I always say that I was born to be in newspapers. I was the only leap-year baby born in Bermuda that year so the local newspaper did a little blurb on the front page about my birth. And just like that, I made my first cut.
As a kid, I wanted to be a professional athlete. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and from a young age, I was passionate about sports, watching almost every sport and trying to play as many sports as possible. During my teenage years, I realized I was interested in journalism, and what I really wanted to do was cover stories related to sports.
I worked for the student newspaper and gravitated toward the sports department. That was how I got into journalism. And from then on, kind of everything I did was oriented toward preparing for that career.
Steering Towards Hardcore Journalism
I attended Washington & Lee University, which at the time was one of only two colleges in the state that had a journalism program. But it did not have a big sports program so I realized I needed to broaden my horizons a bit. After the first year, I started doing regular news writing and that evolved into me being a general news reporter.
After my second year in college, I was lucky to get an internship in the feature writing department of the local newspaper in Richmond. Toward the end of my undergraduate years, I developed an interest in business and took several business classes. To pursue this further, I enrolled in the MBA night program at the University of Richmond, juggling it with my full-time job.
The First of Many Stories - The Making of a Journalist
As an intern, you're usually assigned stories that nobody else wants. But I'll never forget on a Saturday morning, a tractor-trailer overturned and caught fire, and the editor and very few people worked on a Saturday morning. And so the editor on duty sent me out to cover this story.
There were no cell phones back in those days. It was probably 20 or 30 minutes away from the office. We were on a deadline. I had to find a payphone and call in a story from the scene. This gave me a sneak peek of the other side of the spectrum.
Striking A Balance Between Empathy And Accuracy
It is important to be empathetic, but also cover stories accurately. Every young journalist should have to cover such stories that build these skills, at least for a short period of time.
One of the responsibilities I had after I was hired full-time was to help out with obituaries. We were an afternoon newspaper, so work began at 06:00 AM. Since this was the pre-internet era, we had to confirm and verify a lot of the information about the people who were deceased, which required trying to find contact information for their families and calling them up at 07:00 or 08:00 in the morning when they were already having a terrible time.
One had to be sympathetic, yet make sure that you got all the information accurately because people cut the obituaries out of the paper and save them. So the importance of being empathetic, but also the importance of accuracy, was really just drilled into you in that position.
Building An Online ‘Story-Budgeting’ Tool
I worked for a company that owned about 25 newspapers across six or seven states in the US. It was my responsibility to work with the newsrooms and encourage them to collaborate and share content with each other. An article that appeared in one paper might be of interest to readers of another paper, but they needed to have a way to share it back and forth.
We gained NAA's News Tech magazine recognition for building a ‘story-budgeting’ tool.
To facilitate collaboration, we needed a way to let the newsrooms know what their counterpart newsrooms were working on before it was published. And so that's how the story budgeting tool came to be. We built a system that allowed the newspapers to share the content essentially it allowed the newsrooms to see what was being published by our reporters.
In the early 2000s, this was complex. You could accomplish the same thing today in a Google sheet or a Slack channel. But at that time, neither of these existed.
Shifting From Legacy To Digital
What works online doesn't necessarily work in print, and vice versa. Many news organizations just take what's in the newspaper and add it to the website. Our online readers want to know what's going on right now. Our print readers want a more leaned-back, relaxed experience, maybe a little more in-depth. It has to be nicely presented with photos and graphics and sidebars and boxes, whereas online, it's just one column.
Even advertising is a different experience. A print ad can have a lot more detail than a digital ad because people are going to look at that print ad, they can come back to it, and can turn the page.
In a digital ad, you have a split second to catch somebody's attention until it's gone. So you have to have something that's really eye-catching.
A Decline In The Daily Newspaper
We publish weekly newspapers. Printing and delivering a newspaper every single day is an incredibly expensive proposition. News organizations are figuring that out and adapting accordingly.
People still like the print experience, just not every day.
Our lifestyles have gotten so hectic, and there are so many distractions that the daily newspaper doesn't really fit in that model for most folks. Despite working in daily newspapers for 26 years, which I love, the web is now the daily paper. It's the 5 o’clock news. It's everything rolled into one.
Building The Parent Company's Fastest-Growing Digital Business, InsideNoVa
One of the challenges was that we were in a huge market, especially when you are in Washington, D.C., which has the Washington Post, an internationally known newspaper. One of the biggest challenges is getting brand awareness. The InsideNoVa website was actually created in 2003, so it's almost 20 years old, and for the first 10 years, we were basically in just one part of the market.
Getting the word out there has been a big challenge, and we don't have a big marketing budget to do that with.
When we bought it in the current iteration 10 years ago, we started expanding it to cover the rest of the market in Northern Virginia. There are a lot of other sources of news and information out there. People don't know what InsideNoVa is until they see it.
Building Brand Awareness
A lot of it is partnerships with other news organizations – for example, the largest radio station in the DMA picks up our content, uses some of it on their radio broadcasts, and posts it on their website, with attribution to us. We do a lot of guerrilla marketing where we get involved in local and regional organizations and sponsor events.
