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This business model could save the Midwest's weekly newspapers

The Kansas Weekly Herald, Vol. 1, #1 was printed on September 15, 1854 in Leavenworth, Kansas and was the first newspaper in the state.
Kansas Historical Society
The Kansas Weekly Herald, Vol. 1, #1 was printed on September 15, 1854 in Leavenworth, Kansas, and was the first newspaper in the state.

Relying less on ads and subscriptions and more on memberships and tiered benefits may allow rural weeklies to keep reporting local news.

These days, most people consume the news online — and that has been a disaster for newspapers that run on a business model little changed since colonial times.

That lack of change has come with devastating results. During the pandemic, more than 100 local newsrooms shut down, according to The Poynter Institute. In fact, since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have shuttered, including 1,700 weeklies.

Hope for these mostly rural publications — often serving populations of a just few thousand — may lie in a new project led by the University of Kansas. Based on surveys in Great Plains states that asked publishers which revenue streams they preferred and readers what content they wanted to read, researchers came up with a model for non-traditional means of generating income.

Teri Finneman, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, says the pandemic drove home the importance of these small, local publications.

"This was a time when it was absolutely critical to have a local newspaper. There was no other way to get this critically important information you needed about the pandemic," Finneman says.

One publisher ready to give the new model a try is Joey Young, owner and publisher of Kansas Publishing Ventures. He bought his first paper 10 years ago at age 27. Even then, he was not happy with the subscription and advertising income model.

"I don't think that's typical of my industry right now," Young admits, but as a business looking for new revenue sources "having streams from multiple rivers is better than one."

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