At age 16, Crystal Good not only wanted to be a journalist but she had plans to take over West Virginia’s last remaining newspaper dedicated to covering the Black community.
A sixth-generation native of that state’s Kanawha County, she wanted to buy the family-owned Beacon Digest in Charleston, and she even convinced her father to make a purchase offer.
“I had it in my mind I could do a better job than they were doing,” Good, now 46, says.
But the owners did not want to sell — and the newspaper went out of business in 2006.
Now, decades later, Good has started her own publication, Black By God The West Virginian, to meet the needs of the state’s 56,000 Black residents. She started out circulating an electronic newsletter and writing on Substack; then as a proof of concept, Good published a 42-page, full-color print edition for Juneteenth celebrations in Charleston.
“Fast forward many decades and it feels amazing that I get to satisfy that hunger, that goal,” Good says.
Good was one of the inaugural fellows in NewStart, an initiative at West Virginia University that seeks to prepare master’s degree students to take ownership of local news outlets. Conventional wisdom says that local newspapers are dying (and we know many of them are), but Jim Iovino, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor who runs the program, makes a counterargument that publishers can still make money — if they know what they’re doing.
“It will work,” Iovino says. “You just have to do it smart and really not try to think like a corporate chain, and run it as a local business instead.”
Besides Good, the initial cohort includes people who are in negotiations to purchase or start news outlets, as well as others who accepted job offers based on their newly acquired publishing knowledge. They completed the program in June and are scheduled to graduate in August.
The pandemic did not affect the cohort’s learning model: members participated in remote classroom exercises as planned during the past academic year, earning a master’s degree while studying news business models.
The biggest difference has been that rather than rushing out to purchase existing newspapers, the fellows have taken a more cautious approach to try to understand the value of publications. They have to determine whether to make a judgment based on 2019 results that might be meaningless now, 2020 ones that were affected by the pandemic or, most likely, a mix of the two.
At the same time, some fellows are finding that it makes more sense to start something new rather than buy an existing newspaper that could be overvalued or that does not serve the community where they want to work.
“We wanted to quote-unquote save as many newspapers as we could and transport them into the future,” Iovino says, “but it has to be the right thing for the people in our program. We don’t want them to go to a community where they’re not really part of it or into it.”
The secret about local news is that publishers continue to make money from print subscriptions and advertising — but they have to do it the right way, Iovino says. A lot of the corporate chains are just trying to squeeze money out of publications without being invested in the places they seek to cover. That might work in the short term but not beyond.
Successful local news publishers, Iovino says, need to embrace two basic ingredients:
First, they must get to know the audience they want to serve.
“It’s all about doing the things that your community wants and needs,” Iovino says. “There’s no magic bullet that says you can take this business model, throw it down in this community and it’s going to work. You have to really understand what drives the people in your community and what information and news they need. You have to work with them to make that happen.”
Second, publishers have to look for new ways of making money when the print model starts to falter.
“A lot of these family-owned papers right now make a lot of money, which a lot of people don’t know, but they’re also walking a tightrope,” Iovino says. “They’re still making money, but it’s all tied up in print subscriptions or advertising. You want to make sure you can diversify that as much as possible so that when, god forbid, the next pandemic happens, you have something to fall back on, such as digital advertising.”
It turns out that the future of local journalism might just be rooted in its past, getting back to the time when people rose up out of their own community to tell the stories that matter to them and their neighbors.
As newspapers became obscenely profitable during the mid-20th century, the model shifted to one that favored large media chains and their shareholders. Big companies bought up newspapers of all sizes, and in the process, the people running them lost touch with the communities they purported to cover. A few hedge fund investors are clinging onto that broken model as they wring out the last profits.
For local journalism to not only survive but thrive, it will require people such as Good who are courageous enough to start doing the work — as well as the rest of us to recognize the effort and to support it.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you can email him.