With an additional online source for local news, paper enlists support of readers
By Michael Mischke
Unlike other small, locally owned enterprises, the Villager has remained open for business on the heels of Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s executive order to curtail any and all commercial or organizational activity not deemed to be “essential.” That’s a rather arbitrary designation, in my mind, but the news media qualified as meeting the standard to continue operating, and so we have.
However, very much like other small businesses that have remained open, the Villager has seen its sole source of revenue—in our case advertising sales—fall off precipitously from the level it was at prior to the arrival on these shores of the coronavirus. We responded to the unprecedented challenge we find ourselves facing by trimming costs wherever we could, applying for and ultimately receiving a potentially forgivable loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, and turning to our readers for their financial support of what has always been a freely distributed publication.
And support us they did. As of the end of last week, we had received more than $45,000 from more than 600 donors—both from within our distribution area and beyond. Accompanying many of these donations were kind notes and letters of thanks for publishing a neighborhood newspaper of the editorial quality that has long been the hallmark of this publication. We in turn can’t thank those donors enough.
However, we knew from the outset that cost-cutting, the federal loan and our readers’ donations were not likely to put this business on a sustainable path for very long. The cost of producing, printing and delivering the Villager is such that a different business model was required—one that does not rely on advertisers to pick up 100 percent of the tab.
John Rauch, my right-hand man on the business side here, and I recently met via teleconference with 34 prominent civic leaders who had expressed a keen interest in helping “Save the Villager,” the subject line in a flurry of emails that have been sent in the last few weeks among themselves and to us. The ideas of those publicly spirited individuals for “saving” this newspaper centered largely on abandoning the for-profit business structure the Villager has always operated with in favor of forming a nonprofit organization or adopting a cooperative format and thereby qualifying for foundation grants and tax-deductible donations; creating a separate nonprofit “Friends of” entity operating alongside the Villager to raise capital, leaving the stewardship of the business to me as the sole owner, as is the case now; or simply selling the business to some other entity that would take the newspaper in an altogether different direction.
We thank those 34 people for taking the time to lend us their best thinking on the matter going forward. We really do. However, for a variety of reasons, we’ve chosen to go another route.
Beginning this week, an online edition of the Villager will go live at MyVillager.com. The newly expanded website, which had long served as nothing more than a marketing tool for this business, is still a work in progress. However, we envision it as not only serving the interests of all of those who enjoy reading the Villager in its current print form, but the interests of all of those who would like to see even broader, deeper and more timely editorial content than this every-other-week publication could ever produce in print, available not only at their doors, but on their home computers, laptops and cellphones.
The digital Villager will be free to peruse at first as we attempt to ramp up its readership, in hopes of eventually supplementing our existing advertising revenue in the print product with paid subscriptions from our readers and additional advertising revenue in the digital version. We’ve set the price for future paid subscriptions at what we believe is a reasonable $59.88 per year ($4.99 per month). “Founders Level” or early-bird subscribers will be invited first to receive additional benefits as we bring them online.
The unchartered waters that the entire media industry is navigating these days certainly present perils to all who find themselves in the same boat. But we believe those waters also present opportunities. It’s ironic that at the same time media organizations of all kinds find themselves foundering due to the collapse of advertising revenue, the readership and viewership of those news outlets have never been higher.
We believe the appetite for news of a distinctly local perspective—something that our readers tell us the Villager excels at—will continue to sustain us both in print and online. Now—as always—fairness, balance, reliability and, above all, the quality of a news medium’s editorial coverage will be tantamount in not only surviving, but hopefully thriving.
Michael Mischke is the publisher of the Villager newspaper.