Ohio-based Black publication tests community development funding plan

What if local news was treated like essential community infrastructure? Elevate Dayton will attempt to answer that question by raising revenue from community development financiers  — a previously untapped funding well for community media.

The Black-owned publication, co-founded by publisher Nate Dillard, editor in chief Zack Frink and chief of operations Chanda Hunter, aims to become a local information and resource hub. Elevate Dayton will debut its most-ambitious editorial project in March to help drum up community financial interest.

The two-month solutions journalism campaign, called “COVID Can’t Stop Us,” will draw from feedback shared by local entrepreneurs through community surveys.

“We had some significant responses come in that helped us frame our direction,” Dillard told Indiegraf. “People had to pivot to be flexible, but some businesses didn’t survive.”

The pandemic-related business coverage is one of several editorial themes the team plans to explore as part of its campaign journalism format. Hunter and Frink said campaigns last two months to give writers more time to research and highlight different problems as well as potential solutions.

“We start off with a high-level view of the problem, follow it and build on that throughout the two months,” Frink says. “We could pivot depending on what we find in our reporting.”

Each editorial campaign consists of four parts:

  1. Community listening and data gathering
  2. Issue framing reporting that surfaces key questions, issues and needs 
  3. Asset framing reporting that highlights existing resources in the community 
  4. Solutions Summit

The success of this news coverage is measured by its positive impact on the community, says Hunter, so solutions-oriented journalism is at the core Elevate Dayton’s strategy. The hope is that community partners and stakeholders continue the conversation even after the campaign concludes using the in-house social platform, called Elevate Communities, developed by Dillard.

Elevate Communities is a unique social environment built into the backend of the Elevate Dayton platform. Visitors can create accounts and submit stories to the editorial team that can be featured alongside editorial content.

“Our goal is to create compelling content that will eventually have people wanting to spend more time inside our social environment,” he says.

Their efforts are backed by the Multicultural Media & Correspondents Association (MMCA), a nonprofit dedicated to increasing BIPOC media ownership through advocacy, coalition-building, honoring BIPOC media excellence and its BIPOC Media Incubator. In 2021, Elevate Dayton became the first publisher to go through the Incubator, a year-long intensive program that addresses every aspect of building and sustaining a community media business.

The MMCA is continuing to support Elevate Dayton with direct funding and by connecting the team to community development financing partners. Learnings from Elevate Dayton’s efforts will also inform the MMCA’s newly formed BIPOC Community Media Sustainability Coalition, a national effort to promote and fund BIPOC community media as civic infrastructure. The coalition’s goals include: 

  1. Develop and implement an awareness and education plan to secure economic, social and political buy-in for funding community media as a community revitalization strategy;
  2. Secure investments from the community development financing sector, which typically doesn’t fund local media;
  3. Expand the BIPOC Media Incubator to work with more BIPOC outlets on business plans that treat the business as an essential community service provider
  4. Highlight successful partnerships between community development stakeholders and BIPOC Community Media outlets. 

Linda Miller, who launched the RJI’s Inclusive Media and Economies Project in 2020, will lead the expanded effort. She is guided by 2019 research from The Democracy Fund, which revealed only a small portion of journalism grants are going to BIPOC and LGBTQ communities, as well as a report that noted the absence of a reliable business model is inhibiting investment in early-stage media entrepreneurs.The Coalition is part of a joint venture between the MMCA and the Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI), called the Inclusive Media and Economies Project. The two groups already worked with Elevate Dayton through a pilot program to help publishers tap into community development financing.

That is why MMCA President David Morgan worked with a consultant to develop a business model geared toward BIPOC community news outlets.  

“As we go through the business plan, it’s exciting to see Elevate Dayton tie the editorial agenda, which resonates with the community, to actually drive a sustainable business model,” Morgan says.

The proposed business model, showcased in late 2021 at MMCA’s BIPOC Community Media Development Summit, outlined six revenue drivers to guide BIPOC publishers:

  1. Startup grants/capital
  2. Solutions Summits 
  3. Memberships
  4. Partnerships
  5. Traditional advertising
  6. A creative lab that generates local solutions to local problems

MMCA intends to drum up financial interest for Elevate Dayton during the COVID-19 editorial campaign, which culminates in late April with a hybrid in-person/online summit. At that point, work will begin on Elevate Dayton’s next campaign theme while RJI and MMCA continue to help the team raise money and eventually execute the full business plan.

Editorial note: This work is in progress! Indiegraf will check back with Elevate Dayton and the BIPOC Community Media Sustainability Coalition in the coming weeks for an update.


