Don Smith knows first-hand the daily grind his members experience as news aggregators. He also appreciates how important providing Relevant news coverage is to attracting revenue.
Each weekday, the West Virginia Press Association distributes “Today’s News,” a newsletter that compiles stories from the state’s newspapers and press releases from newsmakers.
The May 17th edition, for example, shared a daily coronavirus update, an article from The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington on West Virginia officials rejecting a federal voter reform bill, a story from the Bluefield Daily Telegram indicating swarms of cicadas might not be visiting after all, two pieces out of the state capital on new pandemic rules, an update from WV News about the state Department of Education’s summer programs, a Charleston Gazette-Mail analysis of energy data, carbon emissions and the state’s coal economy, details about the West Virginia Renaissance Festival, and two more press releases — one announcing a concert at Appalachian Power Park and another about the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority hiring new staff to boost economic development.
Not your typical association fare.
Atop the newsletter is a picture of Executive Director Smith and the main paying sponsor, AARP West Virginia.
Therein lies Smith’s strategy: Help members. Make money for the Association.
The content-sharing newsletter also was borne out of financial urgency when Smith arrived in 2012. “We’re small,” Smith said. “And we needed immediate funding while providing a valuable service to members.”
The arrangement has “majority rules” approval for other newspapers to use contributed stories the next day. The newsletter presents a couple of graphs from each story, with a link sending users to the Association website and then to the originating newspaper’s website. That allows the Association to offer two opportunities for sponsorship messages to appear and, in turn, the member newspapers to retain web traffic to its stories.
The newsletter focuses on distributing interesting features, “good news,” member news, stories about government, and issues of statewide interest. “No sports or crime,” Smith said. “Newspapers report plenty of that already.”
Smith said in some years the sponsorships and revenue from paid press releases have brought in approximately $100,000. In addition to AARP, other notable sponsors include West Virginia University and oil and gas businesses. This year, because of the pandemic, total revenue is trending around $40,000. “That’s still significant for us,” he added.
Smith also extends the sponsor packages to include the Association’s legislative events, annual meeting and other programs.
Today’s News has about 2,000 subscribers, but not all are newspaper staff. By design, Smith has updated the mailing list so all of the state legislators get the newsletter as well as county and business leaders. It’s important to the Association that officials see the trusted journalism being produced by West Virginia newspapers and their efforts to ensure coverage is factual and balanced.
Smith estimated the newsletter had an open rate of 15 precent — 10 percent by “outsiders” and 5 percent by those in the newspaper industry.
Maintaining the story-sharing and newsletter production is “labor intensive,” said Smith, who has a news background. He taps a part-time staffer for help, especially when the legislature is in session.
In addition to stories, Association member benefits including an unusual collaboration orchestrated by the Association during the state high school basketball tournament in Charleston. Smith hires a photographer who shoots all of the games and delivers photos to member newspapers compliments of the Association.
“They get four photos of each game,” Smith said. “If they want extra, they can arrange to pay for it with the photographer.” It costs the Association $600 each for the boys’ and girls’ multi-day tourneys. It is one of the more popular benefits to members.
Nine years after starting Today’s News, Smith has his eyes on what’s next. He wants to create a video version of the newsletter.
“The Association has a studio in its office,” he said. “I’m eager to offer something new. I just need to learn how to do it daily with video.”