NewStart Program Will Be ‘Matchmaker’ for Small Media Seeking New Owners

Jim Iovino is director of a new program called NewStart at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. NewStart matches small media outlets with people who want to acquire them and run them. The new owners will earn a master’s degree as they receive training in journalism and business skills.

Iovino, a former Deputy Managing Editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is the Ogden Newspapers Visiting Assistant Professor of Media Innovation at WVU. Here’s an edited transcript of his recent interview with Mark Jacob, editor of the Medill Local News Initiative website.

  • Mark Jacob

    Please tell us the basics about NewStart.

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    It is a media ownership initiative, focusing right now on weekly and small daily newspapers in rural communities across the country. What we found was, in a lot of these areas the newspapers there are family-owned and -operated, and they are still profitable in many cases. But at the same time they’re coming to the end of their life cycle in terms of that family aspect, where the kids have gone on to college and moved out of that community and have started their own lives, and don’t really want to come back and run the paper like their parents and grandparents have before. So that’s kind of left the current owners in a position of looking for a new owner. And they have trouble trying to find people who would want to come to a small town and run their operation. The other options that they have on the table are to sell to one of the corporate chains or to a hedge fund, and they don’t want to do that because they don’t know what will happen to the paper then. When you think about it, they’re still living in that community. They’re acting to sell the paper, but they’re not moving. And they don’t want to have people coming up to them all the time and saying, ‘We used to love this paper. What happened to it? Why did you sell it?’ At that point, if they sell it to one of these larger corporations, are people going to be laid off, or is there going to be a constant focus on profits? So they don’t want to do that. They want to find someone who can come into their town, be a part of the community, actually run the newspaper as a community newspaper should be run.

    Jim Iovino
  • Mark Jacob

    And you’re going to help them find good buyers?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    With the NewStart program, we’re trying to find people who want to go to rural communities and set up shop there, have a family there, have a nice kind of relaxed life outside of the New York City scene, that kind of thing, and do quality journalism in a small community that really, really needs it. Without many papers, there is going to be a larger news desert than there is now in the country. So we’re trying as best we can to identify people who have an interest in this, and want to move to the town, and not only run a newspaper like it is today but also spin it forward and focus on what it will take that publication not only to be profitable in the future but also relevant digitally.

    Jim Iovino
  • Mark Jacob

    How long will you work with them?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    Our program is a yearlong master’s program. Most of the courses are done online, so someone doesn’t have to move to Morgantown to be a part of this. We have at the same time some in-person workshops that will be really in depth and in focus with some newsroom leaders throughout the course of that year as well. You’ll learn not only the community journalism side of things but also you’ll learn the business side of things. That’s really important for what we’re stressing here – learning the business model and learning the new techniques in digital subscriptions, any kind of new way to reach audiences outside the paper product itself.

    Jim Iovino
  • Mark Jacob

    Is the one-year fellowship fully paid for or do people have to pay tuition?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    We have funding for some fellowship positions that will be fully funded, so you don’t have to pay for it if you’re accepted as a fellow. We don’t have a whole lot of those yet. We’re still looking at the funding for next year to see exactly how much we’ll have. Because of the interest that we have in the program all over the country, we’re going to open it up to others outside the fellowship team. We’re working through the actual price point on that. We are grateful for the support we’ve received from The Benedum Foundation, which is providing the fellowship funds. If there are any other kind souls out there who would want to support NewStart, and in turn community journalism, we’d love to talk with them, as well.

    Jim Iovino

You’ll learn not only the community journalism side of things but also you’ll learn the business side of things.

Jim Iovino, visiting assistant professor at West Virginia University
  • Mark Jacob

    Have you done any pilot programs?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    No, we haven’t done any pilot programs. Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, was one of the real founders of this, along with the former dean of our college, Maryanne Reed, who’s now the provost of the university. They kicked around this idea several years ago, and worked to see it through to where it is today. I just started in July. They had been hearing the same things when they would go to conferences. Basically, all these family-owned papers had no succession plan going forward.