‘TLDR’ Timeline:

2019

Elevate Dayton launches 

May 2020

Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) launches Inclusive Media and Economies Project

February 2021

Multicultural Media & Correspondents Association (MMCA) launches BIPOC Media Incubator, Elevate Dayton selected to participate in pilot

August 2021

RJI’s Inclusive Media and Economies Project teams up with MMCA to help BIPOC publishers tap into community development funds to test new revenue strategies; Elevate Dayton is one of three publishers invited to participate

November 2021

Proposed business model presented at BIPOC Community Media Development Summit at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. 

February 2022

MMCA/RJI launches BIPOC Community Media Sustainability Coalition

March 2022

Elevate Dayton’s “COVID Can’t Stop Us” two-month editorial campaign debuts

Late April 2022

Elevate Dayton concludes “COVID-19 Can’t Stop Us” campaign with hybrid in-person/online event

New website features will help Indiegraf publishers gain more reader revenue

If we expect readers to contribute to our work, we need to make it as easy as possible for them to pay.

That’s why Indiegraf’s co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Caitlin Havlak and UX/UI designer Anastasiya Razumyeyeva spent months researching ways to improve our publisher payment pages. Now they are in the process of upgrading Indiegraf’s subscription and management platform and improving the support page design. The upgrades enable several improvements:

  • Improved user experience: design optimized for maximum conversion
  • Improved subscription management: Easier to execute payments and manage subscriptions on the backend
  • Improved analytics: powerful dashboard to track conversion, subscription growth and churn
  • Improved integrations: powerful integrations with Google Analytics, Mailchimp, Stripe and Braintree
  • Improved editorial features: new opportunities for untapped revenue, including e-commerce, gifting and exclusive content.
  • Improved security: fraud prevention and more security measures

Indiegraf publishers IndigiNewsShasta Scout and Cold Tea Collective are among the first Indiegraf sites to implement the new membership management improvements. All Indiegraf websites at the Pro Plus Tier will receive the same upgrades by the end of March. 

Here’s a rundown of the new offerings and how publishers can leverage these new features to bring in more reader revenue.

Screenshots of new-and-improved payment pages.

Minimalist design 

In marketing-speak, barriers to payment are called “friction.” Even the slightest slow-down or cluttered text can cause someone to second-guess their decision to pay.

That’s why big players such as The New York Times have very minimalist payment pages. There’s little to no distraction and no way to navigate away from the action of payment.

Indiegraf’s payment page has also been simplified significantly, with a subtle footer and collapsible FAQs. It’s also modal-based, meaning it functions as a pop-up so readers don’t have to navigate away from content. For example, readers can click the “Support us” button mid-article and pay right on the page without leaving the story. 

“The goal is to have as few distractions as possible,” Havlak says.

The new payment page also integrates with Apple and Google Pay. These services are almost entirely frictionless — it takes one action to pay. These payment integrations also boost security and enable use of additional payment tools. There’s also an option to login using Google or Facebook, speeding up the registration process significantly. 

The new workflow is focused singularly on helping readers become supporters, according to Razumyeyeva. But it gives enough flexibility to add important context and emotional appeals.

Customizable

That brings us to the next benefit: personalization. Publishers can easily tinker with all elements of the support page — from the description and header to background image. The new system also enables Indiegraf to A/B test different approaches, from messaging to design.

“Before the payment page was pretty static, it couldn’t change much,” Havlak says. 

New landing pages can be replicated and customized for special campaigns and special promotions, including swag giveaways. Publishers can also add emotional appeals like reader testimonials and easily empower readers to offer a subscription or membership as a gift to a friend or loved one. 

Exclusive content can also be placed behind a paywall for members-only access. Additionally, the support page adds a progress bar during revenue campaigns, unlocking another feature not previously available to Indiegraf publishers. 

“If the publisher is running a campaign, they will have the option to display a progress bar, and change the message from the publisher to a campaign message,” says Razumyeyeva, who points out Indiegraf will also be testing whether this helps boost conversions. “The goal is that, when landing on this page during campaign times, the reader will know at a glance that a campaign is going on.” 

Reader revenue analytics are now organized in a single dashboard.

User-friendly 

A new analytics dashboard, powered by Pelcro, provides all the information and features required to manage subscriptions and better understand what motivates contributors.

With improved Mailchimp integration, Indiegraf publishers will have much more flexibility to update automated emails sent when someone becomes a supporter.

“This is really going to level up our segmentation abilities,” Razumyeyeva says. 

New integrations with Google Analytics also make it easier to follow how readers navigate the site to become paying customers. With better insights into what channels — social, email, etc. — are most effective in driving reader revenue, publishers can strategically fine tune their marketing funnel.

