On our 7th birthday, a thank you to our first 800 subscribers. (And the case for subscribing if you haven’t already)

Jay Senter - June 17, 2017 6:00 am
Seven years in, we even have our own signs.
Seven years in, we even have our own signs.

(Fair warning: This post is long…and it doesn’t contain any news about northeast Johnson County. But if you’re interested in the sausage-making aspect of the site, read on!)

Well, dear readers, this week we turned seven years old. It’s fair to say we’ve come a long way since that first post on June 15, 2010.

In fact, over those seven years, we’ve become the most turned-to source for news and information about community life in northeast Johnson County. But in the tumultuous world of the news business, sheer traffic is no guarantee of success, particularly at the local level. The desire to ensure we can keep publishing for another seven years is what led to April’s move toward a subscription model.

As we’ve detailed before, the decision to start charging a subscription fee for full access to the site was, shall we say, not easy. It was, in fact, one of the most nerve wracking choices I’ve ever made.

Two months in, however, it’s looking increasingly like it was the right move — and one that sets up a promising future for accountability journalism here in northeast Johnson County.

Okay — a little background on the state of the news business for those of you who might be interested:
About a month after the subscription wall went up, a friend passed along a link to the following article: “The Local News Business Model — Local news will be subscriptions; it (probably) won’t be newspapers.”

The analysis by Ben Thompson* (which is well worth the read) does the best job I’ve seen of summarizing the counterintuitive forces we’ve experienced at play in the local independent online news industry.

Namely that:

  • The cost of publishing a local news product has plummeted over the past 20 years (Huzzah! Onward!)
  • It’s really hard to generate enough revenue to sustainably publish a professional local news product (Boo!)

Thompson’s basic conclusion is that, despite the technological advances that make it relatively inexpensive to reach a local audience on the internet, the crumbling of the traditional news advertising market means that community news sites will need to rely on subscriptions as their primary revenue source in the future.

That conclusion certainly made sense to us. And here’s the good news: It appears to make sense to a lot of you as well.

Our goal was to hit 1,000 subscribers within a year of the launch of the paywall. Two months in, we’ve already crossed 800 subscriptions. (UPDATED: As of June 20, we’ve hit 850…)

What we cover

Our goal is to provide consistent coverage of the institutions and developments that shape the future of our community. Here’s a list of the government bodies and news categories the Shawnee Mission Post covers:

• Shawnee Mission schools
• Overland Park city government
• Prairie Village city government
• Mission city government
• Roeland Park city government
• Merriam city government
• Leawood city government
• Westwood city government
• Fairway city government
• Mission Hills city government
• Westwood Hills city government
• Mission Woods city government
• The state legislators who represent our area
• Local business openings and closings
• Development and construction
• Crime and police activity
• Community events
• Human interest, the characters and accomplishments that make NEJC what it is

If you value having a news organization covering these topics, we hope you’ll consider subscribing and making our continued work possible.

Obviously, it’s nice to know so many people out there value the site enough to have hopped on board this early. But I have to say the most unexpected — and welcome — thing about the paywall is how it quickly and clearly it has realigned our incentives in putting together our report each day. Or, perhaps more precisely, how it has more closely aligned our incentives with those of our readers.

When a publication’s revenue comes solely from advertisers, it is naturally inclined to take an approach that delivers them the most exposure. That is, traffic volume becomes the most important metric, because that’s what gets monetized. That tends to tip the editorial quality vs. quantity scale fairly sharply toward the quantity side. And, whether consciously or not, it’s probably fair to say that’s the approach we’d adopted in our formative years.

But since the paywall went live, it hasn’t taken long to notice a trend: On the days we publish in-depth looks at the actions of local governments, new subscriptions spike.

The fact is, when a community news publication gets a large part of its revenue from its readers, it’s incentivized to cover the things that really make a difference to the community — not to just chase the easiest path toward the most pageviews. When we launched the site in 2010, the goal was to create a publication based on the following values:

  • We believe that an informed community is a stronger community. When people don’t know what their elected officials are doing — and understand why they might be compelled to do it — distrust festers. Our goal is to provide people who live in northeast Johnson County with a straightforward account of the issues that come before their governing bodies, and how they decide to act, so that even if they disagree with the decision, they will understand.
  • We believe in strong public schools. It’s pretty easy to make the argument that strong public schools are the foundation upon which Johnson County — and thus much of the state’s economy — is built. It is our belief that for the Shawnee Mission School District to maintain its traditional reputation for excellence, the board of education and administration should be held accountable for the decisions they make about education policy and the use of taxpayer dollars.
  • We believe in celebrating the community’s successes. One of the things that makes a community a community is a shared sense of pride — about the life it provides its residents, about the initiatives it undertakes, about the accomplishments of its citizens. We want the Shawnee Mission Post to help foster the social capital that makes northeast Johnson County a great place to live and raise a family.

More than 800 of you appear to agree with those beliefs strongly enough that you’ve made an investment in our continued ability to bring you truly local coverage by subscribing. If you share those values but have not subscribed yet, we hope you’ll consider doing so today.


(*Coincidentally, Ben Thompson, the author, was a colleague of Julia’s and mine at The Badger Herald, the college newspaper in Madison, Wis., where we met. He had a healthy knack for sharp analysis back then, too.)

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