A seasoned journalist, publisher Adam Stone founded Examiner Media in 2007 as a free weekly newspaper serving Westchester and Putnam counties in New York. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 crisis — when advertising revenue tanked, forcing a staff reduction of two-thirds — that Stone turned to the community to ask for direct support, including through LMA’s COVID-19 Local News Fund.
“That experience made me realize that we were not tapping into reader revenue and potential ways to grow our business directly through the relationship with our readers,” he said. “It’s actually a more satisfying way to generate revenue because it’s such a direct connection. It’s a reader endorsing your product in a very direct way.”
Stone has been cultivating opportunities to diversify revenue away from total dependence on display ads — fundraising and grant applications early in the pandemic, paid digital subscriptions now, and a potential for events in the future — all while regrowing the print and digital advertising base.
“When I started the company, we were just a print newspaper, so it’s been a learn-as-you-go experience over the years becoming more familiar with the digital model,” he said. “We are and have been [supported by] basically 100% advertising revenue and so … we have never really had subscribers in print. That’s new to us and that’s been a big aspect of that learning curve into a new way of doing things with our Substack effort.”
Examiner Media is one of six U.S.-based participants in the Substack Local program, a $1 million investment to help independent writers start sustainable local news enterprises.
The company’s first paid product, Examiner+, launched in October following a summer soft-launch, and has grown to 138 paid Substack subscriptions. Priced starting at $5.99 per month or $49 per year, the weekly newsletter features deeper news cuts than can be found in the free weekly printed newspaper or the Examiner’s website. So far, Examiner+ has nearly 3,000 signups, which includes existing newsletter subscribers who were each given a free annual subscription. Examiner+ also offers a $99 or more “Ambassador” option for readers looking to support the mission more robustly and receive occasional perks and shoutouts.
Some of the $75,000 award from Substack is going toward year-one costs of seeding new audience growth initiatives across multiple platforms, including social media ads, website popups, and a four-page printed supplement for the newspaper with excerpts teasing full-length stories in Examiner+. A new digital editorial director, Robert Schork, will further support the evolving business model and promotion of Examiner+.
Stone said he can best measure the success of Examiner+ by considering its overall benefits to the business. The company has undoubtedly taken on new revenue demands in 2021, which, strictly speaking, would necessitate the newsletter reaching at least $100,000 annual revenue.
“But it started to dawn on me that we are an existing media company with ongoing demands and needs, [and] that this project could be weaved into our broader strategy, [meeting] needs we would have regardless of whether we had the Substack platform or not.”
With that in mind, Stone said generating about 1,000 paid subscribers in the mid-term future — and $50,000-$75,000 in annual revenue and growing with Examiner+ — would set the product on the path to sustainability and profitability.
“We’re going to learn a lot in the weeks, months, and hopefully years ahead of how to foster that relationship in that community, with our readers, with our subscribers, and how to grow and sustain all of that,” he said.
Related from The New York Times: After pandemic layoffs, a local news company seeks subscribers on Substack
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