Part of an ongoing series of posts by this year’s AAN Convention Scholarship recipients.
The hardest part about writing for alt-weeklies in the year 2014 is the non-weekly nature of alt-weeklies in the year 2014. Models vary, but where I work, a staff writer is expected to identify, research, report and (worst of all) write 12 non-boring, longform cover features a year, plus another 15 or 20 non-boring news pieces, usually in the 1,000-word range. But now the digital beast must also be fed, which means daily blogging has been added to the job description. I suppose it goes without saying that there has been no corresponding pay increase.
To be clear, I enjoy writing for the web, and I’m very much aware that developing a robust web presence is essential to the future financial health of just about every publication in the world. And I love working for The Pitch. Still, I occasionally fantasize about what my job would have been like in the BI (Before Internet) days, when staff writers could spend their mornings and afternoons working on stories for the weekly print issue without the nagging distraction of daily blogging responsibilities. What a life!
Based on some of the things Lagniappe editor/co-publisher Ashley Toland-Trice said during her presentation at the Community is King panel at this year’s AAN Convention, I began to suspect her writers might actually be living out my fantasy. Lagniappe, which covers the Mobile, Alabama, area (the word is Creole slang for “a little something extra”), was founded in 2002. Its website is not much more than a digital version of the paper, but its print presence is white-hot. Lagniappe recently jumped from bi-weekly to weekly publication, and its net income is up 180 percent on the print product, Toland-Trice told the Nashville audience.
A big reason why is that the daily in Mobile, the Advance-owned Press-Register, is no longer a daily, having cut publication to three times a week. The Press-Register‘s retreat in covering the community has presented opportunities for a locally-owned publication like Lagniappe. “People in Mobile were outraged that a company from New Jersey [Advance] could rob us of our daily newspaper,” Toland-Trice said. “They basically cut all their investigative reporting and decided to focus on sports and photos of girls on the beach. It’s just a bunch of clickbait. And so that left us with the question of what ‘alternative’ is when there’s nothing really left to be ‘alternative’ to. And we decided that for us, it’d be about filling those gaping news holes.”
A week after getting back from Nashville, I was still interested in Mobile’s unusual-seeming media climate, so I dialed up Toland-Trice and peppered her with another round of questions about Lagniappe.
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You started Lagniappe in 2002.
Yes, my business partner [Rob Holbert] and I founded it together. There had previously been a more traditional weekly in Mobile, Azalea City News, but it had been out of business for ten years or something.
What was your journalism background?
My partner had worked as a reporter and he was also the student advisor to the University of South Alabama newspaper. I had a journalism degree from the University of South Alabama, and then I moved to Austin to do grad school for film writing at UT. I ended up moving back, but while I was in Austin, I really liked the Austin Chronicle, and I wanted to do something like it in Mobile. I thought it’d be easy. It was not easy. There were years and years of poverty.
Can you talk a little about the decision to bump Lagniappe up from a bi-weekly to a weekly?
It was always a goal. Mobile’s a small market, and we werenâ€™t sure it was big enough to support an alternative weekly. But things gradually got better and better. Then Mobile recently landed a big Airbus contract â€“ they’re going to be building jetliners here. So there’s going to be a huge population influx. They’re building the assembly line now, and the factory will be up and running in 2017. It’s a huge deal for Mobile. So that pushed us a little. But the major thing was that the daily cut to three days a week and started laying off its best reporters and cutting staff tremendously. And there was such a huge backlash to that.
Mobile is not the most digital-forward market. We’re not a bunch of hillbillies like everybody thinks, but we’re certainly not the most tech-savvy town. So three days a week â€“ people were furious about it. It’s really odd living in a town without a daily. Eventually people started looking to us for more coverage. And we felt pressure internally to fill this news hole. We had already been inching that way, because they [the Press-Register] had stopped doing investigative pieces and covering certain parts of town. But when they went to three days, we started getting all sorts of tips and calls from people about stories. And we started doing those stories. And now people think of us as the hard-news source in town.
Has Lagniappe picked up any former Press-Register employees?
A lot of our sales staff is from over there. Not as much on the editorial side. A few freelancers. Most of those reporters went to other markets. Or the older ones took buyouts or retirement plans.
What are some specific coverage areas you guys have beefed up?
We do a lot of government coverage. Mobile’s license commissioner just got raided by the FBI â€“ they confiscated all her hard drives. We’ve been the first and only one to report that so far. We had a very contentious mayoral race that we covered pretty heavy. We do lots of city hall stuff.
How many full-time editorial employees are there?
I’m the editor, and my co-publisher serves as managing editor. Then we have an assistant managing editor and three full-time reporters who all have their own beats. And then we have freelancers for arts and entertainment.
What beats do the reporters work?
One is on the cops and sheriff. Another is on city council. Another works a specific geographic area. We kind of pick and choose our battles. If there’s something interesting going on statewide, we’ll see who has the time to cover it. We don’t have a courts reporter, but we’ll pick the ones we think are interesting and cover them.
You mentioned in Nashville that youâ€™ve applied to be the local paper of record for legal advertisements?
Yes, we’ve applied and it’s pending. Once the Press-Register went to three days a week, we had attorneys saying they wanted to advertise with us instead. So we looked into the state laws about it and decided to apply. The Press-Register will still get some of them, and so will another, smaller paper in the county. But we expect to get it, which will be a huge revenue source — several hundred thousand a year. We’re also doing wedding and engagement announcements.
Can you talk about your “Friends with Benefits” program?
That’s us trying to harness some of the goodwill we’re seeing from what we’re doing. We started it in February, and basically our readers can pay a dollar a week, five dollars a month, or fifty dollars a year to help us grow and expand our coverage. And in exchange we send them a Mailchimp newsletter where they get breaking news first, and news stories a day before they come out. Any music festival we sponsor we’ll give out tickets to Friends. Or we’ll give out gift certificates to restaurants.
Lagniappe seems like a very print-first operation. Do you think that’s a sustainable position in the long term?
We know we can’t ignore digital. We try to use social media. We have Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram going. But at the same time, less than five percent of our revenue is from digital. And we’re knocking it out of the park with print advertising. Our last issue was the biggest issue we’ve had in 12 years.
Our thing is â€“ we’re trying to be a good newspaper. Everyone seems to be so consumed about what format the future of newspapers will be in that I think there’s a tendency to forget that people just want good content. Some want to read it on their iPad, and some want to read it in print at the restaurant. We’re just focusing on our content â€“ making it really good, and smart, and in service of our community.
David Hudnall is a staff writer for The Pitch in Kansas City and a 2014 AAN Convention Scholarship recipient.