That was fast!
A year has flown by since we launched The Kerr County Lead with the assistance of Meta's Bulletin platform. The social media giant's financial backing proved critical in getting this project off the ground, but now we face the challenge of navigating a world without their support.
Frankly, I'm OK with that. I will put my trust in the community to grow The Lead in the future, and there are plenty of indications that we will get there.
In a year, The Lead's success metrics are focused on subscriber growth, audience reach and content offerings through our email newsletter and our webcast, The Lead Live! In a year, we've gained more than 3,300 subscribers to our newsletter, while the live show reached more than 400,000 viewers. However, the anecdotal measurements are just as important.
"You have done great reporting what others in the county are afraid to tell us, e.g., COVID, commissioner hi-jinks, and politician stupidity," one of our subscribers told us during a readership survey. "Keep it up. I also enjoy your reporting on events that other sources ignore."
For those who don't know, The Lead is based in Kerrville, Texas — in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. Kerr County has 50,000 residents.
In the last year, The Lead also has:
- Posted more than 850 articles or newsletters since Aug. 19, 2021.
- Those articles include coverage of a fatal drag racing crash at the Kerrville-Kerr County Airport, a trip to Del Rio to see first-hand the situation at the U.S. Mexico Border and a deeply reported story about the financial practices of a Kerrville mayoral candidate. We made a trip to Uvalde to localize an unimaginable tragedy and found plenty of Kerr County residents at the ready to help.
- Produced 254 live webcasts with more than 600 guests in 700 hours of programming.
- Posted 80 photo galleries and more than 2,900 photos on our photo website.
- Helped develop the live programming efforts of Texas Hill Country Advisors and Greg A. Richards Law, and more is on the way.
- We grew our Facebook audience to more than 6,300 followers in a year.
- Our interview with Texas music legend Robert Earl Keen was our most-viewed video in the last year, with 100,000 viewers.
We're not measuring our results by awards or other laudations but by simple growth. For fellow journalists, there are plenty of lessons from this experiment in self-publication.
Don't underestimate your worth
This is probably the hardest thing for many journalists to learn — it certainly was for me. Place value on your work. During a seminar at the Poynter Institute in 2019, I was struck by how the Anchorage Daily News emphasized new digital subscribers as their key success metric. It was my one takeaway from the Table Stakes program, and I put it into play when we launched The Lead.
On day one, we put a loose paywall up, stated our purpose and measured our success and failures with our paid subscribers. We immediately had people pay to read our content, which was thrilling.
Initially, we launched The Lead in early 2021 using Patreon, which presented revenue challenges. The relationship with Meta allowed us to offer a lower price point — $5.99 per month, $54.99 per year. For a one-man band, it's a pretty good price point. Could we raise rates? Yes, but I'm in a holding pattern for the time being.
Is readership revenue the savior? No. In some niche areas that offer scale, it certainly helps, but it's not going to be everything, and I can see that. Even at my price point, it's a relentless effort to convert those readers from free to paid. We have seen examples where it's easy — our election coverage proved that. The quality of the content helped convert subscribers (something publishers tend to forget). However, the notion of readership revenue as a savior is one of the many digital dreams that isn't grounded in reality.
That means you have to be nimble
If there's one thing I've learned is that if I want to eat and pay my daughter's tuition, I will have to be nimble in my revenue expectations. In the last few weeks, we've started seeing recognition from our sponsors of our value and have been able to generate revenue through a series of events connected to our live video efforts.
Once again, I rely on a tactical effort to develop a strategic initiative — pressure. I believe being consistently present is the best way to show value to your advertisers. That pressure comes from being in as many places as possible, writing a five-day email newsletter and a weekday webcast. At the end of the year, when those efforts produce a revenue bump, you know you're making some progress.
