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.
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.
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.