This October, I will mark my seventh anniversary publishing My Edmonds News. (I acquired MLTnews and Lynnwood Today a few years later after the founders of those websites could no longer keep them going.) I am proud of what I have built and I am particularly proud of staying “in business” despite ongoing revenue challenges that small-town journalism entities — both print and online — face.
As I was driving home from last night’s City Council meeting, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. The reason was not exhaustion or frustration, although I have certainly felt that following some council meetings. It was because I had received a compliment from a reader regarding an obituary I wrote last week for local solar power advocate Chris Herman, who passed away at the age of 58 after a year-long battle with cancer. “It moved me to tears,” she told me.
For the past few days, I have been in a slump, questioning why I continue to do this work that I passionately love but requires an extraordinary level of commitment — to those small business owners who trust us with their precious advertising dollars, to those who read every day and have come to rely on the information we provide, and to those who regularly contribute photos and articles or design graphics or sell advertising or troubleshoot technical issues and deserve to be compensated.
Receiving that praise after telling the story of a community member who died too soon — but left behind a legacy that will live on — reminded me that this type of story telling is incredibly important. And the point was driven home further when I realized that no one else — no other local or regional print or online media — had written about Chris’s passing.
I want to be clear that I have never loved a job more passionately than online community news publishing. But there are brutal challenges that eat away at the edges of that passion, and those are not going away. So today, I am going to be brutally honest with all of you.
Challenge number 1: Ad revenue is not enough to fund what we do. We have wonderful advertisers, and a number of them have been with us for several years. I am grateful for their support, and I am also grateful that they are seeing results from their advertising. But, the truth is, just a small percentage of locally-owned small businesses spend money on any advertising, anywhere. In the glory days of newspapers, classified and display advertising generated lots of dollars that funded robust journalism efforts. But that was before the Internet in general and Craigslist in particular forever changed the way we access news and advertising.
Challenge number 2: Readers expect news to be free. You follow a link from Facebook to a story and are angry because the site requires a subscription and you have already used up your allocated number of “free” articles. You have canceled your newspaper subscription because you get your news on your phone or your iPad. For most of us — especially those who grew up with the Internet and smart phones — there is no commitment or loyalty to any one news source. We rely on what we come across on social media, what our friends are sharing or what we happen to catch on television or the radio.
While I have not implemented a subscription-based system for content, I have stepped up my efforts to ask readers for voluntary donations. And I thank all of you who have responded with monthly, annual or one-time donations. But the absolute truth is, it’s not enough. Across all three web sites, we average 9,000 unique visitors a day, yet have approximately 100 regular subscribers TOTAL, who give an average of $10 a month or $100 a year.
Challenge number 3: Facebook is not our friend. Like most publishers, I post everything we write about to our Facebook page. If it’s a hot topic, the post goes viral and is shared far and wide. If it’s more mundane — like a meeting report — it is likely to be ignored. While Facebook posts can be helpful in generating traffic back to our websites, many of you know that Facebook is constantly changing its algorithms and it’s a moving target as to what you will see in your feed. Today, Facebook announced it’s changing its News Feed to prioritize friends and family over news organizations. The bottom line: this shift that will cause referral traffic to publishers to decrease. Why does this matter to me? Site traffic is key metric for advertisers, to ensure that their messages are seen.
So let’s get back to my announcement that our websites are “for sale.” Many of you likely followed the saga of local public radio station KPLU, which was going to be sold to KUOW until listeners raised $7 million to save it. That campaign involved more than 24,000 individual donations by people who valued what the station provided.
I am asking all of you to make a similar investment in community journalism through a voluntary subscription. Do it now, while you are thinking of it, at this link — online or by check (address is provided). You’ll be supporting people like Larry Vogel, who energetically covers Edmonds with stories and photos; Natalie Covate, who not only writes about Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace issues but faithfully attends every Edmonds School Board meeting; Emily Hill, who chronicles the arts and entertainment scene; Kathy Passage, who writes about our local restaurants; along with all our other wonderful writers, photographers, ad sales people and graphic designers — too numerous to list but all sincerely appreciated!
And I am asking every one of you: Business owners who can’t afford to advertise but may be able to afford $3 a month; civic leaders who tell me how much they appreciate what I do; readers who stop me on the street. You know who you are — and I need you.
I can’t say it any more strongly that this: There is no “magic bullet” for saving local news. If there was, all those news organizations that have gone out of business — or significantly downsized — would be thriving. I literally cannot do this work without you.
Until next time.
Teresa Wippel, Publisher