Newspapers are dying? This digital media veteran launched one anyway.

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Not even ten years ago, Susan Clark was in charge of digital operations for The Economist magazine worldwide.

It was a forward-looking role that seemingly placed her at the forefront of journalism at the time – championing the online future of media, in an organization well-positioned to tap into a lucrative global audience.

In other words, Clark was essentially one of the last people who would be expected to start a print newspaper in a small town in 2022.

Yet that is exactly what she did with the Redding’s Sentinel in Fairfield County, Connecticut. And while it’s still early in the Sentinel’s trajectory, Clark is more than happy with how it’s going.

A quarter of Redding households are already subscribers. Some townspeople have sent donations – from a few dollars to $1,000 – just to support the business. And everywhere she goes in her hometown, readers thank her for what she has done.

“We desperately needed an article,” Clark told me. Before retiring from The Economist, she had returned to Redding, with a population of around 9,000, after living in Geneva. “Given the burst of news and the tribal Facebook groups people were turning to, our city needed an independent community news source.”

Beware of proponent “pink slime” sites posing as local news

It therefore took the plunge at the beginning of this year, starting in April with a monthly edition which it considered a pilot project.

“I wanted to see if the city would come around to a newspaper,” she said. The answer came back loud and clear: yes, it would, even if the sale price was $3. (Part of her business model, she noted, is “not afraid to charge a fair price.”) Subscribers and donors will cover 25% of the cost of the publication; the rest will come from advertising. The Sentinel ships via US Mail.

Clark described the response from potential advertisers as “explosive” and “phenomenal”. Why? “There’s no other way to reach people in Redding.” The community’s newest newspaper – a weekly called the Redding Pilot – has been much missed since going out of business several years ago.

In a letter to the editor published in the second issue of the Redding Sentinel, reader Tina Miller praised “this indispensable undertaking in community building”. noting that a real community needs reliable, unbiased information on issues such as taxes, schools, the environment, roads, elections, public safety and more.

The three issues of the 16-page broadsheet that I reviewed begin with articles on the city’s budget, a controversial tree-cutting plan, and plans to redevelop an industrial site.

The plan now is to convert the Sentinel, gradually, to a weekly publication by November, with a digital version which is a reproduction of the printed newspaper. With reporting by a small group of freelancers and her own versatile roles overseeing news, publicity, broadcasting and finance (she plans to hire an editor soon), Clark lacks the resources to publish. an ever-evolving live website with the latest news. .

Say that this company is against the grain is an understatement. Newspapers are closing across the United States at the rate of two a week, according to a recent report from Northwestern University. And while there are encouraging signs with the digital publications of start-ups, it is still true that information deserts – regions in which there is no (or almost no) source of information local – are becoming much more common.

Every week, two more newspapers close and the “information deserts” grow

The trend is largely driven by the loss of advertisers and readership to online sources, including social media platforms, over many years. As I showed in my 2020 book, “Ghosting the News,” the resulting dearth of local news harms individual communities and threatens American democracy as a whole.

Clark is a shrewd critic of how most local newspapers are run, noting for example in an email that “they overcharge readers for print subscriptions in order to drive them to digital where the reader’s eyeballs can be monetized (in theory)”. And she describes the difficulty of getting newspapers printed and distributed in today’s tight labor market. But she thinks, overall, print newspapers serve the public better because they focus less on driving click-worthy “engagement” and more on public service content.

Given the challenges, I asked Clark if she would encourage other potential entrepreneurs to follow her example.

“Absolutely, yes,” she told me, then quickly clarified that. “Whether the conditions are met. It’s a complex calculation: are there enough advertisers? Is there a clearly perceived need in a community? Are freelancers available? Are you ready to be non-partisan?

But she considers what she does a civic duty: the equivalent of serving on a city council of finance or a planning commission, which she has done in the past.

And in the end, launching the Sentinel was a simple decision: “My hometown needed a newspaper, a newspaper that would provide a common set of facts and a ‘foundation’ of information specific to our city, so that we can make informed decisions.”

The Sentinel is swimming against the tide, but given Clark’s goals, I’m hoping it can stay afloat.

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