Helping America’s smallest newspapers create their first real web sites


The North Carolina Press Foundation has secured grant funds to launch a pilot program that will develop websites and provide training for up to five qualified NCPA members to bring their print product into the digital age. The grant funding of $15,000 has been provided by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund.


We estimate there are roughly 200 newspapers in the United States that have never had a web site. Even more have web sites that are barely viable and can’t host or display searchable content of the newspaper.

Most of these are very small, family owned newspapers in rural communities that have been in existence for many years publishing in print only. Many are mom and pop operations with circulations of less than 2,500. Nationwide, state press associations identified several members – all locally owned newspapers that never had a web site.

These newspaper owners don’t see a need for a web site in their small-town markets or they believe they can’t afford the cost of launching a web site for such a small community. But their lack of a digital presence hinders their community’s ability to get news and information. And it keeps the rest of the world from accessing their stories. Their coverage and information is not available to residents, researchers or the Internet as a whole. More importantly, the lack of a web site makes these small newspapers less viable financially. Even a small added revenue stream from digital ads or subscriptions could be the difference between success or failure of these newspapers, which are almost always the only media in their market.

Our goal is to encourage the smallest newspapers in the country to enter the digital age. This project would provide them with:
• An easy-to-use web site with high-quality technology, strong technical support and customized features for a small newspaper.
• Extensive training to help them monetize and maximize the use of their new web sites. • Free hosting and support for their first year of operations.
• Networking opportunities so these isolated publishers can learn from each other as well as industry expertise we provide.
• Content sharing tools that will allow them to share content with each other and receive content from rural support networks.

We expect that adding digital capabilities will help disseminate more information to their communities and that growing revenue will make these papers more sustainable in the long run. We also believe that having a web site will make these small papers more attractive to younger journalists who might consider purchasing and running these rural newspapers as many of the current owners retire. And it would provide a digital only option to owners who might be considering ceasing or reducing their print operations.

Most of these papers are already members of their state press associations but we would require that all recipients join or be a member of a state, regional or national state press association, which would have the ancillary benefit of supporting and strengthening these important players in the ecosystem of healthy newspapers. The nation’s press associations provide support, training, contests and opportunities to interact with other, similar newspaper organizations.

To lay the foundation and spark an effort to fill in these digital news deserts, we will launch a pilot project with the North Carolina Press Association involving five papers. What we learn from this pilot program will be used to refine our plan and seek additional funding to fill the void of more than 100 digital deserts across the country.


We will use the funding to build five customized web sites designed specifically for these unique newspapers, provide extensive training and support and subsidize the cost of hosting and running the sites for the first year of operations. We would also establish connections between otherwise isolated small-market newspapers to help them feel less isolated and use what we learn to train other journalists by covering, writing and speaking about the process, the lessons learned and the success stories generated by the program.


Press associations are part of the lifeblood of a healthy newspaper ecosystem. This pilot project will be administered by the North Carolina Press Association, to solicit, screen and facilitate the selection of viable candidates for the program.

We have selected Creative Circle Media Solutions as our lead vendor partner. We chose Creative Circle because their niche has always been helping smaller and family owned newspapers, their software is non-technical and easy to learn and they are one of the top training providers in the newspaper industry. They have agreed to donate many of their services or provide them at deeply discounted rates.

Because it was engineered to be non-technical and easy to learn, Creative Circle’s web software can be effectively mastered with one or two hours of training. Creative Circle also provides direct user support and can handle customer service issues for these small papers’ users and advertisers.


To qualify for the program, the newspapers have to publish a print product at least monthly and must have been in business for at least three years.

Papers must not currently have a functional web site. Preference will be given to papers that have never had a web site, however, papers which have tried and failed to manage a web site or which have a static or dysfunctional site would also qualify.

They must be a member of the North Carolina Press Association.

They must be privately held and cannot be part of a group owning more than six newspapers.

They must be economically viable, meaning they have been profitable or were nearly profitable in at least one of the past three years.

They would also have to contribute a $500 setup fee. This fee could be reduced or waived if the press association determines the paper cannot afford the fee.


We will launch the sites together which will facilitate leading the training together. This will give papers the opportunity to hear from peers and learn from each other as well as industry experts. We expect them to face similar challenges and have similar questions and training needs. We’ll lead a series of at least six training sessions with each group, helping them learn the fundamentals of web advertising, pay walls, SEO, editorial strategies, pricing, archiving and marketing. Since web advertising opportunities will be limited, we’ll introduce them to network advertising, look for ways of finding regional advertisers and provide ways to publish enhanced print advertising online.

While we’d deliver a similar template and features to each paper to keep the launch process simple, Creative Circle’s software is flexible and easy to change, so each paper would be able to customize its web site further to meet its needs and market. We’ll also use custom programming to network the sites together so they can share content and pull in content from things like state or local databases to enhance and supplement local coverage.

