This fellowship wants to find the next generation of local newspaper owners

October 23, 2019
Category: Business & Work

“Working from home today,” the publisher and editor of Nebraska’s Hooker County Tribune posted to the weekly’s Facebook page in September. “Good news: I got this week’s issue sent to the printer! Bad news: No other Tribune work will get done the rest of the day because I will be trying to clean up after our toddler!”

The accompanying photo showed a happy little girl in a recliner amid chunky building blocks, an unfurled ream of stickers and other colorful mess.

Readers of the Tribune left 20 comments.

“Some things are more important!”

“They are little for such a short time.”

“You have your priorities in order! The paper will be there tomorrow. You’ve got that baby today!”

Gerri Peterson, the publisher, editor and mom from that post, has had her weekly newspaper longer than her kids.

The Tribune in Mullen, Nebraska, is more than four hours northwest of Lincoln, and it’s Peterson’s hometown. She bought the weekly at 22 after being approached by the owners, who were ready to retire.

“It was like my dream job that literally fell in my lap,” she said.

Eleven years later, Peterson is still running a profitable local newsroom.

Yes, they do exist.

Peterson and the Tribune found each other organically. But a new program in West Virginia wants to match more local newsrooms with people who care about local news, are excited about taking over existing publications and see potential for the future.

NewStart, an “ownership initiative” fellowship based at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media in partnership with the West Virginia Press Association, launched in September.

On its site, the program leads with this: “Do you want to own a newspaper? Before you dismiss the idea, consider this: Profitable newspapers can be had all across the country. That’s right. They’re PROFITABLE. And they’re available right now.”

Screenshot, Hooker County Tribune’s Facebook page

Matchmaking, but for weeklies

Twenty or so years ago, half of the weekly newspapers in the United States were independent, according to research into news deserts by Penelope Muse Abernathy from the University of North Carolina. In 2018, less than one third of weeklies in UNC’s database were independently and locally owned.

In the past 15 years, the country’s seen a net loss of 2,100 newspapers, Abernathy said: “All but 70 were three times a week or less.”

“What we found is the counties that have lost newspapers tend to have residents that are much poorer, older and really economically struggling,” she said. “It is still possible to be prosperous with community newspapers, but you really cannot depend in most cases on just subscription revenue alone.”

In the places that have had success, she added, new owners have both diversified revenue and invested in those papers long-term.

Jim Iovino didn’t know family-owned, profitable local newsrooms even still existed until he started working with NewStart. Iovino, previously the deputy managing editor for the Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Post-Gazette, has since found a class of small family-owned weeklies around the country facing a similar set of circumstances.

  • Younger family members have moved away or aren’t interested in ownership.
  • Long-time owners can’t find anyone to sell to.
  • They don’t want to sell to a chain.
  • They don’t want to quit and close.

“So they’re looking for people to come into their towns, become part of the community, and own and run the paper,” said Iovino, now the Ogden Newspapers Visiting Assistant Professor of Media Innovation at WVU. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that that paper is set up for the long term.”

NewStart has fully-funded fellowships (the exact number is still being decided) and because of interest, Iovino said, will also include non-fellow enrollment.  It also has several components, including matching papers with new owners.

That service isn’t totally new, said Poynter’s business analyst Rick Edmonds. If you want to find a newspaper for sale, you can just call one of the newspaper brokerage firms. What’s different and worthwhile about NewStart, Edmonds said, is it focuses on nourishing a group of people with the skills they need to be successful.

NewStart offers a one-year fellowship at WVU, which includes business model training and digital transformation skills. Applicants need to have a bachelor’s degree, according to NewStart’s site, and the intention to buy and run a publication. Applications are due by the end of the year.

Prospective future owners do not get any funding to buy newspapers, but they will learn the best ways to go about purchasing them, including tips on getting a small business loan or financing directly from a current owner, as Peterson did in Nebraska.

She paid her 10-year loan off in seven, by the way.

Related: This Vermont newspaper couldn’t give itself away in an essay contest. But it did find a buyer.

Fixer upper, but for journalists

NewStart thinks four kinds of people will make great local news organization owners:

  • Entrepreneurial students, like Peterson.
  • Working journalists, who, Iovino said, “want to get back to their roots or do their own thing and not have to worry about corporations.”
  • Laid-off journalists. “They hear all the gloom and doom about newspapers, not realizing that there are still one out there making money, just at the really small, community level.”
  • And entrepreneurs with no media experience. There’s an opportunity now to take those legacy weekly publications, Iovino said, and set them up to take advantage of digital opportunities as high-speed internet expands to rural areas.

Each of those groups has to redefine what success means for local news, said Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association. And that redefinition has to happen for both the business and the journalism.

For the business – those newsrooms won’t see the bigger profit margins of newspapers in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he said, but they can make a livable profits of 20-25%. Part of the next chapter for those weeklies and their potential new owners is helping small but profitable print publications diversify revenue.

And for the journalism – journalists need to see value in what Smith called “chicken dinner news.”

“There’s a lot of pride in these little papers,” Smith said. “Those folks won’t win a Pulitzer, but they are recognized in their community for the job they do, and that’s important, too.”

Related training: What every journalist needs to know about the news business

Succession, but in real life

Peterson didn’t have a program like NewStart as she started making plans to take over the Hooker County Tribune after graduating from Concordia University. But she knew she wanted to get the weekly online, and she was going to get rid of “Mullen News,” a local column that tracked the comings and goings of community members.

“Like, ‘Peggy and Bob went to the junior high volleyball game,’” Peterson said.

In her last semester, she surveyed the community as part of a research project, and found her readers loved that column. So Peterson kept it.

Betty Brown, who’s now nearly 100, still files the column by email each week.

Peterson also never went online.

Why, she eventually realized, give people the news for free? Instead, she shares the latest community info, like road closures or weather news, on the publication’s Facebook page. Subscribers can also access an e-edition.

Running her hometown paper as a one-woman newsroom is a lot of work, but Peterson thinks it’s worth it.

“We don’t have local radio stations,” she said. “We don’t have local TV stations.”

But Mullen, Nebraska, has something a lot of communities don’t anymore: a profitable paper and a local owner dedicated to keeping it going.

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org. She can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare

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  • This is great news for young journalists! While the opportunities in our profession have nosedived at most large and mid-sized newspapers, they are present and often overlooked in Main Steet markets. I enjoyed owning and operating community newspapers as much as I enjoyed my earlier career as a Washington Bureau Chief and Editor-in-Chief of a large regional newspaper in the Golden Age of Print.
    I know first-hand that small-town papers can still prosper when owners and staff understand their communities and what many in the industry today do not: You can’t make money by giving readers and advertisers less and charging them more.