In October, Local Media Association announced the creation of the Digital Transformation Lab for publishers of color. This is the first article in a series highlighting the participants, progress and outcomes of this first donor-funded project from Accelerate Local – committed to reinventing business models for news.
One of the oldest newspapers in the U.S. is undergoing an innovative, aggressive effort to increase its digital revenue and readership in a business in which 90% of its proceeds are from its print product.
Throughout the next six months, The New York Amsterdam News, one of the world’s most well-known African American newspapers, along with The Atlanta Voice, The Dallas Weekly, Houston Defender and The Washington Informer, will participate in the Accelerate Local Digital Transformation Lab in an effort to grow digital revenue and readership.
“One of the biggest reasons I wanted to get involved in the lab is to glean as much information and knowledge as I could from media [organizations] that were already doing it well and … performing at a high level and hopefully replicate it here at the New York Amsterdam News,” said Penda Howell, vice president of sales, advertising and partnerships for The New York Amsterdam News.
A voice for the African American community
The New York Amsterdam News, a weekly publication, has been around since 1909, serving as an iconic voice for the African American community in Harlem, New York. At the time the paper launched its first edition, it sold for 2 cents per copy from then-owner James H. Anderson’s home.
Throughout the years, the paper was famously known for its political coverage, including stories about Malcolm X and the fight for black equality during the Jim Crow era, as well as civil rights movement events in the U.S., according to The New York Amsterdam News.
Today, the newspaper remains one of the most influential, black-owned and -operated media businesses in the U.S., and is sold for $1 on newsstands and $39.99 for subscriptions. Online content is free. The paper is owned by Elinor Tatum, who also serves as the CEO and executive editor. Tatum took over the paper after her father Wilbert A. Tatum stepped down in 1996.
Despite the struggle faced by newspapers nationwide to keep a print product sustainable, The New York Amsterdam News retains a print readership of 98,000 people, including international subscribers, Howell said.
The paper’s staff feels a responsibility to its community and engages with them through efforts such as its education program to teach children about the newspaper’s history, and the history of African Americans. Howell, who started this program at The New York Amsterdam News, said the editorial team has researchers to develop educational content for schools. The content is paid for by sponsors and is currently only in print. Howell said he would love to see the program translate digitally someday.
“Part of the reason I feel like it’s an important opportunity to be involved in the [Accelerate Local] Digital Transformation Lab is to extend that brand familiarity and recognition to the younger generation, whose parents and grandparents have this deep, emotional connection to this publication that speaks to Black folks in a way that is not done readily throughout most media,” Howell said.
Participating in the Digital Transformation Lab
The New York Amsterdam News’ sales (display and digital), accounting and editorial departments will undergo three phases as part of participation in the Digital Transformation Lab.
- Assess: Peter Newton, Accelerate Local’s managing director, performs an assessment and analysis of short- and long-term opportunities
- Test: Each publisher will choose a few projects designed to drive digital revenue and/or audience, which will be based on a customized report for each participant
- Debrief: Create an industry playbook and a 12- to 18-month roadmap plan for each publisher
The lab will include an initial assessment meeting with Newton, regular coaching calls, on-site visits and joint sales calls. Regular cohort meetings with the lab’s participants will also take place. Newton is scheduled to first meet with Howell before the end of October to examine the newspaper’s current digital sales and marketing strategies.
Here are some of Howell’s main goals of participating in the lab.
- “Position the paper in a way digitally that will allow us to compete in a meaningful way for marketing dollars.”
- “Speak to a younger demographic in a way that will reach them where they prefer to be reached.”
- “Learn how to position the paper for sustained success down the road. In order for that to happen, you have to have a solid footing in the digital landscape.”
The need to grow digital has become more apparent in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center, revenue from mobile and desktop digital advertising is on the rise. In 2018, mobile advertising grew to $71 billion from $57 billion in 2017 and although desktop ad revenue saw some increase also, mobile comprised almost two-thirds of all digital advertising revenue.
The New York Amsterdam News’ digital revenue comprises about 10 percent of its total proceeds, which is on par with some other African American newspapers. According to a recent Local Media Association survey, only 9.5% of African American newspaper revenue comes from digital ads on average.
“For the most part, we’re selling our digital advertising like we sell display advertising,” Howell said, adding that he hopes to obtain and use valuable insight from participating in the Digital Transformation Lab to grow online advertising efficiently.
In a competitive advertising market, it’s become more important to be able to distinguish yourself from competitors, Howell said. One of the key factors driving revenue for The New York Amsterdam News is a business partnership with advertisers. Howell said today’s advertising marketplace has changed greatly, moving away from advertising solely in print products like newspapers and magazines, to a heavier focus on digital in an on-demand news and information climate.
“Today’s marketplace is totally different,” he said. “You’ve got to be a consultant to businesses when you’re talking about partnering with a firm for local, regional or national advertising. It’s much more than just taking advertising and running an ad in the newspaper. You’ve got to quantify what the client is looking for and [speak to] why it might be important to advertise in my newspaper or not. You have to be honest enough from a sales perspective to be able to communicate that to your partner. I think that’s what helps us. That’s what I do and what I empower my teams to do. It lends credibility to you and your organization.”
Howell also attributes the newspaper’s profitability to supportive leadership.
“Elinor Tatum … has allowed me to kind of run roughshod over the sales department … So there isn’t anything I can’t try and anything I won’t try,” Howell said. “I think it’s important to have that sort of leadership in place when you have to be nimble and you don’t have as many resources that your competitors might have. … It’s important to have leadership understand that you have to hit the ground running and try and do a variety of things. You have to have some trust in the people you’ve put in pace to make things happen. And she does that.”
Howell, who has worked for The New York Amsterdam News for 16 years, came from a New Jersey-based media organization with a large amount of resources. He attributes The New York Amsterdam News’ continued print success to the loyalty and connection to its readers.
“The importance of the paper to the community it just can’t be overstated. The community feels like the newspaper is theirs,” he said. “They have an emotional vested interest in this publication like I have not seen anywhere else. I’ve worked for a company that has 52 newspapers across the variety of spectrums and I’ve never seen emotional connection from the community to a publication like I see with this newspaper. It’s been refreshing and quite frankly, I feel like it’s what has sustained the newspaper thus far.”
When Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008, The New York Amsterdam News created a multi-page spread in full color. The day the paper came out, there was a line around the block twice to buy copies of the paper and “it stayed that way all day,” Howell said. The New York Amsterdam News sold more than 230,000 copies of the newspaper in one week of that edition.
“It was such a source of pride for me and it reinforced what I already knew,” Howell said. “This newspaper is such a relied upon source in the community. We’ve got something here that can’t be replaced.”