We will monitor content flow, revenue and activity throughout the year, providing the participating papers with advice and suggestions about everything from coverage to using ad networks.

We’d refine and enhance the training program as we go and learn more about the needs and challenges this unique set of newspapers face.

Throughout the process, we will look for opportunities to publish articles or speak at press gatherings to share insights and lessons learned about the program.


Jan. 3: Deadlines for nominations/submissions.

Jan. 13: Selections announced.

Jan. 17: Initial meeting with papers. Introductions, project details, web site basics.

Week of Jan. 20: Initial training meeting. Paywalls, e-edition and subscription strategies.

Week of Jan. 27: Training meeting. Classified advertising strategies.

Week of Feb. 3: Training meeting. Web and print advertising strategies.

Week of Feb. 10: Web site soft launch. They can unveil their site to the public any time after this point that they feel ready. Technical training on web site operations.

Week of Feb. 17: Training meeting. Content for the web and how it can be different. User contributed content options.

Week of Feb. 24: Training meeting. Web ad sales. Network advertising. Understanding analytics.

Week of March 2: Training meeting. Hopefully, all the sites would be publically live by March one and we’d begin focusing on reader reaction as well as how to market and provide SEO for the sites.

Week of April 6: Training meeting. Status updates from each site. Next steps. What they have learned. Training topics TBA.

Week of June 8: Training meeting. Status updates from each site. What they have learned. Training topics TBA.

Week of Aug. 31: Training meeting. Status update from each site. What they have learned. Training topics TBA.

Week of Dec. 7: Training meeting. Status update from each site. What they have learned. Training topics TBA.


After a full year of operations with no costs and in-depth support, training and consulting help, we believe we can reach the point at the end of the program where these web sites are providing ongoing positive cash flow for their newspapers.

The web sites will have a pay wall, e-editions, enhancements for print advertising and an ad server with capabilities for local and network web advertising.

While we believe even a mom and pop teams will be able to manage and grow the web sites from this point but both the press association and Creative Circle could provide ongoing support or management help.

After the first year, the papers would have to begin to pay for the sites through a revenue share or low monthly fee.

Creative Circle has agreed to continue the program at rates to be established by the press association for up to two years.

About the North Carolina Press Association

Since 1873 NCPA has supported North Carolina newspapers, readership and advertising. We work to protect the public's right to know through the defense of open government and First Amendment freedoms, and we help maintain the public's access to local, state and federal governments. NC Press Services, a wholly-owned subsidiary, works with clients to provide one-call advertising solutions (online, mobile and print) and press release services in North Carolina and nationwide.

About the North Carolina Press Foundation 

The NC Newspaper in Education Foundation and the First Amendment Foundation merged in 1995 to form the NC Press Foundation (NCPF). NCPF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization established to defend citizens' right to know, promote civic participation through literacy programs and other educational initiatives and provide small loans/grants to assist in legal representation for the state's journalists.

About Creative Circle Media Solutions

Creative Circle, founded in 1984, has worked as consultants or trainers for newspapers in 23 countries and almost every U.S. state. The firm has worked with more than 850 publications around the world. While Creative Circle has worked with some of the largest media companies in the world – including The Chicago Tribune, McClatchy, Scripps, Dow Jones, NBC, Newsweek Broadcasting, The Toronto Star, O Globo (Brazil), Jyllands-Posten (Denmark), La Nacion (Argentina) and El Correo (Spain) – the firm’s primary focus has always been helping smaller, family owned publishers thrive in the United States. Many of its clients are small, weekly newspapers so their team is very familiar with the challenges faced by mom and pop operations (among other things, they provide “vacation services” for their smallest newspaper clients, allowing newspaper owners to take a week off while Creative Circle publishes their newspapers).

Working with press associations around the world, Creative Circle has led thousands of training sessions on a wide range of topics – from reinventing classifieds to writing better headlines and from improving photo content to writing more relevant stories.

Creative Circle has also redesigned more than 600 print newspapers in the United States, so its’ team members are experts at both print and web issues faced by small newspapers.

In 2004, frustrated with the complex and inflexible web software that was hampering the firm’s clients’ online success, Creative Circle launched a software arm to create easy-to-use, flexible and affordable web site platforms for smaller media outlets. It was the first media CMS vendor to create a pay wall, user-contributed content, flexible web templates, native content, networked web sites and hyper-zoning tools.

About NC Local News Lab Fund

The Fund is run by a group of local and national funders who believe in the power of local journalism, local stories, and local people to strengthen our democracy. It was established at the North Carolina Community Foundation in 2017 by Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation that works to ensure that the American people come first in our democracy.

The Fund supports people and organizations working to build a healthier local news and information ecosystem for all North Carolinians. The central goal of the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund is to provide more relevant and useful news and information for North Carolina communities.

If successful, North Carolinians will have greater access to the news and information they need to participate fully in their communities and our democracy.