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One template for local journalism: The Welch News serving a struggling market in West Virginia

By Lexi Browning, West Virginia Press Association

WELCH, W.Va. — At a time when many communities across the country have lost their local newspaper, The Welch News, an independent and locally owned newspaper, found a way forward to serve its community despite the economic struggles in McDowell County, West Virginia.

In 2018, The Welch News was on the brink of closing. Missy Nester, then employed as publisher, had written the newspaper’s obituary and announced its final publication date would be May 7.

Missy Nester, owner of the Welch News, and her father and greatest mentor, Leonard Nester, review an edition of the McDowell County, West Virginia newspaper. Courtesy photo. 

Instead of stopping the presses, Nester, a McDowell County native, decided to purchase the failing publication. 

With the help of the West Virginia Community Development Hub; Tyler Channell, founder of the Paywall Project; the West Virginia Press Association, and local residents, Nester developed a plan to save a newspaper in a struggling community.

“I felt like our whole state came to bat to help us save this newspaper,” Nester said. 

The group worked with Nester on a plan to stabilize the business, expand the newspaper’s reach and find new revenue.

Much of the effort focused on development of the WelchNews.com.

Following that meeting, The Welch News soon went online for the first time in its nearly 100-year existence. The publication now has a website and subscription capabilities created by Channell, whose Paywall Project helps sustain small and independent publications through websites with digital subscriptions, with the emphasis on subscription revenue. 

A look into McDowell County 

Located in downtown Welch in McDowell County, in the state’s southernmost county, the newspaper’s office building exterior is gilded with “The Welch Daily News” and a date: 1927.

1927 was a different time in McDowell County.

Over the last century, McDowell County has seen its share of major cultural shifts. The colossal rise of the coal industry through the early and mid-1900s was followed by a steep decline of industrial and business opportunities — and population — in the final decades of the century.

In the 1950s, McDowell County was home to approximately 100,000 residents. The U.S. Census Bureau recently estimated McDowell County’s population at 17,624. That’s losing more than 80% of the population.

And then came COVID-19.

Nester, who has worked at The Welch News for two decades, made progress in 2018 and 2019. But 2020 has been a different story. She said the newspaper severely felt the economic decline in March when the coronavirus pandemic began to impact West Virginia.

“Our income has been slashed, but how do I let my community down? …” Nester said, explaining residents depend on the newspaper to bring them information in the middle of a pandemic.

With significant outward migration, limited access to reliable internet and the ongoing pandemic, staying connected to — and within — southern West Virginia has become more important than ever.

“We decided in mid-April that we were going to ride this as long as we could ride it, and if it gets us, then we’ll shut the door when we don’t have a dollar left,” Nester said.

The Welch News, Nester said, is a true community paper. As other newspapers have seen their printing and layout operations outsourced to other states, The Welch News’ operations, including content, advertisements and printing, are all done in downtown Welch. Nester herself took high school journalism classes in the same building she works in today.

Even during the pandemic, when encouraged by others to cut back on printing to decrease costs, she refused to let her publication waver. Since 1995, The Welch News has printed three days a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Missy Nester, center, owner of the Welch News, and the staff of the McDowell County, West Virginia newspaper in the pressroom. From left: Larry Paul, Press Operator; Tom Molin, Circulation Manager; Melissa Nester, Publisher; Rebecca Key, former Advertising Manager; Tyler Mitchem, Newsroom Manager; Derek Tyson, Editor. Courtesy photo.

In many rural communities like Nester’s, print newspapers are a lifeline, especially for the elderly residents. 

Working in a smaller community gives the newspaper another layer of accountability, Nester noted. If there are errors in the paper, residents are quick to point them out. But that close connection has also offered an avenue for community input and improvement. Recently, many of The Welch News’ older print subscribers called to thank the staff profusely for increasing the size of the crossword puzzles.

“That’s what makes it a community paper, because you’re taking that community input and people get to see that process,” Nester said.

Both Nester and The Welch News’ editor, Derek Tyson, noted the importance of having physical print archives in a digital age where files can be altered or destroyed. The print newspapers that detail a region’s day-to-day, they said, can help provide context for future generations who may have questions about this era. 

Derek Tyson

“We continually examine our history and our past to navigate our future, and I’d hate to see McDowell County lose that [resource], because we’ve lost a lot,” Tyson said.

At times, it’s felt as if the county has been forgotten, Tyson said, especially when the region is painted as a monolithic stereotype in national media dispatches. 

“We’ve received a lot of negative coverage,” Tyson said. “So, to us, the little victories are huge things.”

One of those little victories occurred in September 2017, when the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited McDowell County for an episode of his television series, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” Tyson was the only journalist to get an exclusive interview with Bourdain.

At the time the story was published in print, The Welch News didn’t have a website or Facebook page.

To support its member newspaper, the West Virginia Press Association posted Tyson’s article to WVPress.org and shared it on the association’s social media platforms.

“The online traffic for Tyson’s article crashed our website that week,” Don Smith, executive director of the WVPA, said. “There was incredible interest from across the globe about an article in The Welch News.”

When Nester and Tyson crossed paths with Channell and the Paywall Project, their aspirations of going online reached fruition.

“It was so exciting, the thought of having an online edition,” Nester said. “Lots of times people from McDowell County feel forgotten and left behind. … that they don’t have the same chance or opportunity as other people have. We thought it was very important to move online so they’d have that as well.”

Going digital 

Channell understands the technological struggles facing rural communities and publications. He hails from neighboring Mingo County, which, like McDowell County, suffers from a lack of broadband connectivity and an economy bruised by the loss of coal jobs. 

