When University of Kansas journalism professor Teri Finneman needed a free spirit willing to experiment with some new twists to an ancient business model, she didn’t have to look far. And when Joey Young, the 38-year-old owner of the weekly Harvey County Now in south-central Kansas, fielded her request, he didn’t have to think long.
The paper, with a little more than 3,000 subscribers in Newton, about a half-hour north of Wichita, has held its own since Young and his wife, Lindsey, started it nine years ago. But he recognized an industry in crisis.
He has bucked the trend of more than 2,000 local publications that have disappeared in recent years into the crevices of a shifting media landscape. But he also knows that the traditional, centuries-old economic foundation of traditional newspapers has developed worrisome cracks.
The phenomenon of disappearing newspapers isn’t new, but its persistent and worrisome trajectory has prompted concern and attention not only from the industry, but also from academia. An onslaught of mis- and disinformation in public discourse has made it easy to connect the dots of newspapers’ decline with the feverish social and political temperature of the times.
Final Edition: Saving Local News
This story is the second in a three-part series from The Colorado Sun examining the state of local news and those working to keep their communities informed even after some long-time newspapers have disappeared.
Previously: While many small-town newspapers are vanishing, these Coloradans are working to keep local news alive.
Coming Tuesday: While so many small towns are losing their newspapers, Westcliffe has two — both thriving, both making money, both all in on a newspaper war.
The sea change in newsgathering has presented challenges to publishers and, by extension, to democracy itself — raising the stakes for solving the economic and technological barriers to sustainability. Young could see the problems all around him. He was game to be part of the solution.
The request came from a trusted source. Finneman, who teaches two and a half hours down the road in Lawrence, first approached him as she prepared to collaborate with two other researchers — Patrick Ferrucci at the University of Colorado and Nick Mathews at the University of Missouri — to examine the outdated business practices at rural weeklies and explore newer options for generating revenue.
Their plan was to survey weekly newspaper publishers and their readers in rural areas of the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska, gauging attitudes toward the staid formula of subscriptions and advertising versus openness to less traditional options, like events, membership models and e-newsletters. But they lacked one critical element to advance their findings beyond the realm of academia and offer real-world solutions — solutions that could be adapted elsewhere, like Colorado and other regions suffering the same industry malaise.
A guinea pig.
“Long story short, the reason Teri calls me is because I’m young and I have a reputation for doing out-of-the-box things,” Young says. “Most publishers in our state are really good people, but they’re aging and they’re concerned about how they’re going to retire and they’re protecting their assets. We were all like, screw it, let’s swing for the fences.”
So he was receptive when Finneman broached the idea of having Harvey County Now road test a few twists on the old business model. A $10,000 grant as a hedge against losses sweetened the deal.
Most publishers in our state are really good people, but they’re aging and they’re concerned about how they’re going to retire and they’re protecting their assets. We were all like, screw it, let’s swing for the fences.
— Joe Young, 38-year-old owner of Harvey County Now
And so, about 14 months ago, Young pushed ahead with three concepts. One, a focus on creating live events to provide more local social options, was an idea the paper had already begun to try with its annual Blues, Brews & Barbecue outdoor festival. Similarly, the paper had started looking into the second element, e-newsletters delivered between regular weekly print editions. So that, too, was an easy sell.
Perhaps most significantly, the paper ventured into selling memberships, a value-added option that entitles paid members to join monthly “mingles” (from beer and snacks to bourbon tasting at a member’s home) and attend a variety of social events, from suite access to minor-league baseball games in Wichita to concert tickets at multiple venues — all within a strategy that dodges cash outlay in favor of advertising tradeouts.
Would locals respond favorably to efforts that went beyond traditional subscriptions that put the print product in their mailbox? Before Young and his staff implemented any of this, the three researchers first needed to complete their deep dive into the thinking of the publishers fighting strong economic headwinds in the industry — and their readers.
What they discovered was a profound disconnect.
Not listening to the audience
Their surveys revealed that while most publishers clung to a traditional business model that dates to the 19th century — cheap print subscriptions augmented by advertising — their readers, mindful of a small-town paper’s role in civic life, said they’d also support other strategies, like in-person events, membership models and e-newsletters. Some were even willing to make cash donations.
And while those results provide a glimmer of hope for economic growth, publishers squander that potential when they fail to act on readers’ willingness to embrace new initiatives, the study concluded.
“In some ways, we found real hostility toward change, kind of like a brushing off of what the audience wants,” says co-author Ferrucci, chair and associate professor in CU’s journalism department. Other publishers said that while the ideas sounded good, they didn’t have the time or know-how to institute those kinds of changes.
But readers indicated they’re ready. While print editions remain popular, even older respondents explained the attraction of e-newsletters in terms of an urgent need for information, turbo-charged by the COVID pandemic: In a fast-moving world, once-a-week news just isn’t enough.
