Here’s another installment in the ongoing series on how local news operations, especially newspapers, can devise new ways to stay in business. For previous entries—from Mississippi, from Maine, from Massachusetts, from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, from Massachusetts again, and from points beyond—please check these preceding links.
A theme that runs through nearly all of these reports is the importance of ownership structure. Times are tough for little newspapers everywhere, but the papers least likely to survive are those that have fallen under the control of hedge-fund and private-equity chains, which are starving them into short-term profitability and longer-term demise. The successful counterexamples are mainly family-owned, community-owned, or in some other way bolstered against the pressure to cut the publication into insignificance.
Today we travel up the Hudson River Valley to the small village of Ellenville, New York, in Ulster County, near the borders of Orange and Sullivan Counties. This is not the bedroom-community exurb part of the Hudson River Valley but instead one of the Northeast’s many declining former industrial zones. It once was famed and prosperous as the home of Schrade cutlery (later Imperial Schrade), and as the manufacturing center for Channel Master “rabbit ears” TV antennas, back in the day when TV signals were broadcast over the airwaves rather than traveling through cables or the internet.
That industrial era is past, and the surrounding communities have struggled. As in many one-time manufacturing centers in the Northeast and Midwest—and contrary to a frequent media assumption that “troubled factory town” means “mainly white”—Ellenville’s population of some 5,000 people is ethnically diverse. “This little town is surprisingly representative of the country,” Alex Shiffer, co-founder with his partner, Sharon Richman, of the local newspaper, the Shawangunk Journal, told me. (The name is drawn from the local geological landmark, the Shawangunk mountain ridge, or “the Gunks.” Among nearby features is the well-known Mohonk Mountain House.) In the Ellenville area, about half the population is white, about 25 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black, and the rest Asian or from other groups.
“The community had no newspaper, and we wanted one,” Alex Shiffer told me, about the decision he and Sharon Richman made in 2006, to start the Shawangunk Journal. Shiffer had grown up in Westchester County, closer to New York City. He and Richman met at SUNY New Paltz, and came to Ellenville in the 1990s to operate the area’s first internet service.”We resurrected an older community paper that had been out of print for a few year,” Shiffer said. “We didn’t do much more than take its name, but it was the start of something the community seemed to want too.”
The Journal is a print publication, now with a paid circulation of about 2,000. You can see some of its stories here—although, as I’ll explain in more detail in a moment, you need to register to read the articles. As an example of the kind of story you don’t often find in papers this small, you can look for two stories by Chris Rowley about the stories and situations of homeless people in the area, and another by Tim Michaels on what heavyweight-truck traffic is doing to local roads.
Like other small papers, the Journal has had its ups and downs through its dozen-plus years of existence, in recent years especially downs. “Three years ago, the newspaper was in serious financial trouble,” Shiffer told me. “Around the beginning of the year, we said: We’re likely to lose $50,000 this year, and that’s money we don’t have.” Through an appeal to readers and a local fundraising campaign, it found the money to get through that pinch. “Despite the economic problems here, there’s a strong sense of community, which is why the newspaper has survived.”
And now? The paper’s ambitions, as explained to me by Alex Shiffer and his daughter Jasmine, are interesting in three ways:
1) Digitally minded from the beginning. “One of the things that was different about our origin, is that we were always interested in an online presence,” Alex Shiffer told me. “My background is tech, not journalism. But when we started, it was just way too soon to have an online platform as the main basis for local content.”
Shiffer said that he and Richman and their teammates were planning for the time when they could “use our tech experience to figure out how you can make an online publication actually work, with such a tiny market.” One significant shift was when people began using smartphones as a principal source of news and information. Another was when the Journal company began conditioning people to pay for what they read online.
