April 11, 2017 was, shall we say, not the most enjoyable day I’d had as publisher of the Shawnee Mission Post.
After nearly seven years of operations, Dan and I had come to the difficult conclusion in early 2017 that without charging for full access to the site, we simply weren’t going to be able to keep the business afloat.
We’d tried a voluntary donation campaign, but that hadn’t raised enough money to fundamentally change our financial position. We’d tried expanding our scale by launching a second site in Blue Valley, but weren’t able to attract enough sponsorships out of the gate to help the cause.
We calculated that we would need to sign up 1,000 subscribers within a year of launch to make ends meet. We set the launch day for April 12.
I’ll admit I was less than confident the move was going to be a success. On my more optimistic days I gave the subscription model about a 50-50 chance. On my less optimistic days, I called our realtor and asked what steps we should be taking to ready our house for the market.
On April 11, 2017, I was pretty sure that we’d be looking at shutting the site down by the end of the year.
But to my immense pleasure and great surprise, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Subscriptions started rolling in right away. And they kept rolling in.
We’d needed to hit 1,000 subscribers by April 2018. We got there in August 2017. As of this morning, we have 1,672 paid subscribers.
The success of the subscription model has allowed us to invest in both expanded coverage and improved user experience. We’ve added Lenexa and Shawnee to our footprint, and are now providing the most consistent coverage of those cities out there. We were also able to add a new morning summary email for subscribers, and to redesign the site to improve load time and readability.
But it’s also become an example how communities can sustain local news. More and more experts are pointing to low cost, digital subscriptions as perhaps the best chance to fight the decline of community news.
And to that end, the Shawnee Mission Post has become a case study for other community publishers. Harvard’s Neiman Lab and Traffic Magazine have both profiled our experience with paywalls. We’ve been invited to speak at national conferences, including the Center for Cooperative Media’s Reader Revenue Summit in New Jersey last week.
When Julia and I found out she was pregnant with Olivia back in 2009, we were living in Panama and had to make a decision about where we wanted to put down roots in the States. With its strong sense of community, we decided my native northeast Johnson County was where we wanted to raise our family.
That strong sense of community is also what’s allowed us to make this business a model for other local publishers.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to our paying subscribers for your support of truly local news here in Shawnee Mission.
P.S. Yes, we’ll work in a plug for subscriptions here. If you’ve been on the fence about signing up, check out our “Why Subscribe” page.