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A look inside the reinvention of The Daily Tar Heel

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Last summer Betsy O’Donovan, the incoming Executive Director of The Daily Tar Heel, wrote an essay on Medium charting the dire financial situation of UNC-Chapel Hill’s student newspaper.

It started pretty bluntly: “The Daily Tar Heel is a news organization, and we don’t dodge the facts: This 123-year-old institution has two years to figure out its finances.”

The Daily Tar Heel, like many news organizations these days, was operating on a deficit — to the tune of more than $200,000 annually.

O’Donovan, a former Nieman Fellow, editorial page editor and author of a newsletter for journalists contemplating grants, awards and fellowships, outlined a two-year plan based on principles of collaboration, creativity and community, with a healthy dollop of user research built in. She also vowed to share any knowledge that came out of The Daily Tar Heel’s experimental approach that could benefit other college and community papers.

As the academic year nears an end and The Daily Tar Heel nears the halfway mark in its two-year experiment, I reached out to O’Donovan to find out how it’s been going, what other newsrooms could learn from The Daily Tar Heel’s approach and what the paper has learned over the past year. An edited version of our conversation is below.

You wrote an no-B.S. essay last year about the financial state of The Daily Tar Heel, the challenges that it faced, and the need for it to trim a print edition and reinvent itself for digital audiences. It's nearing the end of your first academic year there — I'm wondering how the year has gone and what you've learned.

I am mostly thinking right now about where it's gone — it's blasted by incredibly quickly. And we're entering that post-experiment pause where we look back and consider where (and how) the time was spent, which investments to continue and which experiments were valuable lessons that we don't need to repeat.

Could you talk a little bit about the experiments you ran, and how you're evaluating whether to continue them in the next academic year?

In the past eight months, we've managed a few things. In terms of building new revenue streams, we've spun up a working, in-house agency for services and creative consulting. It's called The 1893 Brand Studio. We're building up Friends of The Daily Tar Heel, a public media-inspired membership group, for people who support us financially, with advice and in other ways.

We have also had a lot of conversations with our client base — both existing clients and with people whose ad categories haven't appeared in The Daily Tar Heel because it's been thought of as a campus paper.

The fact is, we're the largest newsroom serving this county, and we take our community journalism very seriously.

Conveying that to advertisers has been — will continue to be — important.

What have you learned from those conversations (and what are take-aways that other college newspapers and community news organizations can take away from them?)

First: Our advertisers are not at all afraid of giving us their opinions, but as with any good engagement strategy, you have to ask.

We talk about audience engagement a lot, but we have a lot of kinds of clients — not just people who pick up the paper.

So any community paper that doesn't have a meaningful advertiser engagement strategy — one that uses the engagement principles that newsrooms are always talking about — is leaving a lot of important information on the ground.

It's also critical to realize that almost everyone you talk to about a news organization is at a lot of intersections.

How so?


Readers are also sources are also advertisers or potential advertisers are also creative partners. They might not consume one product, like the daily print edition, but be just dying for another, like a photography service or a workshop about how to conduct interviews.

It's been valuable to ask, in every conversation, how people experience the DTH. Not just where they get it or how they use it, but what they think we do, what they need from us and what they need that we don't do.

I want to double back very quickly and talk about one other thing – maybe the most important thing we've done this year.

Sure.

When I got here, neither the community nor most of the organization was aware of our financial position.

There are reasons to shield that kind of information — if you think it's a temporary downturn, if you're very concerned about being perceived as weak or fading.

I was hired, I think, because I truly didn't see us as operating from a position of weakness.

You were very candid about the financial state in the Medium essay. You said there was a two-year window to figure things out. Having that kind of immediate need inspires change and creativity. Or as you put it: "The will of this organization has turned toward solutions."

We still had the full set of creative resources and energy, we hadn't been depleted. So we were able to communicate from a position of creative strength and energy. But our newsroom had the same problem that most community newsrooms have. The staff simply wasn't empowered to make financial choices for our future.

