When Charlene Bisson, president and CEO of Independent Newsmedia, learned what advertiser Greg Hague of real estate company 72SOLD was paying to sponsor the Arizona Cardinals pro football team, she was shocked.
“I thought, ‘Well, geez, I’ve been totally underselling him,’” she said. “I just said, ‘What could get that kind of money for my news organization?’”
Hague had advertised with Independent Newsmedia’s Phoenix-area newspapers for more than two decades, but Bisson saw a new opportunity to grow his sponsorship.
What Hague had gotten from the Cardinals, and was looking for from Bisson, was exclusivity — an agreement that no other real estate developer ads would appear in the paper. Bisson hesitated at first and brought it to her board to discuss. Ultimately, she decided she would consider it for a price that she describes as “quite high.” Hague accepted.
At the time, The Scottsdale Independent sent one free newspaper per month, via Every Door Direct Mail, to about 50,000 residences in the city. With 72SOLD’s sponsorship in October, a second newspaper was added in the middle of the month, this one going out to another 50,000 people.
Bisson said that Hague was particularly interested in filling the “news desert” that existed in lower-income areas of the city, which was why sponsorship of a free newspaper appealed.
She said she had seen this trend with partners and sponsors elsewhere. “They feel like — I’m giving back, because now the whole community has a newspaper, thanks to me,” Bisson said. “So that’s what’s worked well for us.”
Independent Newsmedia, a hyperlocal news chain with papers around the country, was part of the second cohort of the Local Media Association Lab for Journalism Funding. The organization joined with the goal of building an education lab in its Arizona newsrooms, but used the lessons from the lab when this new opportunity presented itself.
“I know what we sometimes want to accomplish as a news organization, but sometimes the community may not support what we want to do,” Bisson said. “Listen to them, hear what they’re saying, and then figure out — is there a way you can accomplish their key initiatives and their ideas?”
She also says she wouldn’t have been brave enough to ask for more without the influence of the Lab for Journalism Funding. One lesson was to account for and include all the relevant costs of reporting in the proposal, and ask for an amount that may be more than what’s traditionally been requested.
“And they may say no, but if you’d just asked for $10,000, but they really had $20,000 to give, that’s something,” Bisson said. “I think we all get price sensitive on all aspects of the business.”
In the first edition sponsored by 72SOLD, the paper ran a front-page story explaining the new arrangement.
“Greg sponsored the publication solely to support local journalism, and he has no influence on that content,” Bisson said at the time. “His sponsorship also enables other types of business outside the real estate category to market in Scottsdale.”
Bisson said that the deal with 72SOLD allowed team members not to worry about other advertisers when they launched the new edition. But the popularity of the paper has meant that other advertisers have come to them. The paper had 31 advertisers in April, up from seven in October.
“If [Hague] decides not to renew next year, we now have enough advertising support to maintain the newspaper in Scottsdale in the southern portion of the city,” Bisson said.
Last month, Independent Newsmedia, again in partnership with 72SOLD, launched the Tempe Independent via direct mail. Almost immediately, the team began hearing from potential advertisers.
“We get calls every day to advertise with us,” Bisson said. “So newspapers are definitely not dead in the Phoenix market.”