In an era when journalism has seen so much duress, The Reader and its sister Spanish language publication El Perico, were named in Editor & Publisher Magazine’s 2022 cohort of “10 news publishers that do it right.”
Editor & Publisher wrote, “Each publisher chosen has an innovation story to tell — of revenue, content, community service, engagement or platform.”
Both papers are owned and published by John Heaston, who also heads Pioneer Media. This digital marketing agency partners with local businesses to offer a full range of media services from research to digital builds (citations, websites and social media presence) to content, advertising and optimization.
Heaston and his chief technology officer Jason Fisher realized early on their clients needed help managing their online presences. So they offered to do it for them. Today, 70% of the company’s revenue comes from Pioneer Media’s agency services.
Heaston’s epiphany came when he realized the same skill sets needed to power the digital agency — research, relationships, clarity, data analysis — are also anchors of good reporting.
“This is hands-down the largest revenue opportunity for any local media operation,” he said. He advises other small media operations, “Quit only selling space…and start offering your expertise as a service.”
Between Heaston’s leadership, a small, highly-committed staff and a cushion of cash flow from agency work, the papers have not only survived, but also grown during the pandemic. In 2021, the papers were able to increase full time employees and total revenues by 20%.
One shift caused by the pandemic was pivoting from culture, events and entertainment coverage to solutions-oriented investigative reporting. The papers also forged collaborative partnerships with other local media, including Flatwater Free Press and 1st Sky News. Bridget Fogarty joined the staff in 2021 as a Report for America corps member, and reports on education and immigration for both papers.
As the pandemic continued and print advertising revenue flattened, one of the directives given by Heaston to the staff was to think of themselves like one of their digital agency clients, which had not previously been a priority. In 2019, the @ReaderOmaha had only about 70 Instagram followers, and no one could locate the account password. Today, it’s more than 1,000. Heaston compared it to the old adage “the cobbler’s kids have no shoes.”
The staff continues to educate themselves on audience engagement and optimizing their own digital presence. They’ve launched their first membership and subscription campaign. All this has paid off; users and page views for TheReader.com went up by 157.5% and 299.3%, respectively.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” Heaston said, “it’s that local media is also a well-trusted and beloved brand, which is a great starting point for a very diversified revenue stream.”