Indie outlets lead on abortion coverage

Independent media proved its importance this past week by providing community-centered Roe v. Wade coverage. While national news focused on the Supreme Court leak or pointed fingers internally for the inevitable demise of U.S. federal abortion access, indie outlets never waved the white flag.

Instead, these news orgs published perspectives specific to their communities while sharing important context and solutions-oriented next steps. In doing so, these outlets validated the important role they play in the larger news ecosystem, even when vital breaking news comes from mainstream sources.

The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) recently compiled a great summary of abortion reaction stories from its news partners. This rundown only scratches the surface of inspirational independent journalism since last week’s bombshell Politico story, so here are more examples — from the Indiegraf network and beyond.

The immediate aftermath 

In the days after the story broke, many indie outlets joined their readers on the streets. 

  • For example, The Kansas City Defender covered a rally led by Reale Justice Network, a local group of Black women, trans and non-binary community organizers who advocate on behalf of those most likely to be impacted by this looming change. The article includes actions readers can take to help and get involved.
  • Local women’s advocacy groups sounded the alarm on other human rights now under threat. The Palm Springs Post reported on this “code red moment” and what local organizers are doing to prepare for a “long, hot summer.”
  • Numerous local outlets also used protest and rally visuals to convey local reactions over the past week, including the Tucson Sentinel, This Is Reno and Block Club Chicago.

Maintaining fundamental rights

Once abortions are no longer protected at the U.S. federal level, many states risk losing significant or complete access. 

Reactions beyond the states

The rest of North America also reacted to the Roe v. Wade probable appeal, shedding light on the lack of quality abortion access in other countries.

Hopefully this sampling of related coverage inspires your own work. We invite you to respond with more examples of quality coverage from local independent news sources, and we’ll be sure to share the work across the Indiegraf network.

5 encouraging outcomes from early Indie Growth Program participants

Last fall, Indiegraf debuted a new program to address “bootcamp fatigue” among journalist-entrepreneurs. The past few years have seen an explosion in training opportunities for founders who want to learn how to launch or grow an independent news outlet. But for publications with small budgets run by journalists who are often juggling other jobs to pay their rent, they need more than advice about what to do: they need help from people who can roll up their sleeves and help execute.

Our answer to that problem was the Indie Growth Program, a 3-month program for news publishers who are ready to grow with a small grant of $2,500 and campaign-specific audience and revenue support.

Eleven publishers have since completed the program. As we invite new applications for the Indie Growth Program, we want to share their results. For an investment of only $500, publishers doubled their email newsletter subscribers and generated an average of $1,500 in new reader revenue. And 88% of publishers highly ranked their overall experience.

Sound too good to be true? Read on for details of how the program works and results. Or just apply already here.

The idea behind the Indie Growth Program is simple: Indiegraf helps early stage news operations grow their audience and build out reader revenue models. The short-term program allows publishers to test drive Indiegraf’s technology and services before they commit to a long-term partnership with us. 

Here is a broad breakdown of the program: 

  • Goal: Increase email subscribers, drive reader revenue, gain audience insights, test new value propositions
  • Indie Capital: $2,500 in grant money to help grow current subscriber list
  • Growth sprints: Our team helps execute an email growth campaign and a mini-reader revenue campaign
  • Product sprints: Our team will help conduct audience research and a product audit, so you get actionable recommendations
  • Technology: Test our reader revenue tech and strategic support by using a landing page we build

The Indie Growth Program was created during Indiegraf’s 2021 company retreat when our team took a deep dive into what support early stage founders need to accelerate their growth and set themselves up for long term success with Indiegraf. In contrast to our training program, the Indie News Challenge, the Indie Growth Program does not feature weekly seminars or cohorts and instead focuses on executing successful campaigns by adding resources to publishers’ bandwidth. This allows publishers to spend time producing journalism and building communities.

Eleven publishers started the Indie Growth Program in November-December and completed the program early this year: Sioux Falls Simplified, Harbinger Media Network, The Ingleside Light, New Jersey Urban News, The Frisc, The Local, Wings, The Flatlander, Gameday London, OR360, and The Wren

Here are 5 takeaways from the first 11 Indie Growth Program participants: 

1. These publishers collectively doubled their email audience during the program, growing from 10,005 to 20,107 subscribers (+101%). Each growth campaign included lead ads funded by $2,500 in Indie Capital grant money. Some publishers did even better than the program average: Sioux Falls Simplified, for example, grew 138% to exceed 2,000 subscribers ahead of the publication’s one-year anniversary.