Media And Publisher Business Models Are Evolving
Donations To Support Local Journalism
At InsideNoVa we started a voluntary membership program late last fall - we do not have a paywall. We have provided options where one can pay monthly, annually, or make a one-time contribution.
Members who join get special newsletters periodically that contain information with site links to some stories they might have missed and some updates on things we're going to be covering over the next month. We're going to try to put together virtual events for members, and we offer them tickets to events and other incentives.
Membership During The Pandemic - Local Journalism On A High
The pandemic caused our advertising revenue to plummet overnight, but one silver lining was that readership just jumped enormously. People wanted news and information and they wanted to know what was going on. They didn't care what the pandemic was doing in California. They needed to know local information - What's happening with the schools; do I have to wear a mask in my area; when are vaccines going to be available here? This is where we shined.
We set records for readership online and a lot of those folks have stayed with us. People have realized that local journalism is important. Even if it's only $5 a month, it's something worth paying for.
Supporting Local Events
So many publishers are trying so many different things. It's sort of like throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks. One of the things that we've had some success with is, for example, event ticketing. Our ticketing platform allows local organizations or venues that have local events to sell their tickets.
Leveraging a large audience but in ways other than traditional display advertising is going to be very important.
We provide marketing for ticketed events at no cost to our audience. So we're leveraging our big audience to deliver a solution to help a local event or a local venue (that probably doesn't have a marketing budget, or may only have a very small marketing budget) promote their events by providing that ticketing service.
We have had a lot of success with email newsletters and marketing emails. We have over 90,000 email subscribers. We send daily headlines and weekend summaries of news, and send out marketing emails to our advertisers. In fact, September is sold out.
Push Notifications To The Rescue
Push notifications have been very helpful in growing our audience base. Every time we have a piece of breaking news, it is a reminder of how impactful push notifications really are. We have about 90,000 push notification subscribers for InsideNoVa. We have about 110,000 Facebook followers, and we make sure everything of significance that is up on the website is up on Facebook as well.
But of those 110,000 followers on Facebook, the average post on Facebook is only seen by maybe 10,000 to 15,000. So what I tell our editors is when you do a push notification, it's going to 90,000 subscribers. They're all going to see it. That's nine times the audience of the average Facebook post.
Decrease dependency on the walled gardens. Engage and retarget users with relevant notifications. Learn More.
Questions You Need To Ask Yourself
Typically, as a small company with limited resources, you have to think very carefully about what makes sense for our staff, what we have the bandwidth to manage, and what makes sense for our market. Is there something that's already available in our market that other people are offering, that may be doing a better job? Then why would we do that? We need to kind of look for things that we can do, that don't require a ton of management bandwidth and so forth.
Third-Party Cookie Deprecation And Its Impact On News And Media Publishers
As news organizations, we should know who our customers are. We should know who's coming to our websites. In the old days of newspapers, we knew the name, address, and phone number of everybody who subscribed to the newspaper. There's no reason that we can't figure out how to know that about the people who are coming to our websites and leverage that information way better than non-publishers or pseudo-news publishers. I think there's a huge opportunity there for the news industry in that transition.
Advice To Youngsters
- You can take as many journalism classes or even get your Master's, but nothing can replace actually getting out there and interviewing people, covering events and writing stories, getting them professionally edited, and getting that feedback. It's one of those professions that you learn best by doing.
If you don't get an internship, contact your local newspaper, website, or TV station and offer to do some freelancing. We will take folks in our market who want to do freelancing and put them to work.
The most recent full-time hire on our news team literally started just kind of picking up a story here and there as a freelancer. And then he evolved into a part-time role and did such a good job that it was an easy decision to make him full-time once a position opened up. He has a Master's degree in journalism too, which is great. But if he hadn't done the freelancing, we wouldn't have really known what he could do. So that's really critical.
- In this day and age, there's no specialization. You need to be able to write. You need to be able to take pictures. You need to be able to shoot videos. You need to be able to record audio. You should know how to edit video and audio. You should know because all those skills are going to be necessary in order for us to have a complete news report online.
The News Industry In 10 Years
There is going to be a continued decline in the daily newspaper. I think a lot of mid-tier daily newspapers in the US are going to become weekly or two or three times a week at most, and they're going to become more digitally focused.
At the same time, the awareness of the need for community journalism and the attention that's been paid to communities that don't have a local media outlet is going to increase – these are called news deserts. I think this will hopefully lead to a rise of some startups, and some new ideas in local journalism. Maybe they're non–profits, or maybe they're community funded somehow, but I certainly hope there are going to be some efforts to fill those local journalism voids.
There are a number of efforts to help the local journalism industry work more closely with the Google and Facebook of the world, who have benefited from our content. There are a number of efforts along those lines. I think to their credit, Google and Facebook understand the importance of local journalism not only to the ecosystem and to democracy here in this country, but to their products as well. And so I think there's going to be more effort along those lines to figure out what that looks like and how those big tech companies can continue to support the important work that local journalism does.
We might also see a kind of less delineation between platforms. We started as a newspaper, now we're a website. We could almost be a TV station if we wanted to. There are some efforts toward whether we should be called a news publisher or something like that because the number of people opting for newspapers is decreasing.