What About Print?

Some INN members, including Adirondack Explorer and Nonprofit Quarterly, have print products that provide them with significant revenue from advertising. Print publications also may have promotional value and maintain loyalty from legacy subscribers and supporters. Some INN members launched online and added print publications, such as The Highlands Current in New York State. Most of the smaller INN outlets that are publishing in print also are posting news online daily.

So what role should print play in a startup business plan? INN believes there is no one answer. Instead, startups should look at what has succeeded at outlets serving similar geographic regions, covering similar topics or otherwise sharing common characteristics.

When we surveyed 88 newsrooms for the 2018 INN Index study, 14 had print products (16%). The total circulation of the print products was nearly 740,000. (That number did not include Mother Jones, an INN member that began as a national magazine in 1976, has embraced digital-first publishing but maintains a paid print circulation of 190,000.)

Even among news nonprofits that have a print history, donations and grants often remain the biggest source of revenue. A member that has been publishing a regional magazine in the West since 1970, High Country News, reported in 2019 that it was getting a little over 4% of its $3.5 million in revenue from advertising, sponsorships and events, compared with 68% from donations, grants and other contributions.

Henry E. (Hank) Scott, a media consultant with wide-ranging experience in publishing, explains below the print strategy he used as founder of West Hollywood Media Company:

When I launched WEHOville.com as a hyperlocal news site in 2011, I was told by a good friend, Alberto Ibarguen, who runs the Knight Foundation, that it’s impossible for a digital news site to be profitable without a print component. At that time, WEHOville, wasn’t a nonprofit (and didn’t have an affinity relationship with one) and couldn’t solicit foundation or local tax-deductible donations.

I believed Alberto, in part because of my earlier work as part of a group turning around the Creative Loafing alternative newspaper group. I worked with all the papers — Chicago Reader, Washington City Paper, and Creative Living Atlanta, CL Charlotte, CL Tampa, etc. But I lived for a year in Atlanta and focused closely on that paper. We had great web traffic, but I remember that most local advertisers, while they felt they should embrace digital advertising, also wanted to advertise in print. “My wife loves to see the ad in the paper,” was a quote from one business owner that I will never forget.

I also remember hearing about the importance of print from managers of major brands such as Yves St. Laurent when I was working as a consultant for The Wall Street Journal, which was working on a plan to launch a Saturday edition with more of a lifestyle focus. The YSL manager told me it was important, given the quality and reputation of the brand, to have its ads printed on high quality paper and published adjacent to quality content, which he told me was something he couldn’t count on digital media platforms to provide.

So WEHOville launched West Hollywood Magazine, a high-end publication focused on art, style, architecture and design and the people involved in all of that in West Hollywood. Unlike other “city” magazines on the Westside of Los Angeles County, we did not engage in a “pay to play” process. That iteration of West Hollywood Magazine was very expensive to produce, with elaborate photo shoots, well-paid writers and printing on quite expensive paper.

We later reduced the print quality of the magazine and changed its focus to less upscale topics — WEHOville’s annual Best Of contest, etc. We continued to publish every two years a tabloid newspaper election guide to educate local voters about City Council and L.A. candidates and issues on the ballot. Both are quite profitable, although also are a lot of work.

Scott sold the company in 2020 without fulfilling his dream of launching a weekly print edition, which he said he thought would work because a city survey shows 50% of West Hollywood residents would like to get their news in print. And one is able to get a much higher profit margin from a print ad.