So You Want to Start a Newspaper?

Continuing coverage from sessions at the 2006 Allied Media Conference

Representatives from the newspapers Critical Moment in Detroit and the NYC Indypendent presented a session on the basics of publishing a newspaper.

Arun Gupta of the Indypendent describes five areas of focus when starting a publication: target audience, content and design, financing, distribution and structure.

I’ve been developing a Wiki book on DIY publishing since last year. You can read and contribute to the book here.

“Is it for the general public or is it for activists?” Gupta asks.

It could have a niche focus, such as queer or environmental issues. He says, insofar as content, the Indy is reader -driven, not writer-driven. This means that, “… you’re always asking, ‘What is the audience looking for?’

“Design cannot be emphasized enough,” Gupta says.

He says four-color process helps the paper be visually appealing and that clear images and words help the reader — or potential reader — quickly know what’s inside. Gupta says he prefers photos for the cover rather than illustrations. A clean, clear image helps, he says.

Gupta says the Indypendent has recently launched a new publication, IndyKids. He says you have to decide if you’re going to have a newsy publication or cultural, with a first-person point of view or a more traditional style.

Gupta says you should publish articles that have a shelf life that is 1.5 times as long as your distribution cycle. For example, a monthly paper should run articles that are good for six weeks.

Donations were discussed as a major revenue stream for small, upstart papers. Gupta suggests people wanting to use this sort of revenue stream should study direct mail solicitations. He says 1-2 percent is considered an excellent return on a direct mail solicitation; but once when the Indypendent had Naomi Klein write an appeal letter, they had a 12 percent return — more than $10,000 from 3,000 solicitations sent.

Posters — a US map of our domestic weapons of mass destruction — and T-shirts have also been major revenue streams, with 5,000 posters delivering $30,000 in revenue, Gupta says.

Free versus paid subscriptions: Both have their advantages, he says. Free distribution means the Indypendent reaches a wide audience.
“We didn’t want to be ghettoized,” Gupta says.

On structure of the organization, Gupta says you must have clearly defined roles.

Max Sussman says his publication, Critical Moment, is two-and-a-half years old. It publishes every two months and is free. Sussman says Critical Moment has an open submissions policy. He describes the process of collecting content as a kind of mixed bag. Some is assigned by the collectives — they have one in Detroit and another in Ann Arbor — and other content comes in unsolicited.

“One of the things we’ve started to do more recently is to put on more events,” Sussman says. “We think that really increases our visibility.”

Sussman says they’ve hosted speaking engagements with featured writers. Music show fundraisers are also helpful, he says.

“We do dance parties,” Gupta says.

Sussman says they primarily raise money through ads but are developing plans for donor streams. The paper carries an ongoing, 20 percent debt that’s shouldered by cash infusions from members of the collective, he says.

“Our ads go through our editorial policy,” Sussman says.

If an ad is outside of their values or if ads are blatantly offensive, without a purpose, they ask the advertiser to redesign the ad. He gives as an example an ad that said something like, “Fuck the war – Shop at my store,” saying the Critical Moment collective objected on the basis that shopping at this store clearly wouldn’t end the war and the large word “fuck” was used without a real purpose, just for shock value.

Gupta says the Indypendent doesn’t use a union print shop because of the cost. He says that his team has threatened to drop their printer to negotiate a better deal.

Ad sales is a major hurdle for Critical Moment. Sussman says the paper has no paid ad reps at this time, and garnering advertising is a difficult task. Gupta says they try and focus their ad sales on indie culture producers in New York, such as poetry and music events. One member of the audience suggested publishers focus on wealthy non-profits towards the end of their fiscal season.

Both newspapers operate as collectives. This means there’s a lot of work that is shared, and members wear many hats.

Sussman says they judge their success as a publication by how many copies are left at newsstands at the end of a cycle. Gupta also discusses a story that they ran on an Iraq War vet who became homeless. The Indypendent broke the story, and it was later picked up by major dailies and CBS.

“They’re never going to credit you,” NYC says. “But they use the same sources.”

— Stephen Carter-Novotni

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