The Newton experiment: How a rural Kansas weekly newspaper refreshed an outdated enterprise mannequin

When College of Kansas journalism professor Teri Finneman wanted a free spirit prepared to experiment with some new twists to an historic enterprise mannequin, she didn’t must look far. And when Joey Younger, the 38-year-old proprietor of the weekly Harvey County Now in south-central Kansas, fielded her request, he didn’t must assume lengthy.

The paper, with somewhat greater than 3,000 subscribers in Newton, a few half-hour north of Wichita, has held its personal since Younger and his spouse, Lindsey, began it 9 years in the past. However he  acknowledged an trade in disaster. 

He has bucked the pattern of greater than 2,000 native publications which have disappeared lately into the crevices of a shifting media panorama. However he additionally is aware of that the normal, centuries-old financial basis of conventional newspapers has developed worrisome cracks.

The phenomenon of disappearing newspapers isn’t new, however its persistent and worrisome trajectory has prompted concern and a focus not solely from the trade, but additionally from academia. An onslaught of mis- and disinformation in public discourse has made it straightforward to attach the dots of newspapers’ decline with the feverish social and political temperature of the occasions.

Last Version: Saving Native Information

This story is the second in a three-part sequence from The Colorado Solar analyzing the state of native information and people working to maintain their communities knowledgeable even after some long-time newspapers have disappeared.

Beforehand: Whereas many small-town newspapers are vanishing, these Coloradans are working to maintain native information alive.

Coming Tuesday: Whereas so many small cities are shedding their newspapers, Westcliffe has two — each thriving, each earning profits, each all in on a newspaper warfare.

The ocean change in newsgathering has offered challenges to publishers and, by extension, to democracy itself — elevating the stakes for fixing the financial and technological limitations to sustainability. Younger might see the issues throughout him. He was recreation to be a part of the answer.

The request got here from a trusted supply. Finneman, who teaches two and a half hours down the street in Lawrence, first approached him as she ready to collaborate with two different researchers — Patrick Ferrucci on the College of Colorado and Nick Mathews on the College of Missouri — to look at the outdated enterprise practices at rural weeklies and discover newer choices for producing income.

Their plan was to survey weekly newspaper publishers and their readers in rural areas of the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska, gauging attitudes towards the staid formulation of subscriptions and promoting versus openness to much less conventional choices, like occasions, membership fashions and e-newsletters. However they lacked one vital aspect to advance their findings past the realm of academia and provide real-world options — options that may very well be tailored elsewhere, like Colorado and different areas struggling the identical trade malaise.

A guinea pig.

“Lengthy story quick, the rationale Teri calls me is as a result of I’m younger and I’ve a repute for doing out-of-the-box issues,” Younger says. “Most publishers in our state are actually good folks, however they’re ageing they usually’re involved about how they’re going to retire they usually’re defending their property. We had been all like, screw it, let’s swing for the fences.”

So he was receptive when Finneman broached the concept of getting Harvey County Now street take a look at a couple of twists on the previous enterprise mannequin. A $10,000 grant as a hedge towards losses sweetened the deal.

Most publishers in our state are actually good folks, however they’re ageing they usually’re involved about how they’re going to retire they usually’re defending their property. We had been all like, screw it, let’s swing for the fences.

— Joe Younger, 38-year-old proprietor of Harvey County Now

And so, about 14 months in the past, Younger pushed forward with three ideas. One, a give attention to creating dwell occasions to offer extra native social choices, was an thought the paper had already begun to strive with its annual Blues, Brews & Barbecue outside pageant. Equally, the paper had began trying into the second aspect, e-newsletters delivered between common weekly print editions. In order that, too, was a straightforward promote.

Maybe most importantly, the paper ventured into promoting memberships, a value-added choice that entitles paid members to hitch month-to-month “mingles” (from beer and snacks to bourbon tasting at a member’s residence) and attend a wide range of social occasions, from suite entry to minor-league baseball video games in Wichita to live performance tickets at a number of venues — all inside a technique that dodges money outlay in favor of promoting tradeouts.

Would locals reply favorably to efforts that went past conventional subscriptions that put the print product of their mailbox? Earlier than Younger and his employees applied any of this, the three researchers first wanted to finish their deep dive into the pondering of the publishers preventing robust financial headwinds within the trade — and their readers.

What they found was a profound disconnect.