I also scour every opportunity for funding The Lead. Generally, I wouldn't say I like journalism contests, but if they offer cash prizes, I try to submit. I consider and frequently go after every grant opportunity or funding deal with limited strings. I search for options that may not traditionally fit my model — I haven't found one yet, but I'm looking.
I'm still on the fence about nonprofit journalism. Our first experience with crowdsourcing an initiative reached about half of our goal. Most who contributed already subscribed and were familiar with us. It reminded me of the never-ending NPR fundraising efforts, but we tried it.
Don't overestimate the brands in your market
As a veteran newspaper journalist and editor, I love the history and brands of newspapers. In my long career, newspaper nameplates like the Record and Gazette, the Bulletin, The Sun, the Press and Enterprise and The Times have shaped my career. I've spent time at weeklies, dailies, twice weeklies and thrice weeklies.
In my thinking, those brands always seemed glamorously formidable — even in the digital age. So, when I thought about it, I gutted sentimentality and focused on how the brands were compromised. The Lead's genesis was born from my belief that newspapers have lost their way of being present in their communities, and leadership is frequently absent. So, the brand's aim said it first and foremost — Lead.
"The Kerr County Lead provides great, more extensive news coverage, especially coverage of Planning & Zoning and City Council," a reader told us in our readership survey. "The Kerrville Daily Times is too expensive, especially since just three days instead of six."
In a year, we've netted 3,300 subscribers — we'd be in a great position if they all paid — but we're reaching a significant number of people daily. Our churn is about 13.5% (lost subscribers), and almost all are free subscribers. One of the benefits of Meta's plan was pushing people to sign up, and the data we received provides insightful detail on acquisition costs. However, we also understand that our reach now rivals those in the market — in all media formats.
Lastly, have fun
Look, I've been in this business since I was 17 in some form or fashion. I'm now 51, with two grown children, two grandsons and many good friends, but I also love what I'm doing. Sometimes, we forget that we tell stories — from the written word through audio, video, and pictures. It's not a lavish lifestyle, but I can't imagine doing anything else. The hardest part was taking that first step. That's the most challenging part for any entrepreneur. But consider taking that leap.
One more word
From left, Bulletin writers Larry Hoffman, Giovanna Drpic, Louis Amestoy and Meta's Samantha Bennet at a Meta-sponsored event in Brooklyn in June.
None of this would have been possible without the support of Meta's Samantha Bennet, who provided this opportunity. Along the way, she's been a guide, sounding board, editor and friend. We've also received ample support from Dan Oshinsky of the Inbox Collective, the folks at LION and the Google News Initiative. Our local support is also critical with KPUB, Peterson Health, Fitch Estate Sales, Greg A. Richards Law, Amber Thomason at State Farm, EuroTex, Mustang Sallys, Layng and Karen Guerriero, Kerrville Pets Alive, Tom Fox, Kevin and Linda Pillow at Wildbirds Unlimited, Kerr County Abstract and Title, Schreiner University, the Museum of Western Art, the MacDonald Companies, the Community Foundation of the Texas Hill Country, Arcadia Live, Kerr Economic Development Corp. and the Kerrville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Then there's the Kerr County family of supporters, including Gilbert Paiz and Andrew Gay of Texas Hill Country Advisors. The partnership with Jeremy and Maia Walther, the whole Walther clan (even Josh), and Pint and Plow is instrumental in our success. When I came down with COVID-19 in June, Gilbert Paiz, Andrew Gay and Jeremy Walther stepped up and took over the show. There are those who quietly challenge you to do better like Jack Lamb at the Kerrville Police Department. The steady advice and counsel of many others, including Joe Herring Jr. and Jon and Sandy Wolfmueller, is one of the reasons I love this community.
Finally, this wouldn't be possible without my wife, Cherie, and my daughter, Alyson. When I say we, I view this as a family affair. If it weren't for them saying to me, "Shouldn't you be out covering something," I'd probably stay home and pester them. They know my purpose and mission, so I'm grateful for their love and support.