the great journalism landscape. We succeed because we are relentless in what we do as journalists and entrepreneurs. We are relentlessly local.

The Sullivan Journal Team

William K. Sites. Founder of www.sullivanjournal.com and co-founder/editor of the Sullivan Journal community weekly newspaper. William, a native of Sullivan, Mo., has 15 years experience working as a reporter, photojournalist, editor and publisher (online and print). He also founded and published the Press Journal community weekly newspaper in Sullivan and has worked for a variety of news organizations, including Gannett, Lee Enterprises, Pulitzer Community Newspapers, and Rust Communications.

Chad Johnston. Co-founder and publisher of the Sullivan Journal. Chad, a native of Sullivan, Mo., is an engineer with Sullivan-based Fidelity Communications, a regional leader in telephone, cable, and Internet services. In his third year at the business and circulation end of the Sullivan Journal, Chad’s business experience in raising cattle and rental property ownership has been a significant boon to the venture’s financial stewardship.

Heather Johnston. Co-founder and copy desk/advertising guru (and wife of Chad), Heather has been a leader in design and layout from Day One. A former dental assistant and North Carolinian, Heather’s creative eye and fast-learning capacity has guided the newspaper through many challenging design changes and layouts. On a daily basis, nobody does more than Heather.

Marty Tiefenbrunn. Sports editor and partner at the Sullivan Journal, Marty spends many long days going from his fulltime day job as a sales manager in another community to covering high school sports across several counties. The only partner with media experience, Marty was a sports writer at the competition across town until joining the Sullivan Journal as sports editor and partner. Marty’s lifetime commitment to the community and incredible knowledge about local and regional sports has made the newspaper the undisputed leader in sports.

Matt Tiefenbrunn, M.D. Dr. Matt is a native son who returned to the community to practice medicine and get involved. Part of that involvement includes not only a financial commitment to the Sullivan Journal as a partner, but a hands-on dedication towards making the Sullivan Journal a relentlessly local publication. As the owner of a thriving private practice and chief of staff at the local hospital, Dr. Matt’s insight into medicine has been parlayed into a popular health section of the newspaper.

Jaime Baranyai-Mowers. Jaime was hired in the summer of 2009 to replace managing editor Will Sites, who departed in August 2009 to attend grad school at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. Jaime, a native of Webster Groves, Mo., joined the staff after five years as a reporter, including three years at the Rolla Daily News in Rolla, Mo., and recently as a general assignment reporter for Gannett-owned Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo. Replacing Will was a tough task, but one that she has embraced as much as the community has embraced her. Jaime is also responsible for updating the Web and social media sites.

Tammy Spurgeon. Tammy is the backbone of the Sullivan Journal’s graphics department, which includes print and online ad design, page design/layout, promotional products marketing and custom graphic design.

Sarina Scott. Sarina is a fulltime sales professional with 20 years experience in radio, both behind the mike at a large Georgia rock-n-roll FM station and away from the airwaves in marketing and promotion. A Sullivan native, Sarina’s keen sense of community quickly earned her open doors and success.

Tom Cline Jr. Tom is a card-carrying photographer for the Sullivan Journal and a helicopter pilot. The owner of a Robinson R-22 helicopter, Tom provides the Sullivan Journal with exclusive seat time during breaking news stories and searches – or just when we need general aerial photography. As a reserve deputy sheriff, Tom is often called upon to locate criminals or missing persons; we usually ride along for exclusive aerial photos and footage. Tom has been a big part of our unique story and photo angles.

Intern Experience:

Paige Hulsey, senior, Drake University School of Journalism. Paige, a Sullivan native, completed a summer internship during the newspaper’s first print year, focusing on the launch of video and producing print/online feature packages. Last summer Paige completed a broadcast internship at Gannett’s NBC-TV affiliate in St. Louis, where she was instrumental in forging a successful news-sharing agreement between the TV station and the Sullivan Journal – a partnership that endures today.

Garrett Valenzuela and Devin Sizemore, juniors, Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. Garrett and Devin, former students of Sullivan Journal’s Will Sites, spent part of the summer of 2010 interning at the newspaper. Their primary duties included producing feature packages for print and online, video, spot and breaking news photography, Web updating/CMS maintenance, social media updating and general assignment reporting.

Stephanie Proffer, junior, University of Missouri School of Journalism. Stephanie spent part of her summer learning and implementing page design, layout, copyediting and generally learning community journalism at her hometown newspaper.

Sullivan Journal News

Products/Services

Products:

www.sullivanjournal.com (online news, companion website to newspaper. Ads available – 468x60p and 250x104p banner ads, peel ads. Website and CMS is currently open-source Joomla! but moving to the new TownNews BLOX system (http://www.townnews.com/blox_overview/). Average monthly page click rate is 900,000.)

