By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
If you live beyond city limits, The Daily Yonder is probably the news source for you.
Since 2007, The Daily Yonder has provided news, commentary and analysis geared toward rural Americans. The news outlet gained a lot of industry attention four years ago when rural voters helped swing the presidential election.
“After the 2016 election, suddenly every journalist in the United States is googling ‘rural voter’ and our stuff pops up,” Editor Tim Marema said. “That was an opportunity, and we took advantage of it.”
The size of the news staff has since increased to help The Daily Yonder cover another pivotal news cycle in 2020: COVID-19. The online operation expanded its coronavirus coverage in rural communities at the same time other national news outlets focused on metro hotspots.
“It was an urban story to begin with and rural doesn’t really matter — and then all of a sudden we mattered a hell of a lot,” Marema said.
The independent outlet from The Center for Rural Strategies benefited this year from a Facebook Journalism Project COVID-19 Relief Grant to add an assistant editor and more correspondents and increase its rural coverage, especially of coronavirus cases.
“We’ve been in a place where we’re better prepared [than 2016],” said Publisher Dee Davis, who is also the president/founder of The Center for Rural Strategies. “There are times in your development when it might be nice to improve your capacity because you’re busting just to get to the next day, and then comes a time when it all starts to click together.”
Story production doubled as additional resources were made available. That money also helped The Daily Yonder increase its budget for data infographics, resulting in a weekly “Red Zone Report,” as it’s called internally, mapping rural COVID-19 case counts nationally.
“There’s a niche we’re trying to fill, and people want to see what are the rural implications of this virus,” Marema said. “Our goal is to get 2-3 stories out of that one weekly analysis.”
That coverage has helped the publication double its audience since the pandemic started, Davis said. To help monetize those new readers, The Daily Yonder expanded its weekly newsletter to twice weekly and added two more newsletter products: a roundup of rural news from other sources as well as personality-driven commentary from a regular correspondent. Open rates have stayed the same despite doubling the frequency of the weekly digest.
“Our plan is to really experiment and see which go and which don’t,” Davis said. “This is a long-range plan of which we’re just beginning to implement.”
The Daily Yonder also increased how much video content it produces, helping to lure more subscribers through social media. The news site has accumulated more than 400,000 Facebook fans and 65,000 Twitter followers. They also placed print ads in rural newspapers nationally to promote The Daily Yonder website.
“It turns out the most efficient way to reach a rural audience may be old-style print weeklies,” Marema said.
The numerous audience acquisition initiatives won’t all last long-term, Marema admits, but experimentation is part of the process.
“I don’t think ‘fail quickly’ is an old adage — it’s a way of life,” he said. “For us, it’s more like, ‘Fail before you spend all the money so you can afford to move onto something else.’”
The new audience also brings new monetization strategies. As members of the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Daily Yonder participates in the annual News Match program, which matches reader contributions for participating news organizations. Marema said that has helped him and Davis focus on individual financial support in a bigger way than ever before.
“Previously, you raise $5,000 to $10,000, and it’s a hell of a lot of work, but then that suddenly becomes $10,000 or $20,000,” he said. “We’re not an organization that likes to leave money on the table, so it’s there and we know we can go get it.”
Approximately 90 percent of all revenue still comes from grants, Davis said. The Daily Yonder is also gaining more advertisement clients because of the added audience. Additionally, merchandise could help generate additional income for the operation, although right now any swag is used as an incentive to contribute.
“We all come from a community radio background, so we know we can make more money off a $200 gift where we send someone a water bottle and a bumper sticker than if we ask someone to buy a water bottle,” Davis said. “People give [to The Daily Yonder] because they like the work we do and they want to support it.”
The Daily Yonder merchandise could be sold separately at some point, said Davis, who expects the products to be in high demand based on the strong rural-focused community that’s been united under the branding.
“So much of being rural is cultural,” Davis said. “A lot of people who live in urban areas draw a lot of their identity out of being rural, too, so it’s something that is concrete in a lot of people’s lives.”
This is part of a Local Media Association series exploring how local media organizations used funding from Facebook’s COVID-19 relief grants for extending vital coverage and innovating to reach new audiences.