In-person events that foster familiarity with local journalists, the researchers found, could pay an additional dividend. For instance, in South Dakota, 65% of readers who personally knew a journalist said they’d be willing to pay beyond a subscription, while only 26.5% of those who didn’t know a local reporter said they would.
“When we get news and information from our friends, we tend to trust it,” says Mathews, an assistant professor at Missouri. “If you happen to know the journalist, you have a higher interest in the news that they create.”
But publishers of the weeklies seemed largely committed to traditional models when perhaps they don’t need to be.
“Readers are a little bit more progressive,” Mathews says. “They’re willing to say that we’re interested in events. We’re interested in newsletters. We’re interested in potential membership models. They’re willing and interested to provide news organizations revenue in different vehicles than the news organizations themselves are even willing to try.”
In some ways, we found real hostility toward change, kind of like a brushing off of what the audience wants.
— Patrick Ferrucci, researcher at the University of Colorado
The study notes that publishers’ tendency to cling to those traditional models reflects an “almost intractable devotion” to the old revenue model. Some operate in “survival mode,” fearing any significant adjustments to the way they do business could be fatal. Or worse, they’re complacent, figuring any current but fragile stability will continue indefinitely.
With rising printing costs, that’s not a viable strategy, Mathews says. Without adjustments, without diversifying their revenue sources — a huge ask for many hidebound small publishers — they could be doomed to become another statistic.
The study of rural weeklies, spanning four states and 400 local residents, still presented some reasons for optimism. Rural readers want more information, not less. They want more connection with their news organizations, not less. And — this is a big one — they seem eager to potentially give publishers more money.
Armed with that information, the researchers moved to the next phase of their study. They crafted a business model based on the survey results, augmented by focus groups with publishers. They settled on a framework of memberships, e-newsletters and events, even though their survey had indicated readers also would gladly offer donations if their local paper was struggling.
But publishers so adamantly rejected the perceived charity that the researchers dropped it from the model.
Harvey County Now competes with The Newton Kansan, a thrice-weekly paper owned by New Jersey-based CherryRoad Media, a subsidiary of a technology company that specializes in rural weeklies, including a few in Colorado. Harvey County Now wasn’t in crisis, at least not yet. In fact, it boasts a larger newsroom than its rival. But increases in postal rates, paper, ink and printing costs meant that a reckoning loomed on the horizon.
“They decided to be proactive, act on it now and do something rather than get to the point of so many newspapers we’ve seen where it’s just simply too late to save it,” Finneman says. “So I really give them props for their bravery for recognizing this.”
A success story
At Harvey County Now, sending out e-newsletters in between regular publishing days, and attracting sponsorships for them, proved a phenomenal success. They not only fed readers’ desire for more frequent news, but also generated advertising and metrics on what stories readers really cared about. That data informed newsroom strategy.
In-person events, from the Blues, Brews & Barbecue gathering to outings to Wichita baseball games, filled a big gap in a community looking for more social options. The paper tied those events, financed largely by business sponsorships and tradeouts, to a membership model they dubbed Press Club.
Memberships prove popular, Finneman says, because they’re ubiquitous. From gym memberships to Netflix to Amazon Prime, people understand the concept and value. For the newspaper, it was just a matter of modernizing the terminology and thinking about how it could bring in additional revenue by offering a sense of exclusivity.
It’s really good to show people that we’re just like they are and we’ll sit around and drink beers and listen to blues music and do cool stuff in the community. And we’re really just your neighbor.
— Joey young, owner of Harvey county now
The paper charged double the annual subscription rate to join Press Club. Then it cobbled together a variety of benefits, like monthly mingles to bring readers together but also to help them get to know the staff — five reporters cover the town of 20,000 — and foster a shared sense of community.
“Anytime you can make journalists human, I think it’s really important, especially in a red state,” Young says. “We had a president for four years tell everybody that we should be locked up and we’re enemies of the public. It’s really good to show people that we’re just like they are and we’ll sit around and drink beers and listen to blues music and do cool stuff in the community. And we’re really just your neighbor.”
The paper organized field trips, like one to a brewery in a neighboring town. It negotiated discounts or even straight-up tradeouts, like one that gave them access to tickets to events at The Cotillion, a Wichita venue that hosts concerts. Press Club members can request tickets for a show and, as a membership benefit, the paper will have them waiting at the will call window.
A deal with the Wichita Wind Surge, a minor league baseball team, gave the paper use of a 25-person suite for two summer nights. It proved to be a win-win: Readers filled the suite easily for both nights, while the team’s advertising promoted Wind Surge games to Newton residents as an easy family getaway.