Sullivan Journal News (paid weekly broadsheet, circulation approx. 1,600, published Tuesday and printed by Jefferson City Tribune Publishing; per issue cost is .75 cents, local annual subscription $30 per year, by second-class permit. Business address 222 North Clark St., Sullivan, MO  63080; contact e-mail: ads@sullivanjournal.com.)

Niche publications (In-house publication SHS Sports Preview, published three times per year, which includes a fall, winter, and spring sports publication. Paid content niche pubs from Content That Works (contentthatworks.com) include Car Care, Bridal, Holiday Gift Guide, Home & Garden and Health.)

Services:

Graphic design (From custom print and online ads to brochures and corporate reports, the Sullivan Journal is a one-stop graphics shop. For more information, contact graphics@sullivanjournal.com.)

Mailing (As the holder of a second-class postage permit, we can direct-mail anything to the location of your choice. Contact ads@sullivanjournal.com.)

Web design (As partners with Somethingcool.com, we can assist in the design, building and marketing of your website. Our sites are generally designed using open-source software, which makes it inexpensive and easy to maintain. We also assist in training and updating websites and social media sites, such as Facebook.)

Marketing strategies (Design and implementation of product/service marketing strategies, including media buying and representation. We also handle all phases of public relations for local manufacturing, retail, and service-oriented and personal accounts. Product and business photography available.)

Social media (From launching a Facebook strategy to understanding social media/employee issues – including pre-employment screening – we can do single private accounts or discuss social media via large group presentations.)

Community News Business Survival Kit:

1.     Get-Out-Of-The-Bank-Free Card. Do not carry debt. Pay up front, barter, or do without.  Move forward when you can, and tiptoe through the financial lion’s den very, very slowly.

2.     Adventurers. No need for whiners or quitters on this trip. Be honest about what lays ahead, the economic alligators and bad-news bears. One balk and they’re out of the game.

3.     Poverty Card. Be prepared to be poor. To avoid debt, sometimes it’s time to live the college lifestyle. Go without personal pay to pay upstream vendors, but be firm about getting paid from others – don’t let it slide too much.

4.     Friendship Tokens. Now is the time for paybacks and favors. Use them sparingly, but use them. Biz owners, family and friends will help you out – and then pay them back like they saved your life (because maybe they did).

5.     A Motivator Knife. When the boat ain’t a rockin’, start putting holes in it. Nothing gets it going like a little disruptive innovation. Don’t get stale, don’t get complacent. As Wayne Gretzky said, “Go to where the puck’s going, not where it’s at.”

6.     A Slice Of Humble Pie. Ups and downs and highs and lows will be exhausting. Use power wisely. Always serve to do good and you may serve forever.

7.     Thief Gloves. Slip these on and steal some good ideas. Stay on top of what’s working in the industry and what isn’t. Subscribe and scrounge from across the globe and take the loot home to your community.

8.     James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. OK, they won’t fit, but their little idea about freedom of the press will. Don’t leave home without it.

9.     A Sandbox. Maybe not a real one, but don’t forget that you’re in this to have a little fun too – don’t be afraid to play! Oh, and you can always use it to bury your competition.

10.  An Extra Set Of Ears. In today’s instantaneous, socially networked world, listening to your community has never been more important. Listen closely and you will hear the sounds of success.

Websites

http://www.contentthatworks.com (niche publications)

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?profile=1&id=330180625989#!/pages/Sullivan-MO/Sullivan-Journal/330180625989

http://www.gasconadecountyrepublican.com (Owensville, Mo. weekly newspaper)

http://houstonherald.mo.newsmemory.com/demo.php

http://www.joomla.org (open-source website templates/CMS systems)

http://www.ksdk.com (Gannett’s St. Louis NBC-TV affiliate)

http://www.lee.net (Lee Enterprises)

http://www.omniture.com (Web analytics)

http://www.shseagles.wordpress.com (sports blog)

http://www.spot.us (community funded reporting website)

http://www.stltoday.com (Saint Louis Post-Dispatch)

http://www.sullivanjournal.com

http://www.sullivanmo.com (privately-owned site for Sullivan, Mo.; they RSS our news)

http://www.sullivan.mo.us (city website for Sullivan, Mo.)

http://www.townnews.com (TownNews, BLOX, newspaper website design)

http://www.twitter.com/sullivanjournal

http://www.washmo.com (online news site that takes RSS feeds of our news)

http://www.wavionnetworks.com (community Wi-Fi networks)

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