    Jim Iovino
  • Mark Jacob

    So news outlets have to be profitable now in order to participate?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    That’s what we’re working on. We’re looking at profitable papers that want to sell. We’ll be working with the fellows and whoever else is in the program to identify papers in parts of the country where people would want to live and work in, and try to be a matchmaker basically for them.

    Jim Iovino
  • Mark Jacob

    “Matchmaker” is a good way to put it. So, you’re going to help people buy and sell. But are you going to help in any financial way?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    We won’t be putting up any money toward any purchases. We’re providing funding for the fellowship. I would love to be able to just give out money for people to buy papers throughout the country (laughs) but I can’t do that. We will help, for those who are going to buying papers, with the evaluation process. Not only is the paper a viable option, but is the community still a viable option for the paper? That means, is there a strong business district in town? How close is the closest Walmart, because if a Walmart comes into town, what happens to all the other businesses that are there? Are they going to scatter and close up shop? So there’s a lot of factors involved in that, and we’re going to help evaluate not just the paper but the towns themselves. We have some partners with our business department at the university and some other capital investment groups that we are working with to come up with funding models for this. We’ll work with them to find small business loans or historical preservation funds and all kinds of creative ways.

    Jim Iovino
  • Mark Jacob

    A bachelor’s degree is required. What other vetting or requirements do you have?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    You just have to have that interest in taking over a publication somewhere in the country. I’ve identified four groups of people who would really benefit from this program: One is our current journalism students who right out of college want to go that extra year and get a master’s. Others are current journalists and former journalists. There are unfortunately a lot of journalists who have lost their jobs over the last few years. I think we can open journalists’ eyes to the fact that you can still make a living doing what you do and you can do it in an area where you can have pretty affordable cost of living and you can have a nice kind of lifestyle. The last group is entrepreneurs and business people in communities who realize that journalism is vital to that community in order for it to survive and thrive going forward. I’ve heard business people who [say] ‘I don’t know anything about the journalism side of things, but I know that we need to have a newspaper here to ensure that things run right here and we hold the powerful accountable.’

    Jim Iovino

I’ve heard business people who [say] ‘I don’t know anything about the journalism side of things, but I know that we need to have a newspaper here to ensure that things run right here and we hold the powerful accountable.’

Jim Iovino, visiting assistant professor at West Virginia University
  • Mark Jacob

    Are you dealing only with existing news outlets? There’s no start-up aspect to it?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    At this point, we’re not looking at start-ups. We want to try to look at places that have audiences already. When you have a start-up, it takes a really long time to build up an audience and to just generate enough audience to be sustainable. But any of these newspapers that have been around for, heck, 100 years or so, they have that local audience, they have that built-in brand recognition that people know and trust them already. So it’s a lot easier, I think, to come into a situation like that and adapt it and move forward.

    Jim Iovino
  • Mark Jacob

    Is improving digital skills a priority?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    A lot of these papers that will be up for sale have really limited digital. They may have a website. They may have a PDF version of their paper on it. They may have a Facebook page but don’t really know what to do with it. So we’re hoping to put together a digital tool set.

    Jim Iovino
  • Mark Jacob

    What’s the deadline to apply?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    The application is on our website, newstart.media, and I can answer questions at jim.iovino@mail.wvu.edu. The application deadline is January 1. Then we’ll be going through the applicants and picking them out. The program itself is going to start in July of 2020, running from July to July.

    Jim Iovino
  • Mark Jacob

    And if it’s successful you’ll keep it going?

    Mark Jacob
  • Jim Iovino

    Absolutely. We’re going to work a lot with this first group of fellows. And once they get through the program, they’re going to be a great resource for the next group that goes through as well and build this network of people who have gone through it and know what it takes to go through it. And then they’ll be able to assist the next group that goes through.

    Jim Iovino

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of six books on history and photography.

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