Editor’s Note: The monthly milestone column is published on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s Sept. 2, 2008 launch. It’s a chance for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication.
There’s something hopeful about an empty notebook.
It’s all about possibilities – events that haven’t yet happened, wonky statements that haven’t yet been recorded. Blank pages don’t yet contain anything that’s indecipherable or uninspiring. All of that is still to come – for now, it’s pristine pages, and no shortage of them.
I just stocked up on a pile of new notebooks for The Chronicle. They’re made by local artisan Kate Kehoe, who fashions them from recycled paper and old movie video boxes. I take a perverse pleasure in doing a serious interview while writing in a Hellraiser III notebook.
Notebooks – empty and full – are a good way to think about starting the new year.
The notebooks for 2009 are now full. And in our first calendar year as a publication, we recorded our own share of unanticipated events. The closing of the Ann Arbor News last year was a story that attracted national interest, with journalists and others who were curious and concerned about what was happening in this market. Because of that, we received some national attention, too – so notes about The Chronicle were jotted down in other reporters’ notebooks as well, from New York to California.
It’s been odd, frankly, to be on the receiving end of interviews, whether in print and on camera. Participating in a broader conversation about how to save an entire industry, while at the same time worrying about what you’ll be publishing tomorrow or if anyone will buy another ad, can create a strange sense of disconnect.
Thankfully, local businesses and organizations have continued to buy ads, and in 2009 we reached the milestone of being able to support ourselves, modestly, from Chronicle revenue. We’ve given a lot of thought about how to continue to do that. Our motto has always been “make a living, not a killing.” While we would love to see ventures like ours emerge in other communities, but we aren’t interested in empire building.
We are interested in finding a sustainable way to allow continuation and expansion of our coverage – and maybe, at some blessed day in the future, a vacation. Even better if it’s a model that others can use to start a similar publication in their own town. But what exactly is that model?
Stones vs. Boulders
Because this is a milestone message, a different analogy from notebooks also seems apt: Building a business with stones versus boulders. When you rely on just a few boulders, you’ll topple if one of them rolls away. Smaller stones can’t sustain you by themselves. But build a foundation with a few thousand stones, and you won’t be as vulnerable if you lose a few now and then.
The analogy of readers to stones is not perfect, I’ll grant you. But our decision to put up a voluntary subscription option soon after we launched was motivated by readers who told us that they, as individuals, wanted to add their weight of financial support to our publication.
And that prompted us to begin thinking about what it is we are selling. In our October 2009 monthly milestone, Chronicle editor Dave Askins put it this way:
Here at The Chronicle, I’d like to think that what gets “sold” is journalism. Many of our advertisers support us because they believe in the kind of journalism we’re providing – we’re extremely grateful for their support. And a couple hundred readers have “bought” the journalism we have on offer through voluntarily sending us some money. …
The fact that many readers have already voluntarily set for themselves an amount they contribute as a subscription fee each and every month is a testament to the fact that people will buy what we’re selling. In retrospect, we might have thought more seriously at the outset about the idea of “selling journalism.”
It’s fair to say that right now, we have a small (and much appreciated!) pile of stones, relative to the boulders of our local advertisers. Don’t get me wrong: We are very thankful for those boulders – without their support, we wouldn’t be here.
But a more sustainable model would be to add a strong foundation of readers, those who value our work enough to support it directly.
That’s obviously not a novel approach – readers are accustomed to paying for print subscriptions. But subscription fees typically make up only a small percentage of total revenue for mainstream newspapers or magazines. In that case, subscribers are valuable in part as leverage with advertisers, who are willing to pay for access to as many potential customers as possible.
What’s trickier about purely online publications like ours is the culture of universal online access. And we’re not unique in having to grapple with this issue. The discussion is a frequent topic on the website for the Poynter Institute for journalists. And here’s just one recent commentary on the issue from the executive editor of the Miami Herald: “Figuring a Way to Pay for News That’s Read Online.”
Several online media ventures have decided to address the issue by becoming nonprofits. I was recently interviewed by someone at J-Lab, an institute for new media ventures, who said his survey of online news publications found far more nonprofit than for-profit models. But here again, it’s the boulder-versus-stones conundrum. Many nonprofits are competing for grant funding from a limited pool – from groups like the Knight Foundation – and to us, that’s not a secure, long-term approach, especially as more nonprofit news sites emerge. We also felt it was important that, as a local publication, our venture be supported by local dollars, not national foundations.
So back to the stones. While subscriptions themselves aren’t novel, what would be novel is to create a sustainable, local news publication funded primarily – perhaps even exclusively – by the voluntary subscriptions of its readers. That might say something powerful about the community, but it would say something about the publication itself, too.
Part of what it would say about the publication is that its revenue requirements – relative to those required by traditional newsgathering organizations – are pretty modest. In the case of The Chronicle, our revenue requirements are small, mostly because that revenue is invested almost exclusively in reporting, writing, and editing. We don’t allocate many resources to marketing and promotion of our own publication, or in bricks-and-mortar infrastructure – The Workantile Exchange provides our editor with space for $100 a month, for example.
But our revenue requirements aren’t zero, and we don’t have a corporate owner to subsidize us if we don’t hit our numbers.
So empty notebooks, full of possibilities, can be daunting. That’s why we give a heartfelt thanks to those of you who already support us – it’s incredibly reassuring to us when you make a voluntary commitment to subscribe, telling us you have confidence in our future.
I don’t know if my notebooks at the end of 2010 will reflect any seismic shift in The Chronicle’s funding sources. But if you aren’t already, I hope you’ll consider being a part our effort to try.
About the writer: Mary Morgan is publisher of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.