Not listening to the viewers

Joey Younger, proprietor of the Harvey County Now weekly paper, hauls a part of the press run to the publish workplace for supply to subscribers and shops for single-copy gross sales. His paper agreed to strive some new enterprise practices as a part of a venture by researchers from the College of Kansas, College of Missouri and College of Colorado. (Picture courtesy of Joey Younger)

Their surveys revealed that whereas most publishers clung to a standard enterprise mannequin that dates to the nineteenth century — low-cost print subscriptions augmented by promoting — their readers, conscious of a small-town paper’s position in civic life, mentioned they’d additionally assist different methods, like in-person occasions, membership fashions and e-newsletters. Some had been even prepared to make money donations.

And whereas these outcomes present a glimmer of hope for financial development, publishers squander that potential once they fail to behave on readers’ willingness to embrace new initiatives, the examine concluded. 

“In some methods, we discovered actual hostility towards change, form of like a dismissing of what the viewers needs,” says co-author Ferrucci, chair and affiliate professor in CU’s journalism division. Different publishers mentioned that whereas the concepts sounded good, they didn’t have the time or know-how to institute these sorts of adjustments.

However readers indicated they’re prepared. Whereas print editions stay common, even older respondents defined the attraction of e-newsletters when it comes to an pressing want for info, turbo-charged by the COVID pandemic: In a fast-moving world, once-a-week information simply isn’t sufficient.

In-person occasions that foster familiarity with native journalists, the researchers discovered, might pay a further dividend. For example, in South Dakota, 65% of readers who personally knew a journalist mentioned they’d be prepared to pay past a subscription, whereas solely 26.5% of those that didn’t know a neighborhood reporter mentioned they’d.

“Once we get information and knowledge from our buddies, we are likely to belief it,” says Mathews, an assistant professor at Missouri. “In case you occur to know the journalist, you’ve the next curiosity within the information that they create.”

However publishers of the weeklies appeared largely dedicated to conventional fashions when maybe they don’t should be.

“Readers are somewhat bit extra progressive,” Mathews says. “They’re prepared to say that we’re concerned with occasions. We’re concerned with newsletters. We’re concerned with potential membership fashions. They’re prepared and to offer information organizations income in numerous autos than the information organizations themselves are even prepared to strive.”

In some methods, we discovered actual hostility towards change, form of like a dismissing of what the viewers needs.

— Patrick Ferrucci, researcher on the College of Colorado

The examine notes that publishers’ tendency to cling to these conventional fashions displays an “virtually intractable devotion” to the previous income mannequin. Some function in “survival mode,” fearing any important changes to the best way they do enterprise may very well be deadly. Or worse, they’re complacent, figuring any present however fragile stability will proceed indefinitely.

With rising printing prices, that’s not a viable technique, Mathews says. With out changes, with out diversifying their income sources — an enormous ask for a lot of hidebound small publishers — they may very well be doomed to change into one other statistic.

The examine of rural weeklies, spanning 4 states and 400 native residents, nonetheless offered some causes for optimism. Rural readers need extra info, not much less. They need extra reference to their information organizations, not much less. And — this can be a large one — they appear desperate to probably give publishers more cash. 

Armed with that info, the researchers moved to the subsequent section of their examine. They crafted a enterprise mannequin based mostly on the survey outcomes, augmented by focus teams with publishers. They settled on a framework of memberships, e-newsletters and occasions, regardless that their survey had indicated readers additionally would gladly provide donations if their native paper was struggling. 

However publishers so adamantly rejected the perceived charity that the researchers dropped it from the mannequin.

Harvey County Now competes with The Newton Kansan, a thrice-weekly paper owned by New Jersey-based CherryRoad Media, a subsidiary of a expertise firm that focuses on rural weeklies, together with a couple of in Colorado. Harvey County Now wasn’t in disaster, not less than not but. In truth, it boasts a bigger newsroom than its rival. However will increase in postal charges, paper, ink and printing prices meant {that a} reckoning loomed on the horizon. 

“They determined to be proactive, act on it now and do one thing fairly than get to the purpose of so many newspapers we’ve seen the place it’s simply just too late to reserve it,” Finneman says. “So I actually give them props for his or her bravery for recognizing this.”

