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Economy

The Shawnee Mission Post Introduces Its Model For Local News

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Frank Morris
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KCUR 89.3
Publisher Jay Senter leads a planning session on how to expand news coverage in 2020

Over the past decade, the number of newspaper reporters has dropped by half. But in Johnson County, Kansas, one news site is bucking the trend, adding reporters and subscribers.

The Shawnee Mission Post, which covers about a quarter-million people from a small house on a tree-lined street in Prairie Village is on track to triple the size of its newsroom by embracing the much-maligned paywall.

“The first year we made $500," recalls Julia Westhoff, director of sales and subscriptions, standing in her sunny living room. "I don't know how many tens of people read the site.”

As the tiny, web-only publication gained a foothold over the past decade, other newspapers bit the dust, including the Johnson County Sun.

Penny Muse Abernathy at the University of North Carolina says “news deserts” have spread across the country.

“What is at stake is our democracy itself, and we all have a stake in whatever replaces the 20th-century version of the newspaper," Abernathy says.

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Credit Frank Morris
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Julia Westhoff, director of sales and subscriptions at the Shawnee Mission Post, discusses social media strategy at a meeting with reporter Leah Wankum.

The old newspaper model relied on print advertising to generate about 70% of revenue. Newspaper executives once thought digital advertising would replace print advertising. For their part, online-only publishers, operating with much lower overhead, also thought digital ads would sustain their work.

Abernathy says they were both wrong.

“Most of these digital sites are started by journalists who work 80 hours a week and have not thought through how to navigate the revenue that's needed,” says Abernathy. “You've got to do something to kind of get ahead of the eight ball here.”

That is the position the Shawnee Mission Post publisher Jay Senter found himself in three years ago.

“We were working ourselves pretty close to death,” he remembers, “and barely paying ourselves enough to make ends meet.”

A different model

In a last-ditch effort, he decided to try putting up a paywall, charging readers after a limited number of stories.

“We had tried everything we could think of to avoid having to take that move,” says Senter.

He thought it would most likely kill the Shawnee Mission Post.

“We were probably going to have to shut it down because the norm was not that you pay for local news at that point,” Senter says.

But the paywall worked. One by one, people typed in their credit card numbers. Senter even raised the price.

Now, with more than 2,700 subscribers shelling out up to $72 a year, Senter says the site is at a turning point.

“We're in a totally different position now,” Senter told his growing staff a recent meeting. “As of this year, we will make more money from subscribers than we do from advertising.”

In fact, Senter is cutting the amount of space on the site devoted to advertising. A the same time, the Shawnee Mission Post is bringing on a second full-time reporter and planning to hire a third by summer.

A 'sea change'

This kind of thing isn’t happening just in Prairie Village.

“There has been a sea change from advertising dependence to subscription dependence,” says Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of the Lenfest Institute, a nonprofit that helps news organizations develop new business models.

Friedlich says leading national newspapers have been relying primarily on subscriptions, not ads, for years, and he says the change has improved coverage.

“If you are first and foremost seeking eyeballs and scale for advertisers, you're more likely to focus on cat videos and the Kardashians.”

On the other hand, Friedlich says, focusing on subscribers often means doubling down on local governments, public schools and noteworthy people in the community.

Senter heartily agrees.

“I'm super evangelical about this idea," says Senter. "When your readers are the ones that are supporting you and you're incentivized to sort of serve them and provide them with the product that they want, there are a lot of them out there who are going to keep coming in.”

No perfect model

Of course, there can be a downside to giving people the news they want. It can create a feedback loop.

If subscribers tend to share a particular point of view on a public policy debate, they may expect to see that perspective represented in the publication they are paying for, possibly at the expense of countervailing facts or opinions.

So, there’s no perfect funding model. Senter freely admits that relying on subscribers probably wouldn’t work in a small town, or even in less affluent parts of the Kansas City area.

“I am surprised and incredibly heartened by the fact that we've been able to figure out how to make this work here,” says Senter.

“But it's kinda like we're a, you know, a sapling sticking out of the ashes of a forest fire.”

The Shawnee Mission Post isn’t the only one. Across the country, a few other suburban news sites are thriving on subscription revenue while other news organizations are bringing in money from special events, donations and grants.

As Senter is quick to point out, none of this makes up for the collapse of so many print newsrooms. But if these new funding models expand local coverage, that is good news for everyone.

Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.

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