2. Participants that were in “pre-launch” mode also gained significant growth from the program. Wings, a southwest Washington state local news site, generated its first 1,665 subscribers during the program. The Wren also gained its first 1,000 subscribers in the Kamloops region. 

3. Publishers collectively earned $17,416 during mini-reader revenue campaigns, more than tripling their $5,500 combined investment into the program. Wings raised the most of any Indie Growth Program publisher so far, almost $3,700 on a one-time reader revenue campaign. 

4. Between the Indie Capital grant money ($2,500 each) and in-kind staff support (approximately $2,500 in value per publisher), participants benefited from a combined $55,000 in Indiegraf resources. And that’s hopefully just the start! Our goal is to continue working with participants after the program concludes, whether we continue supporting growth campaigns or help rebuild their website using our latest reader revenue technology. 

5. Among surveyed participants, 88% highly ranked their overall experience with Indiegraf and 75% said they are closer to reaching sustainability than before the program. What is the most beneficial part of the program? These anonymous publisher survey responses shed some light:

  • “For us, given that we began with a small following, the lead generation was probably the most beneficial for us. We added several hundred newsletter subscribers, and we hope to turn many of those folks into financial supporters down the road.”
  • “We will use the insights for audience development strategies going forward. It’s been one of our big bottlenecks and we can’t wait to try some new ideas.“
  • “Indiegraf provided an assessment and attainable goals for continued growth.”

These same participants also shared several ways to improve the program. While the email growth campaigns were successful, the reader revenue campaigns did not reach our intended goals. Publishers also want more help growing in new channels and more actionable audience research. 

This feedback will benefit future publishers, because we are only successful when program participants are successful. That is why our team shares in the growth victories and learns from each missed campaign goal. We learn a lot from each publisher we work with, not only in terms of specific challenges but also through working in new markets. Each participant brings in a new perspective that helps the program (and Indiegraf) evolve. 


We’re renewing our push for Indie Growth Program participants because we have seen how much of a difference it can make for small publishers. If you’re interested in benefiting from this continually improving program, visit the program page and submit your application. You can also email the publisher success team to schedule an introductory meeting.

Marfa cafe and retail shop helps sustain established West Texas newspaper

The pandemic had an oversized impact on print newspapers and brick-and-mortar businesses, and The Big Bend Sentinel is essentially both. 

Fortunately, the Marfa, Texas-based legacy newspaper whose revenue is primarily from print advertising, is still on pace to hit its 100-year anniversary in 2026. That’s because the operation is sustained, in part, by The Sentinel, a 4,500-square-foot cafe and retail concept.  The Sentinel opened in 2019, the same year Maisie Crow and Max Kabat took over the weekly print operation from the previous local ownership.

“It wasn’t an overnight process, it really started six months prior to buying the paper,” Kabat said. “We knew from the beginning we needed to evolve the business model to allow us to hire more people.”

So Crow and Kabat purchased an empty 100-year-old adobe building and converted it into a newsroom and cafe duel concept. Two and a half years later, The Sentinel has proven successful with approximately 35,000 customer transactions, enough that Crow and Kabat were able to pay off their owner-financed investment into the newspaper. And The Big Bend Sentinel now employs three full-time journalists — more than when the couple took over — serving the region of 18,000 permanent residents.

Courtesy The Big Bend Sentinel

What lessons can other indie news publishers learn from The Sentinel operation? Indiegraf asked The Big Bend Sentinel to share takeaways.

Should every news outlet start a brick-and-mortar business?

Kabat: No, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for all indie publishers. Maisie and I learned through the school of hard knocks how to do this. But we went into this with our eyes wide open. We were always very practical about the Marfa and Big Bend area economy being driven by tourism and visitors, so we looked for ways to participate in that economy while doing a better job of serving locals. 

So what can indie news operations take away from The Sentinel’s success?