“The analytics dashboard paired with Google Analytics will be a super powerful way to track conversions, subscription growth and churn,” Havlak says. “I’m really excited about having clear data on where people fall off in the payment flow and clear data on conversion rates.”

Subscribers and supporters can also easily update credit card information or add an address for receiving swag. And any registered reader has the ability to save stories to read later, further encouraging on-site registration.

Amid all these changes, the transition will be seamless for readers and supporters. 

Online content isn’t forever: Archiving as a digital publication

Shortly after Gawker suddenly announced its bankruptcy and shut down in 2016, a high-profile investigation was pulled from its site, spurring renewed concerns over the preservation of its archive.

Gawker’s articles were facing the “billionaire problem” — wealthy interests buy remains of bankrupted sites to remove controversial content. To mitigate the risk, Freedom of the Press Foundation teamed up with U.S.-based nonprofit Internet Archive to protect the website’s content and ensure the public record would remain.

But billionaires aren’t the only ones who see value in archives. After the hyperlocal outlet serving Chicago and New York, DNAinfo, shuttered in 2017, a group of former DNAinfo Chicago editors scooped up its brand and archive assets for free, courtesy of New York Public Radio WNYC (who had previously acquired them). They then leveraged the notoriety of the brand to launch Block Club Chicago in 2018.

Archiving your stories isn’t only a safety precaution for if you ever close your doors, it’s also vital to the health of the news ecosystem at large. Here’s a primer on news archiving and why you should be thinking about your publication’s public record.

The difference between backing up and archiving stories  

Do you have a system in place for backing up your new articles? Google Docs and Microsoft Word files are relatively stable in the short term, and can empower you to repopulate your stories in the unfortunate event that your site is hacked or crashes. But as Columbia University journalism professor Angela Woodall explains, it does not ensure long-term access spanning decades or more.

There are a number of issues with both solid-state drives, like those you plug into your computer, and cloud storage. What happens if the storage software you use becomes obsolete? What happens if there’s a meltdown at the server farm for the cloud storage you use? Keep in mind that no matter the cloud storage, it’s probably outsourced to Amazon Web Services, Google or Microsoft, according to Woodall.

In the face of market volatility, what happens to this information? Backing up your articles is an important first step — but not enough to ensure ongoing access.

Local news archives could offer a clearer picture of history 

“Local, independent, and alternative news sources are especially at risk of not being preserved, threatening to leave critical exclusions in a record that will favor dominant versions of public history,” Woodall and colleague Sharon Ringel stated in a 2019 report called “A Public Record at Risk: The Dire State of News Archiving in the Digital Age.

Long-term plans for preserving content help ensure increased access to vital information. It’s just a matter of publishers making archiving a priority. “Having the consciousness is the first thing,” Woodall says. “And then I think from there, you can assess what needs to be done.”

Jeremy Klaszus of The Sprawl has been thinking about archiving a lot lately. He points to OpenFile Calgary, which disappeared in 2012, as an example. “If you read around in the Wayback Machine long enough, you can find a way to certain stories,” he says. “But that’s an issue you know, all this work, kind of assuming like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s online. It’ll be online. No it won’t, actually.”

Make your content redundant 

The biggest obstacle to archiving — besides just not saving anything — is that formats change a lot, explains Woodall.

There are different ways to proactively overcome this barrier depending on your budget and scope of what you want to preserve (Do you include social media posts? Newsletters? Comments on your site?).

“The bottom line — redundancy is probably the best bet. Having [your files] on a cloud server, a PDF format, and your original word document, which is pretty stable. And then just printing it.”

If you choose to back up content as PDFs, Woodall suggests you revisit the strategy annually to assess whether there’s a possibility that the format will become inaccessible.

Third-party services can help, like Preservica or The Internet Archive’s Archive-It. Just remember, this puts preservation in third-party hands.

Be wary of silver bullets — and blockchains

While Woodall and Ringel’s research found that most major newspapers have contracts with commercial search databases like ProQuest or Newspapers.com, many small digital outlets don’t have archiving plans. 

Klaszus of The Sprawl says he’s approached the Calgary Public Library a few times about the preservation conundrum without any luck. “They basically don’t know what to do with an online news publisher.”

“As for a silver bullet — there is none,” Woodall says. “Finding a silver bullet is a really demanding proposition because then you start getting into collective memory and history and a lot of other issues.”

Blockchain startups are marketing hard for asset storage, but what they’re offering is unrealistic, Woodall warns.

“These blockchain startups or anybody else who’s offering some like, magic potions that are going to keep everything safe and nobody’s going to be able to touch it, they don’t actually store the content. They just store the hashtags and other things.”

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