Heading into this year’s September Blues, Brews & Barbecue, Young estimates the paper was perhaps $15,000 in the black on the project — not counting the $10,000 grant for their participation in the project, which they got regardless of whether they made or lost money with the initiatives. It drew a smaller crowd than past years as it bumped up against other local events, he says, and probably netted “a couple thousand dollars.”
Although Harvey County Now was profitable going into the experiment, Young can’t say for certain the prosperity would have continued without instituting the changes. Massive cost increases around printing — paper and postage costs alone rose 47% between 2020 and 2022, and more increases are on the horizon — have made him envious of online-only publications. So he put the question to readers in January: Would you consider not taking the printed paper, in favor of online access? Nine out of 10 responses said no; charge us more, but we want print.
And so Young hit on a solution. He doubled the paper’s annual subscription rate to $120. The decision grew out of a re-examination of costs that showed they were essentially charging a dollar and change for a product that cost a little more than $3 a copy to produce.
In early June, the paper made its case to readers in a front-page story. The response was a huge groundswell of support. Young took some of the sting out of the price bump by adding a significant perk: Every subscriber at the new price automatically became a member of Press Club.
“This is the thing that’s never happened, I think, in the history of business,” Young says. “We doubled our price and we got tons of praise for it. People were like, ‘Do what you got to do. We love the newspaper, keep doing what you’re doing.’ But I don’t know that we would have felt comfortable doing that without Press Club.”
He figures the key takeaway from his experience for other rural weeklies is that “if you’re still charging $35 a year for a printed paper, it’s time to increase.”
Finneman puts it another way.
“Newspaper publishers have got to stop being afraid of their readers,” she says, “and just be transparent and have a normal conversation.”
An adaptable model?
Can the results in Newton, Kansas, be exported west, to rural weeklies in Colorado? Or across the country?
Absolutely, Finneman says, though each publication might choose a slightly different or even a scaled-down approach. She and her co-authors are compiling their findings into a book, “Reviving Rural News,” to be released early next year.
Meanwhile, Young and all three researchers are making the rounds speaking to state newspaper associations and other groups — Ferrucci recently spoke to the Colorado Press Association at its annual gathering in Denver — to present their findings and a model that, with variations, might be adopted on a broader scale.
“If they want to start small, maybe a membership means charging an extra $30 for a subscription and you give them a coffee mug,” Finneman says. “It can be simple. If people want to start small, start small so you’re not overwhelmed and go from there.”
The key, she adds, is understanding the community and what it cares about.
“And it’s the newspaper editor who’s going to know that better than anybody else,” she says, “what their gap is, and how they can be a service organization and try to fill it.”
Young acknowledges that his circumstances put him in a better position to take advantage of newer business practices than most of the other publishers of rural weeklies he knows. He and Lindsey are both relatively young and focused on investing in the future — “taking big swings,” as he says — not formulating an exit strategy toward retirement.
He also benefited from an opportunity to expand his media properties — his Kansas Publishing Ventures also owns two other small weeklies and offers full-scale marketing services — thanks to a retiring publisher, Joel Klaassen, who was so impressed with what Young was doing in Newton that he personally carried the note that allowed Young to purchase his holdings with no money down.
“I’m really appreciative that he did make that gamble,” Young says, “because it allows Lindsey and I to do some of the stuff that we’re doing. A lot of publishers are tired and they’re ready to retire. And honestly I don’t blame them. The last 20 years in journalism have not exactly been a walk in the park and they definitely had it way worse than their predecessors.”
Rural weeklies, he notes, don’t just have a revenue problem. They’ve also got a demographic problem. He estimates he fields about six calls a year from older publishers who want to sell him their newspapers “because I’m the token young guy.”
Finneman adds that what keeps her awake at night is the many small papers run by publishers approaching retirement and unable to find local buyers, a next generation to continue a tradition of community journalism.
“So there really is a big disconnect in trying to get young journalists out into these rural areas, and to show them the opportunities that exist there,” Finneman says. “I think it’s a big, big challenge.”
Young, who left a Kansas community college to learn journalism on the job at small papers, has sought to provide at least a partial solution. He and Lindsey created an online training course called “Earn Your Press Pass” — a program available through the Colorado Press Association. It advances the strategy of training young locals already invested in the community but not saddled with college debt to learn the basics of community journalism, and eventually be mentored by current publishers on the business side of the operation.
In the meantime, Young and the staff at Harvey County Now will enjoy the economic wins that put several thousand dollars into the company and fine tune what they’ve already accomplished.
“Maybe if we can really nail this thing over the course of a couple of years, somebody will be able to cherry-pick what works for their publisher,” he says. “We’re already having some of those conversations about what we want to tweak. Maybe in a few years, what we end up with might be a solution for some other newsrooms — or they hear what we’re doing and then they have a billion better ideas.
“But I think it’s important for somebody to start doing something.”