Published May 14th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
The folks at the Northeast News are still a bit giddy about what happened in March after they delivered a newspaper with a blank front page to the aging Kansas City neighborhoods in their coverage area.
The first calls came from bewildered readers. Something must have gone wrong in the printing process, they said. Doesn’t anybody look at the paper before you throw it on people’s lawns?
But then a strange and wonderous sound was heard in the offices at 5715 St. John Ave., where six people work to publish the weekly paper. It was the ping of the online donation button on the paper’s website, northeastnews.net.
“Ping, ping, ping,” remembers publisher Michael Bushnell. “We got close to $4,000 over a five-day period of time.”
The telephone rang, too. A few local media outlets wrote about the blank front page, which emerged from a staff brainstorming session. The idea was meant to drive home the fact that the paper was going broke and there would be no one to tell the stories of Kansas City’s historic northeast if it closed.
Then the story went national. The Associated Press, CNN, NPR and others published stories about the unusual move.
Bushnell opened his email and started yelling for his editorial assistant.
“I thought something was terribly wrong,” Nikki Lansford said. But her boss was just excited to see an inquiry from the Washington Post.
Even in the nation’s capital, people were interested in the fate of a small newspaper that for years has written about people and events in “one of the Missouri city’s grittier neighborhoods,” as the AP story put it.
The empty page gambit paid off.
A banker helped Bushnell secure a second federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. Some old advertisers returned and some new ones signed on. The flurry of online donations has subsided, but benefactors have pledged about $400 a month in recurring donations, Bushnell said. A woman in Massachusetts signed up to contribute $200 a month.
“It pays the lights. It pays the water,” Bushnell said. “It keeps the doors open in more ways than one.”
When the dust settled, the staff sat down for a podcast roundtable session about what had taken place. They said they were approaching their jobs with renewed energy.
“I just hope people appreciate the Northeast News as much as I do,” said Bryan Stalder, who designs the paper, draws cartoons and creates visual stories about local businesses and developments.
“To me, it’s such a cool thing that we have this paper for our community,” he said. “I just hope that our readers truly understand what it takes to keep this paper going.”
The Northeast News is a quirky publication. Along with news, features and Stalder’s cartoons, it publishes a column about old objects — like the rotary telephone — by customer service rep Dorri Partain. It’s also a platform for the News Dog, a column in which Bushnell berates local officials for what he regards as lack of support for the police, among other topics.
An long-struggling publication in an old neighborhood, the Northeast News seems like an unlikely trendsetter. But its naked appeal for reader and advertiser support proved inspirational in the industry.
“I’m glad they did what they did,” said Mark Glaser, a consultant focused on local news who writes on the topic for the Knight Foundation. “I think more publications need to do things to remind people that they’re out there.”
For decades, large and small newspapers relied mostly on advertising revenues for income, with subscriptions playing a smaller role. But advertising revenue has tanked with the decline of print products and the digital ad dominance of large tech companies like Google and Facebook.
More businesses also cut back on advertising during the pandemic. The Northeast News lost accounts from two laundromats, a charter school and a grocery store.
Newspapers for a long time resisted making appeals for direct contributions.
“It was like they thought, ‘we’re commercial operations,’” Glaser said. “We shouldn’t be begging.”
But these days, nearly all local publications, including The Kansas City Star, have donation buttons on their websites and take every opportunity to enlist reader support.
“Everybody’s got their cup out,” Bushnell agreed.
The move toward crowdsourcing accelerated with the emergence of the Report for America program, Glaser said. Similar to Teach for America, the national service program places journalists at local news outlets, including Kansas City PBS. As part of the contract, news organizations are encouraged to raise money to support the journalistic mission.
“A lot of places were surprised that there were people in the community that were willing to help,” Glaser said. “I think local news has been so important lately that it doesn’t surprise me that the appeals would work.”
For the Northeast News, the challenge now is to maintain its momentum. A paper only gets one shot at a blank page, and Bushnell knows it.
“We found lightning in a bottle,” he said. “How do you monetize lightning in a bottle?”
Glaser has a suggestion. Publications need to identify their “super fans,” he said, and enlist those people as ambassadors to talk up the community’s interest in paying for news.
“I feel like publications need to know their audience really well, and especially know their loyal readers,” Glaser said.
The Northeast News is ideally positioned for such an effort. People sometimes refer to its coverage area as “the biggest small town” in Kansas City. Its staff is out and about in that small town daily. Most of the employees live there.
“I just bought a house in the neighborhood,” Abby Hoover, the managing editor, said on the podcast. “I wasn’t going to give up.”
Staffers are now working to cement relationships with its audience through email lists, social media and the podcast. They are exploring the idea of “premium” subscriptions, whose users would get early access to some content. And the newspaper is widening its delivery range.
As the staff sees it, the fortunes of the Northeast News and the neighborhood it serves go hand in hand.
“I think having a local paper is a huge selling point for people who want to live here,” Hoover said. “What better way to get connected to your community?”
And no other publication can tout local businesses like the News, Bushnell pointed out. Its reporters are in and out of neighborhood establishments all the time. They know the owners and employees by name.
“I think the message we want to send is, support our advertisers,” Bushnell said. “Because that’s how you support us.”
For now, the staff is back to publishing the stories that no one else will report. Volunteers are reintroducing native plants to Cliff Drive. The Independence Avenue Community Improvement District is planting butterfly gardens. St. Anthony’s Catholic Church has completed an ornate repainting of its ceiling in preparation for its centennial celebration in 2022.
The donation button still pings occasionally. The sound is music to Bushnell’s ears — an affirmation of the paper’s mission.
“We’ll ride it for as long as we can,” he said.
Flatland contributor Barbara Shelly is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.