They didn't have complete information, they didn't have an invitation to participate in our reinvention.

Starting in January, we began a weekly meeting, every Friday, to talk about DTH finances. It's open to everyone. We don't have secrets at all, because the core principle around here, right now, is that we exist to train not just journalists, but entrepreneurial thinkers.

How has that changed the vibe in the newsroom?

We need the newsroom to think about the byproducts of things like quizzes, and consider, "Hmm, is this also market research for brands that work with us?"

We have brilliant editorial cartoonists who very much want to steal the New Yorker model of putting their work on bags and T-shirts, so we're going to start a limited edition line of DTH creative merch.

I don't want to pretend that this isn't scary sometimes — we've had a few people in tears over the past eight months as we dig into the core question of what we do, why we do it and what we don't need to do anymore.

But giving people those questions, and then giving them the tools to address them, is moving us forward.

Have you made progress toward bettering your financial situation? What's your expected net income for this year?

Before Monday's national championship victory, the Daily Tar Heel expected to lose about $100,000 for the fiscal year — progress in the right direction, but with a lot of work to do yet. Thanks to the national championship lightning strike, we're expect to reduce that loss to less than $50,000 this year, down from $272,000 in fiscal 2015-2016. Our revenue is just under $900,000 per year.

There's an editorial and business-side divide in most newsrooms, so I imagine most reporters aren't aware of the financial state of their publications. But it sounds like learning more about the finances of the DTH has allowed the newsroom to make better decisions...

I'm a product of the editorial side — before this job, I spent 18 years as a reporter and editor — and the reason I shifted to the business side is precisely because the news organizations I worked for weren't transparent with the newsroom or open to revenue ideas and innovation from the news side. And, in fairness, sometimes that's a willful ignorance — a lot of journalists feel that knowledge of their organizations' business relationships or practices will affect their news judgment. Or they got into journalism because, like many of us, they love stories more than numbers.

Our newsroom is good at crunching numbers — they do a lot of smart reporting about university and local budgets.

What we're seeing out of our newsroom is exactly what you'd hope: Strong, smart journalists tend to be creative problem solvers who really understand their audiences. So they're borrowing ideas from all over the place and coming up with many of their own. Some of that is practical — our incoming editor understands that our rent is too high, and is figuring out how we can move into a smaller space without sacrificing quality or operations, for example. Some of it is experimental — for example, we appreciate that our audience at UNC is a desirable demographic, and if we can project their behaviors, identify messages or communication styles that resonate with them, and document their preferences, that is information that has huge value for marketing firms.

We're still only eight months in, so it's not as though we have it all figured out. But I come from a Marine Corps family, and one of the things I know is that effective, motivated groups of people follow similar patterns. They have a shared problem and mission, and they suffer or succeed together, not individually. I think if you look at the DTH, that's who we are right now and how we're making decisions.

It sounds like you're trying a lot of different approaches. How are you not spreading the newsroom too thin, and ensuring that you're evaluating the methods you're trying?

Good question. Tough one, too.

So, our budget cycle runs July 1 to June 30, which means we're right in the thick of making choices. And a budget is a very useful tool for evaluating an organization.

We see that we didn't make as much money off of some of our brand studio services as we'd hoped. That kicks off a conversation about why it faltered, and whether to try a new approach or to abandon that effort to focus on more financially productive work.

What are you most proud of this year, in terms of what the paper has produced?

Honestly? The DTH has always produced excellent young journalists — which I can say because I am new here, I used to have to compete against them when I edited a paper in this market, and I never wrote for the DTH. They've always been world-beaters when it comes to reporting and editing.

But what we are producing now are people who have a set of skills that will prepare them to take control of their careers. They understand media finances, and they have robust arguments about business models and revenue streams. They pay attention to what other organizations are doing to sustain excellent journalism. They think in terms of sustaining community service. And they're not going to let other people decide the fate of their organizations or careers. We're producing problem-solvers who deeply understand journalism. They're still world-beaters. They're just discovering new worlds.

