Nonprofit newsprint targets underserved audiences, builds partnerships, marketing base

I’m often asked why a print newspaper is at the core of the nonprofit local news organization I launched in San Francisco. All the innovation in the journalism startup space seems to be rushing onto the Web, mobile devices or whatever comes next — brain implants, maybe?
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Many public-media entrepreneurs believe the abandonment of print, broadcast and other traditional media is premature. In the hallways at journalism conferences, a number of members of the Investigative News Network have told me they need to do more to raise their profiles locally, reach new audiences and give their operations a “cool factor.”

The Public Press has a daily online news presence (sfpublicpress.org), but in the summer of 2010 we started a quarterly broadsheet edition. The paper sells for $1 in about 50 retail locations, and has distinguished us from the dozens of contenders in the next wave of journalism in the San Francisco Bay Area.

We have learned a tremendous amount about how to start a print product affordably and creatively, and we want to encourage journalists nationwide to experiment in a medium that many future-of-journalism gurus have prematurely declared dead.

So why was print important when we started up? Several reasons:

  • There’s still a digital divide, so a mission-driven print publication can fill unmet information needs in communities that lack consistent Internet access.
  • Even the most digitally connected news consumers sometimes want to unplug.
  • Street visibility makes a small operation look established, credible and even “steampunk” hip.
  • You can do wonderful things with photography, mapping and full-page illustrations given such a large canvas.
  • Freelancers are motivated by print bylines, and deadlines provide an opportunity to rally the volunteer troops.
  • You can make money through sales.
  • It’s a tangible membership benefit.

In evangelizing experiments in print startups, we would love to convene a working group to discuss an approach that can be applied to many communities across the country, perhaps even better than in San Francisco.

So why should you launch a print experiment right now? One reason is that it’s surprisingly economical.

We produce a newspaper for about $16,000 a year, on top of our editorial, Web and office expenses. This includes the printing of four editions of 8,000 copies each, graphic design, city distribution, software, display news racks, etc. We consider the quarterly newspaper our minimum viable product — but with additional funding we can easily increase frequency of publication.

Since we’ve chosen not to take advertising, we can pack a lot into 16 pages — it’s the same news hole as a typical 40-page commercial daily. To produce the paper, we use off-the-shelf technology: Google spreadsheets, Microsoft Word, email, Dropbox and Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator. It’s helpful to have a large-format printer for page proofs.

Print can also help you think about structuring the editorial product in new and exciting ways. Our front-page design wins constant kudos from readers. The first section of our paper offers a showcase of our quarterly team investigative projects on topics such as domestic violence, earthquake safety, the minimum wage and climate-change regulation. The second section features a dozen or so stories and talk-show transcripts from our local nonprofit news partners — public broadcasters, news services, magazines and neighborhood newspapers.

It’s kind of an Utne Reader for local public media. Your partners will appreciate being asked to show off their premiere reporting, and will usually give it to you for free.

But most importantly, from a business perspective, print can also become a cornerstone of a strategic expansion of fundraising, marketing and partnerships. It’s a way to distribute donation envelopes for a membership program. It lets you test methods for reaching new readers and prospective supporters. Beyond the few hundred papers we mail out to individual members, and those we deliver to retailers (the first round of sales calls is admittedly hard), we also give free copies to senior, community and public health centers — places where we wouldn’t expect to sell many copies, but which have clear public-information needs.

In considering whether to try print, an online news organization should first be clear about its main goal. Is it visibility? Credibility? Membership? Profit? Once you decide, have fun experimenting! Bring in your stakeholders to use techniques of community-centered design to create a prototype. If something doesn’t work, do it better the next time. Rinse and repeat — and give it at least a year.

We at the Public Press have gained enough experience in this area to help other organizations get started and we’d be glad to do site visits, if travel is feasible.

The most delightful thing about the new news revolution is that there are as many models as there are startup organizations: ownership type, business model, geographic scope, topic focus, publication schedule, professional-amateur mix, tech platforms, etc. Many startups are also hooking up synergistically with public and commercial broadcasters to get their reporting in front of wider audiences.

In our experience, print is another synergistic opportunity that helps diversify the field, and makes it more likely that we can collectively expand to fill the voids left by the shrinkage of the old local-media monopolies.