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A Local News Site Uses A Paywall And Succeeds


Half as many newspaper reporters will head to work this morning compared to a decade ago. Americans are making local political decisions with less and less information. But Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports there are signs of a turnaround at one Kansas news site.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The Shawnee Mission Post covers a quarter of a million people from this small, cream-colored house in a gently curving street in suburban Kansas City.

JULIA WESTHOFF: Headquarters, world headquarters.

MORRIS: Julia Westhoff is the director of sales and subscriptions.

WESTHOFF: It's been 10 years. The first year, we made $500. And, you know, I don't know how many tens of people read the site.

MORRIS: As the tiny, Web-only publication battled for a foothold, hundreds of newspapers bit the dust, including the one that used to cover the same suburbs. Others cut way back on coverage. Penny Muse Abernathy at the University of North Carolina says news deserts spread across the country.

PENNY MUSE ABERNATHY: What is at stake is our democracy itself, and we all have a stake in whatever replaces that 20th-century version of the newspaper.

MORRIS: Print advertising largely funded the old model. Digital ad revenue has never come close to replacing it for papers or digital sites. So in a last ditch move to save the Shawnee Mission Post, publisher Jay Senter tried putting up a paywall.

JAY SENTER: Well, we had tried everything we could think of to avoid having to take that move.

MORRIS: This was three years ago. Honestly, he wasn't that hopeful.

SENTER: Even with all the readership we had, we hadn't been able to figure out a way to make it work. And we're going to have - probably have to shut it down just 'cause, like, the norm was not that you pay for local news at that point.

MORRIS: But people did pay.

SENTER: OK, guys, welcome.

MORRIS: And today, Senter is calling the staff together to plan for next year and a big expansion in news coverage.

SENTER: We're in a totally different position now. As of this year, we will make more money from subscribers than we do from advertising. It has never happened before.

MORRIS: Senter's 2,700 subscribers are paying up to $72 a year for his content. By summer, he hopes to hire another full-time reporter, tripling his new staff in a year and a half just on gains in subscription revenue.

JIM FRIEDLICH: There has been a sea change from advertising dependence to subscription dependence.

MORRIS: Jim Friedlich directs The Lenfest Institute, a nonprofit group helping news organizations develop new business models. He says leading national newspapers have been relying primarily on subscriptions, not ads, for years. And coverage benefits.

FRIEDLICH: If you're, first and foremost, seeking eyeballs and scale for advertisers, you're more likely to focus on cat videos and the Kardashians.

MORRIS: On the other hand, focusing on subscribers means doubling down on local governments and schools - civic journalism.

SENTER: I am surprised and incredibly heartened by the fact that we've been able to figure out how to make this work here. But it's kind of like we're, you know, a sapling sticking out of the ashes of a forest fire.

MORRIS: The Shawnee Mission Post isn't the only one. A few other suburban sites are thriving on subscription revenue. Other news organizations are bringing in more money from special events, donations and grants. Of course, none of this makes up for the collapse of so many print newsrooms. But if the new funding models expand local coverage, that's good news for everyone. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.
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