I think if you went by analytics, the DTH would cover men's basketball...and men's basketball. How do you balance community and news coverage with that?

Eh. Men's basketball flares up — this week is HUGE for us! — but it doesn't make sense, in terms of our business model, to focus just on Carolina's revenue sports. Yes, our analytics tell us that sports coverage brings traffic to the site. And digital advertising is a valuable piece of revenue for us. But our strategy is very much a community journalism strategy — and our mission is to train great journalists, not only great sports reporters. So it would be off mission and off strategy to sacrifice community and news coverage in pursuit of basketball. Our job is to build deep, passionate fandoms for the rest of the paper, too.

Switching gears a bit...You write an amazing newsletter detailing fellowship opportunities and sharing essays that others have used, and you continually share what you learn with others? What inspired the newsletter?

First, let me say this: Five years ago, I didn't know anyone who'd ever gotten a journalism grant or fellowship. I worked at small, community papers that didn't have alumni systems or the luxury of sending people off to follow their curiosity for a year while the papers held their jobs for them. None of this was on my radar at all.

I stumbled into the fellowship world because (for the exact reasons I mentioned earlier, about being frustrated that news organizations were being cut to death and the newsroom wasn't empowered to help fix it), I was at a quitting point in my career. I was just ... I was done. Furious and tired and working insane hours and watching good people get laid off right and left. The journalism we'd been trained to practice was vanishing from underneath our feet. So I stumbled on a fellowship listing on a job board. And, in researching that, I found more.

As a side note, let me say that if you're not a journalist who goes on the national conference circuit or who comes from a strong journalism school, it's pretty hit-or-miss whether this information gets to you. Fellowship and grant programs are desperately trying to recruit — particularly, by the way, the people who are least likely to apply for stuff, including community journalists, young journalists, and people of color. But you have to get into the right silos before you hear about them — or get lucky, like I did.

Anyway, my Nieman fellowship (applications open in November-ish!) quite literally changed the course of my life. It could have pushed me into national market jobs, etc., but my experience is that a fellowship can help you distill who you are and what you care about. It buys you time to know what you're supposed to be doing. In my case, the thing I want most for my career is to figure out how to sustain community media.

And so ... doing this newsletter is actually part of that. (Sorry I'm being long-winded. I have passion!)

I come from small places, I share with my networks. I try very hard to meet and encourage community journalists, and to level the knowledge field for them — especially if their dream is to stay in rural or small communities and kick a lot of ass. Small towns need ass-kicking journalists. I truly think the civil rights movement would never have happened without the smaller, black-owned papers that created the National Negro Publishers Association, and the small, white-owned papers that went hard at the problem, like the Carter family's Delta Democrat-Times and the Ayers' family's Anniston Star.

So the newsletter is part of that. It's an efficient way for me to share tools — and it lets me explicitly tell people that there are resources and people available to them if they don't already have someone. I published my fellowship application, and I'm planning to publish grant applications and other helpful, concrete information along with the links, as it comes up.

I should also say that I needed a kick-start to do this. I began doing a monthly round-up for indie audio producers when I was at AIR. They'd maintained a grants and awards wiki for years, and my little contribution to their service was to say, "You know, this is hard to maintain and people aren't updating it; let's deliver two months of upcoming deadlines to people, in their inboxes." And we built a revenue strategy around it — that we'd put a couple of funding opportunities in the newsletter, and put the full thing behind a paywall for members. We did that, and it's part of a newsletter that AIR sends out on Mondays — one curated by a young writer named An Uong. I recommend it, and you can find links to AIR and other helpful places in the newsletter.

After I left AIR, I did my own round-up for friends, encouraging to share it. And then I belatedly realized it was idiotic not to make it subscribable, so people don't have to rely on my ability to maintain an email list, which is not one of my better skills. It's free, it's advertising free, it's something I do to demonstrate gratitude to the people who've helped me.