Kabat: Publishers have done a really poor job at evolving their business model. Tell me another business that’s been around for a century that hasn’t changed. The world has changed so drastically over the past 20 years, and we still have local publishers who think they control the conversation in the way they always have. Everyone’s constantly evolving, but journalism never changed. We’re just one example of trying something new and different. We’re not the first people to come up with this idea. Coffee and cocktails are pretty standard fare for folks in a newsroom. I just think we were naive or distant enough to try something different.

Courtesy The Big Big Sentinel

How has the brick-and-mortar business evolved since launching in 2019?

Kabat: It’s changed 16 ways to Sunday, like everybody has. We leaned heavily into being a bar, but we’re not right now because we don’t have the right people. We had a full restaurant that was serving 24/7, but we don’t do that anymore, just breakfast and lunch. Maisie also fought tooth and nail to have a retail experience when we launched. It was the smallest part of our revenue when we launched, but at the beginning of the pandemic — when people were coming from major Texas cities because they couldn’t go shopping anywhere else — it quickly grew into one of our largest. 

Has the reporting staff benefited from having a cafe next to the newsroom?

Kabat: Being a community gathering space has helped the newsroom pick up scoops. We’re more accessible to the community in a way that breeds a different kind of conversation, and that totally works for us.

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

Here’s how Detour Detroit leveraged new members to spur additional revenue streams

Membership may not be Detour Detroit’s top moneymaker, but the self-described “guide to Detroit” nearly tripled its membership base last year, from 200 to 550 paid supporters. 

Co-founder Ashley Branch Woods said it validates the operation’s efforts and helps drive additional revenue opportunities.

“It is an expression of community support we leverage in other ways,” said Woods, a Detroit-based journalist who started the operation nearly three years ago with editor Kate Abbey-Lambertz. “Even though membership may not be the most lucrative revenue stream, it’s the most important and where I spend the majority of my time.”

Detour’s 2020 membership gains came from a ”Keep Detroit Local” campaign, which attracted paid members with the promise of free newsletter ads to local businesses for each new high-tier supporter. 

“For our readers, that mattered a lot to them,” Woods said. “They don’t want us to be unbiased about businesses surviving.”

That campaign proved so effective that as those local shops regained footing, they turned into paid advertisers. Detour Detroit sold $20,000 in email ad sales last year, Woods said, helping to overcome a significant loss in event-related revenue. 

“That really gives me a lot of excitement about the future,” said Woods.

Those advertisers also offer discounts to paying Detour Detroit supporters, further incentivizing readers to retain their membership. Wood also leverages paid supporters when pitching Detour Detroit to other funding sources.

“We’re not asking you to fund us, we’re asking you to match what’s already been raised,” she said. “Our readers want this, it’s already been raised. We’re just asking you to come along with us.”

Most importantly, members have benefited from Detour Detroit’s pandemic coverage and gained additional context surrounding election controversies of national relevance in their own backyard. A lot of that information was shared in a member’s-only Facebook group where Woods and her team communicate with paid supporters directly.

“I feel like we really earned our value in a way that might’ve not been so apparent if Detroit hadn’t been the center for these election fraud claims,” Woods said.

New year, new initiatives

Detour Detroit continues to expand and innovate heading into 2021. The Dig real estate newsletter, launched late last year, will expand in 2021 using a Solutions Journalism Network grant to evaluate Detroit’s lack of economic mobility and opportunity for people of colour. Woods said the goal is to “reimagine the real estate beat” in a way that goes beyond big developments and wealthy players.

“Our stories are based on what our readers want, what is actually happening in their neighborhoods,” she said.

If successful, The Dig could expand into its own “freemium” product, Woods said. Detour Detroit also offers two other newsletters beyond its flagship product, including The Blend, a digital magazine for women, and an events-themed newsletter called Get Busy

Detour Detroit also runs a content studio responsible for producing newsletters for other publishers. Woods expects that operation to expand this year from serving three to four partners to at least a dozen by the end of 2021. Additional services include launch support as well as ongoing training and content creation.

“We are really all-in on newsletters,” Woods said.

In the news

Opportunities

  • Here’s a great guide from Poynter and VidSpark on using social video to reach younger audiences.

Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… 

One of my favourite pandemic stories was New York magazine’s piece on where all the bucatini went. Now here comes the Hamilton Spectator to remind us there is always a local angle.

The next evolution of newsletters is mini-courses

Newsletters are proving so effective for independent publishers at increasing audience engagement and reader revenue that new email products are emerging — and newsletter courses perhaps best represent this trend. 

What are newsletter courses? Here is a basic breakdown:

  • Evergreen, on-demand email series
  • Typically used to tackle deeper dives into a specific subject or issue
  • Set number of emails (or text messages) over a fixed number of days/weeks

These emails follow a consistent sending schedule regardless of when readers subscribe. So once the content is produced, these mini-courses can run on autopilot and continually recruit new audiences and retain existing subscribers.

Here are three more benefits pushing publishers to embrace this newsletter format.

Your content has a longer shelf life

News cycles come and go faster than ever, so newsletter courses are attractive to publishers who want to tell big-picture stories that aren’t necessarily time-sensitive. 

Want to explain North American car culture? Canadian site Passage broke down automotive history and potential alternatives in a four-part mini-course called “How The Car Conquered The World.” Passage also produced a deep-dive on democracy, and promises another course soon on prison reform.

Passage co-founder Geoff Sharpe said the car culture series attracted enough new members to recoup expenses after a month. But more surprisingly, the mini-courses helped build the news outlet’s middle marketing funnel.

“We originally thought this would be a way to acquire new readers, but it’s acted as more of a retention tool to engage people already on our list in a deeper way,” Sharpe said. 

The content itself isn’t much different than typical articles, he said, but it arguably offers more overall value to the organization.

“We can pay a little more for content because we know more people long-term will read it, helping our mid-funnel,” Sharpe said. “We’ve certainly been happy with the results, but there are a lot of potential opportunities to experiment with.”

Tell really epic tales

Some stories can’t be told in one swipe, so newsletter courses allow readers to consume bite-sized chunks of bigger, timeless stories. For example, Oregon Public Broadcasting recently produced “Timber Wars,” a joint newsletter-podcast project about the state’s forestry fight in the 1990s. That’s when the Northern Spotted Owl was added to the endangered species list, resulting in “one of the biggest environmental conflicts of the 20th century,” according to OPB.

The newsletter course complements a seven-episode podcast series of the same name by providing additional reporting, photos and video about the controversy and how loggers and environmentalists have since found common ground. Much of the reporting was pulled from OPB’s archives, helping to revive prior reporting efforts from the public news outlet’s environmental and science reporters. 

The 2020 U.S. presidential election also served as a catalyst for newsletter courses. The Texas Tribune created a five-part newsletter course to “Teach Me How To Texas,” an election rundown for new voters in the fast-growing U.S. state. 

Additionally, Boston-based NPR station WBUR and Spanish-language daily news outlet El Planeta partnered together to produce its own state-focused crash-course on the 2020 election, providing both a seven-day overview and three-day crash course to inform Massachusetts voters. 

Another way to make money

Passage caps off its “Deepening Democracy” series with a membership call-to-action: “Without the support of members, this course wouldn’t have been possible,” the extra email reads. 

Passage currently doesn’t require readers to pay for its newsletter courses, although Sharpe said it may someday produce paid series or add-on editions accessible to members only. 

Content shelf life can also be extended, he said, by hosting webinars related to the series weeks after the newsletter course debuts. 

“Maybe make it a members-only event to try to convert subscribers,” Sharpe said.

Don’t feel bad about requesting donations if you don’t have a membership program established. But if you’re not targeting reader revenue, then consider grants that could fund these mini-courses. For example, The Open Notebook received nearly $50,000 in foundational support to create a newsletter course geared toward science journalists.

And if you’re in the ad sales game, newsletter course sponsorships should be easy to sell because of the higher open rates, roughly 60 per cent to 70 per cent per edition at Passage, according to Sharpe.

In the news

Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

Editor’s note, Nov, 17, 3:44 P.M.: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Geoff Sharpe’s name. We apologize for the error.

Indiegraf Media

Indiegraf Media Inc
308 - 877 E Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC

© 2022 Indiegraf Media Inc.