Lessons from a 25-year-old local 'startup'
This originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.
Spokane, Washington’s, free weekly, the Inlander, basically started as a grad school project. That was 25 years ago.
The McGregor brothers borrowed money from their grandma and relied on their mom to help them build staff. After 18 months, the Inlander made enough money to sustain itself, but publisher Ted McGregor and general manager Jeremy McGregor didn’t take salaries for quite a while, Ted McGregor said. It took five to seven years before he thought the Inlander might make it.
“It was a lot of hard work and took a while to get there, but we’re kind of countering the narrative a little bit here,” he said.
This is our last week, for now, with someone who started a news organization. We started in Flint with a journalist who’s trying to figure out the business side, then last week went to North Carolina and a newsroom that’s going statewide. Now, let’s take the long view.
Keep it simple
A few weeks ago, the Inlander started running a year-long serialized novel, which you can read more about here. That project brought in sponsorship from a major brand. The local writer’s making $10,000. And while the serial, “Miller Cane,” is online and on air, it was created as a print-first product.
There’s a huge cacophony of information right now, Ted said. But the Inlander has tried to stay true to telling stories and staying local.
“There’s been an explosion of journalism and information, particularly about the world and DC, but for Spokane, there really hasn’t been an explosion, it’s kind of a retraction,” Ted said. “There’s a lot of cool stories to tell here.”
A lot of local newsrooms, including alt-weeklies, are now owned by chains. But Ted said he never wanted to sell, and he never got a serious offer. The Inlander has been careful with staff size, he said, and has had solid staffing for the last five or six years, with a newsroom of 12.
He’s also cautious of expansion. People have suggested the Inlander launch publications in other places, Ted said. But if he bought a publication, say, in Boise, “I don’t know Boise. I don’t live there.”
Stick to what you're good at
“One of the things you have to learn is how to say no to stuff,” Ted said. “You get a lot of ideas.”
Should they team up with a local firm and build an employment website? Should they launch a ticketing service?
“That’s all stuff that maybe would be good to do and might make some money, but we’re not good at it,” he said.
The Inlander has added events, a restaurant week and a local home and lifestyle publication, but Ted remains suspicious of bold new ventures that will save journalism.
Build an awesome team
“Don’t underestimate the power of the people you have working on your project,” Ted said.
Early on, the Inlander couldn’t afford to retain talent. But now it has an awesome sales team, he said, and great reporters.
“We make this happen ourselves,” he said. “We don’t have a home office back in New York that sends us a check if we’re sucking.”
I asked Ted what he’s excited about next.
“People ask me that all the time,” he said. “I always feel a little stumped by that question.”
He’s satisfied with doing the kind of work he felt excited about in journalism school, the kind that sometimes makes a difference and sometimes just makes people happy.
“I tell these guys a lot, imagine the paper is like a white plate and you’re a chef. All these pages are blank. How are we going to fill them in a way that’s awesome?”
He’s excited for the next story and the next edition.
“The care and feeding of this,” he said, “is a job on its own.”
Next week, we’re going to look at what’s worked and what hasn’t with local partnerships. In the meantime, if your newsroom wants to host a Report for America reporter, apply now. Also, check out all of the great programs coming up next year here at Poynter. I’m particularly excited about this workshop for rising newsroom stars. As the week’s description says, “The secret to success isn’t getting to the biggest newsroom; it’s creating the career you want where you are.”
See you next week!