Harvey County Now hosts “mingles” at native companies, together with this one at a Newton insurance coverage workplace final summer time., so the neighborhood has an opportunity to work together with the paper’s workers. Bruce Behymer, in crimson cap, is a enterprise accomplice of the paper’s proprietor, Joey Younger. (Picture by Lindsey Younger, Harvey County Now)

Successful story

At Harvey County Now, sending out e-newsletters in between common publishing days, and attracting sponsorships for them, proved an exceptional success. They not solely fed readers’ want for extra frequent information, but additionally generated promoting and metrics on what tales readers actually cared about. That knowledge knowledgeable newsroom technique. 

In-person occasions, from the Blues, Brews & Barbecue gathering to outings to Wichita baseball video games, stuffed a giant hole in a neighborhood on the lookout for extra social choices. The paper tied these occasions, financed largely by enterprise sponsorships and tradeouts, to a membership mannequin they dubbed Press Membership. 

Memberships show common, Finneman says, as a result of they’re ubiquitous. From health club memberships to Netflix to Amazon Prime, folks perceive the idea and worth. For the newspaper, it was only a matter of modernizing the terminology and fascinated by the way it might herald further income by providing a way of exclusivity.

It’s actually good to present those who we’re identical to they’re and we’ll sit round and drink beers and hearken to blues music and do cool stuff in the neighborhood. And we’re actually simply your neighbor.

— Joey younger, proprietor of Harvey county now

The paper charged double the annual subscription charge to hitch Press Membership. Then it cobbled collectively a wide range of advantages, like month-to-month mingles to convey readers collectively but additionally to assist them get to know the employees — 5 reporters cowl the city of 20,000 — and foster a shared sense of neighborhood.

“Anytime you can also make journalists human, I believe it’s actually essential, particularly in a crimson state,” Younger says. “We had a president for 4 years inform all people that we must be locked up and we’re enemies of the general public. It’s actually good to indicate those who we’re identical to they’re and we’ll sit round and drink beers and hearken to blues music and do cool stuff in the neighborhood. And we’re actually simply your neighbor.”

The front page of the June 8, 2023, edition of the Harvey County Now newspaper
The entrance web page of the June 8, 2023, version of the Harvey County Now newspaper. (Submitted)

The paper organized subject journeys, like one to a brewery in a neighboring city. It negotiated reductions and even straight-up tradeouts, like one which gave them entry to tickets to occasions at The Cotillion, a Wichita venue that hosts concert events. Press Membership members can request tickets for a present and, as a membership profit, the paper may have them ready on the will name window. 

A cope with the Wichita Wind Surge, a minor league baseball group, gave the paper use of a 25-person suite for 2 summer time nights. It proved to be a win-win: Readers stuffed the suite simply for each nights, whereas the group’s promoting promoted Wind Surge video games to Newton residents as a straightforward household getaway. 

Heading into this yr’s September Blues, Brews & Barbecue, Younger estimates the paper was maybe $15,000 within the black on the venture — not counting the $10,000 grant for his or her participation within the venture, which they obtained no matter whether or not they made or misplaced cash with the initiatives. It drew a smaller crowd than previous years because it bumped up towards different native occasions, he says, and doubtless netted “a pair thousand {dollars}.” 

Though Harvey County Now was worthwhile going into the experiment, Younger can’t say for sure the prosperity would have continued with out instituting the adjustments. Huge value will increase round printing — paper and postage prices alone rose 47% between 2020 and 2022, and extra will increase are on the horizon — have made him envious of online-only publications. So he put the query to readers in January: Would you think about not taking the printed paper, in favor of on-line entry? 9 out of 10 responses mentioned no; cost us extra, however we wish print.

And so Younger hit on an answer. He doubled the paper’s annual subscription charge to $120. The choice grew out of a re-examination of prices that confirmed they had been basically charging a greenback and alter for a product that value somewhat greater than $3 a replica to supply.

In early June, the paper made its case to readers in a front-page story. The response was an enormous groundswell of assist. Younger took a number of the sting out of the value bump by including a major perk: Each subscriber on the new worth mechanically turned a member of Press Membership.

“That is the factor that’s by no means occurred, I believe, within the historical past of enterprise,” Younger says. “We doubled our worth and we obtained tons of reward for it. Individuals had been like, ‘Do what you bought to do. We love the newspaper, hold doing what you’re doing.’ However I don’t know that we’d have felt comfy doing that with out Press Membership.” 

He figures the important thing takeaway from his expertise for different rural weeklies is that “should you’re nonetheless charging $35 a yr for a printed paper, it’s time to extend.”

Finneman places it one other means.