Through the Paywall Project, Channell currently manages seven publications’ websites. Incoming clients start with a flat-rate fee to ensure that if a publication wants to try generating online revenues with the Paywall Project, they won’t be deterred by cost, Channell noted. 

Tyler Channell, founder of Paywall Project.

“We started a paywall with Welch [News] in January of this year, and within the first 10 days, it had 100 new paying subscribers,” Channell said. “That has since increased to about 300 paying subscribers. What’s even more interesting is that about 30 to 40 percent of that is out-of-state. I think part of this whole project is showing that there is opportunity outside of the market just as much as there is inside the market.”

For a community like Welch, which has around 2,000 residents, Channell said the paywall’s successful implementation is “a big step forward.” Most digital subscribers are first-time customers.

“A lot of people have a misconception that paywalls only work for national players,” Channell said. “For me, it’s been this effort to change that narrative a bit and to show them that there’s people in their local communities, maybe they don’t live there anymore, maybe they do, who would also pay or donate if you gave them the option to do so.” 

When smaller publications use paywalls, those additional funds can grant them more financial flexibility.   

“Any time you can add just $500 a month to a newspaper’s bottom line, that could mean fixing a roof or hiring an additional stringer, or whatever the case may be. It’s a lot,” Channell said. “A lot of papers aren’t expecting much [with paywalls], but they say, ‘OK, let’s give it a shot, this isn’t going to work.’ Then they bring in $500 here, $1,000 there, a couple thousand here. It’s money that they’ve never had before … it’s new revenue.” 

Though not all publications have incorporated digital subscriptions into their business models, Channell’s Paywall Project has illustrated the difference it can make. 

“For newspaper publishers, paid digital subscriptions [are] the most sustainable pathway forward,” Channell said. 

Linking up with the WVPA

For the WVPA, working with the Welch News and Channell’s Paywall Project comes as part of an ongoing effort to find solutions to the problems facing many smaller publications in West Virginia and across the nation.

Collaborations such as the one for The Welch News allow publishers like Nester to set their sights on the future and have resources in place to sustain their important work, Smith said. 

Working with Channell to build new revenue to help The Welch News succeed, Smith said, was “so refreshing.”

“The new website and growing paid subscriber base allows the WVPA to sell digital advertising into WelchNews.com,” Smith said. “We promote the newspaper on social media and place content and video on the website, which builds viewer traffic and new revenue potential.”

Smith has been working for four years to create a template for future growth and success at community newspapers.

The West Virginia Press Association partnered with West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media to develop the NewStart program, which works to recruit, train and support the next generation of community newspaper owners and publishers.

Directed by Jim Iovino, NewStart provides a comprehensive ownership transition plan that matches potential buyers with publications that want to sell. NewStart offers extensive training for the new owners on how to manage, operate and grow media properties. The program offers insight into current small market revenue growth and long-term profitability, ensuring participants get updates on market analysis, staffing, website development, online presence, digital and print subscriptions, online and print advertising sales, events, sponsorships and partnerships.

Smith, who developed the ownership initiative that grew into NewStart, said The Welch News is an example of what is possible when you combine an owner who understands the local community with a business plan designed for the future.

“The Welch News is important to the people of McDowell County and anyone with connections to the region,” Smith said. “With subscriptions to WelchNews.com, more of those people can invest in the newspaper’s future.”

Readers can contribute or subscribe to The Welch News at https://www.welchnews.com/contribute/

“A good newspaper has to also be a good business, and it has to make money,” Smith said. “Tyler’s Paywall Project is such a great West Virginia story. It is a website project that allows these small papers to move forward and solidify revenue … and it’s affordable. He designed it for the smallest communities.”

Smith said supporting local newspapers is no different than supporting other local businesses. “If every West Virginian would support local businesses and get that subscription, whether online or print, to your local newspaper, then you’re helping ensure you have that local news source,” Smith said.

At a time when misinformation spreads quickly through social media, it’s important to seek out reliable, trustworthy voices, Smith added. Many voices are competing for attention on social media, Smith said, but not all have credibility.

“You can be in a crowd, and if someone very intelligent is speaking, you want to hear them. So, you move closer … and it works. But if everyone in the crowd starts talking, you can’t hear them. The paper is … providing really good information, and there’s just so much noise (from social media) that you have to take action to hear them,” Smith said, explaining that action is purchasing a subscription

The Welch News, Smith said, is a perfect illustration of how West Virginians can come together for the greater good: Subscribing to sustain the local newspaper and give its newsroom the tools needed to thrive.

“If you look at what Tyler’s doing and what Missy’s doing, they are the smallest markets, and they’re moving forward. Journalism is changing, and the news industry is changing … at the local level there is good news,” Smith said.

In it for the long haul 

With the momentum gained over the last few years, Nester and Tyson have a few goals for The Welch News over the coming months and years. Tyson hopes to work more closely with tourism initiatives to help promote the county and its outdoor recreation opportunities. Nester hopes to eventually make an e-edition available for their subscribers.

Digital and print subscriptions, as well as advertisements, mean the world to Nester — as do words of affirmation. 

“Any encouragement, phone calls and letting us know we’re on the right path and doing the right thing are wonderful, wonderful things,” Nester said. “I’d love to find us a set of used computers we could buy. We’re operating on very old equipment, even on our laptops. There are a million things like that, but really, the thing that motivates us, the thing that helps us, is the community support and the words that we get from our readers.”

As they continue producing The Welch News, both Nester and Tyson look forward to sharing more of McDowell County’s stories with their readers and the rest of the world. 

“Our side of the story deserves to be heard,” Tyson said. 

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