“We still fight the battle every day, of people saying on Facebook, ‘What, do I have to pay for this?’ And we’re on there constantly saying, ‘Yes, you do, and here’s why.’ It’s taken us this long to get people who are willing to pay for content.” Through the efforts of their publisher, Amberly Jane Campbell, the system has grown to include four other regional publications: the Delaware Hudson Canvas, the Livingston Manor Ink, Hudson Valley Livelihood, and the BKAA Guardian. “We have proven the model works for our newspaper,” Campbell said, “and it can be adopted by any independent publisher, without having to reinvent it for themselves.”
2) A subscription-and-micropayments business model. As you’ll see if you register (for free) on the paper’s site, NewsAtomic, after an introductory-offer period, articles from the paper for nonsubscribers cost 25 cents apiece. For as long as the internet has existed, I’ve heard journalism leaders talk about the coming era of micropayments. Here’s a tiny newspaper in rural New York that has put the plan into effect.
Subscribers to the paper, for as little as a few dollars a month, get unlimited access to its articles. Occasional visitors can sample the stories for a low price, with the hope and expectation that some of them will be attracted to become long-term readers and subscribers.
“A weekly paper publishes once a week—and provides a finished, crafted piece that often is many days ‘old news’ but is still quite relevant and desired,” Shiffer said. (In previous installments from Maine and Massachusetts, I’ve emphasized how small newspapers have turned a weekly-or-slower publication schedule into an advantage.) “The NewsAtomic system allows us to provide both to our readers—regular updates to a developing story, and more in-depth pieces where sources have had time to get back to you.” Every publication that hopes to survive in the digital age is trying to balance the variables in this equation: on-the-news immediacy versus analytical value; outside-the-paywall “free” material to draw attention and shape public conversation, versus subscribers-only items to keep the reporting-and-editing core going. The Shawangunk publications are trying to create a new model for smaller publications.
“The micropayments are for occasional readers, and, crucially, allow one publication’s readers to sample another publication’s content from time to time,” Alex Shiffer said, “especially in cases where there is coverage of a story by multiple pubs. It’s a way of spreading reader revenue across our participating publications fairly, and it puts the bulk of the revenue where it belongs: with the publisher, not the platform.”
3) The students’ own paper. As Alex Shiffer studied the Journal‘s readership, he came across this blunt fact: “The main reason we lose print readers is due to death. It’s not that reading the paper is all that dangerous! It’s just that they’re old.”
To replenish the readership, and to increase student involvement in the community and interest in journalism, the print Shawangunk Journal and online NewsAtomic site are complemented by a student-run news app called The Devil’s Advocate. (It is free and available in iPhone and Android versions.)
Jasmine Shiffer, elder daughter of Alex Shiffer and Sharon Richman, is 17 years old and a senior at Ellenville High School. “When I was a freshman, the high school had a paper—but it was in print, and it only came out twice a year,” Jasmine Shiffer told me on the phone. “It was kind of pathetic.”
“Then in my sophomore year, it just completely disappeared. I thought that every school deserves a newspaper, and online seems to be the only way to get to kids like me these days. So I wanted to start a paper for the school.”
She did. Without any official involvement from or approval by high-school authorities, a group of students now put out news posts every school day on the Devil’s Advocate app. “We cover a wide variety,” Jasmine Shiffer said. “Some sports, some culture—the real stuff, and the fun stuff.
“People love it,” she said. “So much of ‘the news’ seems so boring and disconnected from our real lives. To have this school paper written by their friends, and about their friends, makes everything seem so much more accessible.”
What comes next for Jasmine, after her senior year in high school? “I’ve really enjoyed doing this, much more than I thought I would. I have seen my parents and all the struggles they have gone through owning this paper. So I was nervous about the whole journalism thing. But at least in college I want to be involved in journalism.”
Is the Shawganunk Journal/NewsAtomic/Devil’s Advocate model “the” answer for other local publications? Of course not—their combined success is still provisional, and market and civic circumstances vary city by city.
But together they offer another illustration of a range of possible solutions for local publications, and the communities that depend on them.