“Newspaper publishers have gotten to cease being afraid of their readers,” she says, “and simply be clear and have a traditional dialog.” 

Joey Younger, far proper, mingles with members of Harvey County Now’s Press Membership, a perk that comes with subscribing to the weekly paper, at a Wichita Wind Surge minor league baseball recreation final month in Wichita. The paper traded promoting area to be used of a collection on the video games, after which used the suite to host a social occasion for subscribers. (Picture by Lindsey Younger, Harvey County Now)

An adaptable mannequin?

Can the leads to Newton, Kansas, be exported west, to rural weeklies in Colorado? Or throughout the nation?

Completely, Finneman says, although every publication may select a barely completely different or perhaps a scaled-down method. She and her co-authors are compiling their findings right into a guide, “Reviving Rural Information,” to be launched early subsequent yr. 

In the meantime, Younger and all three researchers are making the rounds talking to state newspaper associations and different teams — Ferrucci lately spoke to the Colorado Press Affiliation at its annual gathering in Denver — to current their findings and a mannequin that, with variations, may be adopted on a broader scale.

“In the event that they wish to begin small, possibly a membership means charging an additional $30 for a subscription and also you give them a espresso mug,” Finneman says. “It may be easy. If folks wish to begin small, begin small so that you’re not overwhelmed and go from there.”

The important thing, she provides, is knowing the neighborhood and what it cares about. 

“And it’s the newspaper editor who’s going to know that higher than anyone else,” she says, “what their hole is, and the way they could be a service group and attempt to fill it.”

Younger acknowledges that his circumstances put him in a greater place to benefit from newer enterprise practices than a lot of the different publishers of rural weeklies he is aware of. He and Lindsey are each comparatively younger and targeted on investing sooner or later — “taking large swings,” as he says — not formulating an exit technique towards retirement.

He additionally benefited from a possibility to broaden his media properties — his Kansas Publishing Ventures additionally owns two different small weeklies and provides full-scale advertising companies — because of a retiring writer, Joel Klaassen, who was so impressed with what Younger was doing in Newton that he personally carried the word that allowed Younger to buy his holdings with no cash down.

“I’m actually appreciative that he did make that gamble,” Younger says, “as a result of it permits Lindsey and I to do a number of the stuff that we’re doing. Plenty of publishers are drained they usually’re able to retire. And actually I don’t blame them. The final 20 years in journalism haven’t precisely been a stroll within the park they usually undoubtedly had it means worse than their predecessors.”

Rural weeklies, he notes, don’t simply have a income downside. They’ve additionally obtained a demographic downside. He estimates he fields about six calls a yr from older publishers who wish to promote him their newspapers “as a result of I’m the token younger man.”

Finneman provides that what retains her awake at night time is the various small papers run by publishers approaching retirement and unable to search out native consumers, a subsequent technology to proceed a convention of neighborhood journalism. 

“So there actually is a giant disconnect in attempting to get younger journalists out into these rural areas, and to indicate them the alternatives that exist there,” Finneman says. “I believe it’s a giant, large problem.”

Younger, who left a Kansas neighborhood faculty to be taught journalism on the job at small papers, has sought to offer not less than a partial resolution. He and Lindsey created a web based coaching course known as “Earn Your Press Cross” — a program accessible via the Colorado Press Affiliation. It advances the technique of coaching younger locals already invested in the neighborhood however not saddled with faculty debt to be taught the fundamentals of neighborhood journalism, and ultimately be mentored by present publishers on the enterprise facet of the operation.

Within the meantime, Younger and the employees at Harvey County Now will benefit from the financial wins that put a number of thousand {dollars} into the corporate and superb tune what they’ve already completed. 

“Possibly if we will actually nail this factor over the course of a few years, any individual will be capable of cherry-pick what works for his or her writer,” he says. “We’re already having a few of these conversations about what we wish to tweak. Possibly in a couple of years, what we find yourself with may be an answer for another newsrooms — or they hear what we’re doing after which they’ve a billion higher concepts. 

 “However I believe it’s essential for any individual to begin doing one thing.”

Locals get able to get pleasure from a live performance on the annual Blues, Brews & Barbecue occasion hosted by Harvey County Now in Newton, Kansas. In a rural space with restricted leisure alternatives, the paper sought to fill the hole with meals and a dwell live performance — whereas additionally turning a revenue on the occasion. (Lindsey Younger, Harvey County Now)