An update and roadmap on The Portager

Photo by Bank Phrom

It’s been a while since I’ve shared an in-depth look at The Portager’s progress and future plans. And with so much in the works, I want to bring you up to speed.

Before I get into the details, I want to first say how surreal this all feels. When I started The Portager back in March 2020, we had a small list of fewer than 300 subscribers who mainly found out about us through a couple of Facebook posts. The first newsletters contained very little original reporting. I didn’t know what to expect.

But we grew quickly because of the intense demand for hyperlocal news coverage. Today The Portager has over 6,600 subscribers, and there are over 2,200 people subscribed to our Stow newsletter, The Spotlight.

Although we have no full-time staff apart from me, we have several part-time contributors who power our journalism and whose names you know. They include my sister Natalie, reporter Wendy DiAlesandro, editors Tom Hardesty and Rachel Abbey McCafferty, and a whole roster of freelancers and columnists. 

Over 1,000 of you pay us for our work, which is incredible. Thank you. Every one of you is a pillar supporting some crucial function. Even if you only pay $1/month, over the course of a year you paid for somebody’s gas on a reporting trip. 

We’re extremely efficient, so your money goes a long way. So far this year, we’ve spent about $140,000, and 77% of that was paid to journalists. The rest was mostly for credit card processing fees, technology and marketing like staffing the Randolph Fair. In other words, your Portager subscription doesn’t line the pockets of out-of-state shareholders or pay off debt to banks. It directly funds the work we do.

That’s important to mention because the same can’t be said of most local news sources in the United States. The Portager is special. I recognize this every day, and I hope you do, too. We should be proud of this community for bringing a homegrown news source into the world.

From news source to newspaper

I’ve always called The Portager a “news source” because we never printed. That’s no longer true, so from now on I’ll be referring to The Portager as a “newspaper.” We’ve already published a demo issue, we’ve got two more paper issues in the works, and we’re planning to begin weekly print distribution later this year.

The email newsletter will always be our core product, containing every item we publish. But the term newspaper is more familiar, and it makes it easier to explain to people what The Portager is if they haven’t already heard of us. 

Print editions are our most requested feature from the general public. I’ve had many people call me to subscribe but change their minds when they find out we only publish digitally. One gentleman had heard about The Portager but had never heard of email. He said he was 92. I don’t see a reason he shouldn’t have access to local news.

I also think print editions will be our most effective form of marketing, reaching not only older generations who aren’t online but also new generations of news readers at high schools and campuses. I decided to work in newspapers when I was a kid because my parents had them on the table every day.

We will provide weekly home delivery of The Portager to everyone with a full paid subscription, which means $17/month or $180/year. Please invite your friends and family to subscribe. The papers will be delivered through the postal service and printed right here in Portage County, at PM Graphics in Streetsboro. We’re planning to deliver on Thursday or Friday.

If you have a full-price subscription but don’t want home delivery, you’ll be able to have your paper sent to someone who can’t afford a subscription. You may designate the person, or you can let us send it to someone on your behalf. You’ll also be able to buy gift subscriptions. I’ll share more details about this before launch.

Next month, we’ll be publishing two special editions: the League of Women Voters’ voters guide for the November election and a massive Every Door Edition, which will go out to every home and business in Portage County. I’m counting on these special editions to boost our subscriptions and subsidize the weekly launch. Wish us luck.

Website upgrades

Launching a new newspaper is a large undertaking. But that’s not all we’re doing. Last week, I met with my friends and longtime collaborators at ReachOut, who helped migrate and redesign The Portager website. 

The new site looks similar to the old one. We didn’t want to change the design much. What you’ll notice is that the new website is much faster. It will also be much easier for us to maintain, so it’ll save us money in the long run. 

The next phase of the web rebuild is to remove Google Analytics and install ReachOut analytics instead. As you know, Google is basically a surveillance system, and they make a lot of money spying on you. I don’t want them to be able to do that anymore. Instead, we’ll monitor our web traffic locally and store data on an encrypted server to protect your privacy and prevent Big Tech from profiting off of you when you read The Portager.

New engagement features for paid subscribers

We already give the community a lot of ways to participate in our coverage. That includes the Mailbox and letters to the editor. I also publish my email address and cell phone number in every issue, so anyone can easily reach me. Many of you ask questions that become story ideas. 

I’m considering new ways to create community with people who are very engaged in Portage County public life. Starting next year, we’ll begin offering full-price paid subscribers the ability to request stories and vote on them. 

We’ll also begin a series of monthly Zoom roundtables that will include Portager team members and community leaders. You’ll be able to ask questions and give us feedback.

Updates on your legislators

Another feature we’ll be launching soon is legislative updates. This will appear weekly or every other week in our email newsletter, and it will be available to all subscribers, including free ones.

This was suggested to us by one of you. Basically, we’ll provide a summary of what Portage County’s legislative delegation has been up to in Columbus and Washington. We’ll let you know what they voted for or against, and which votes they skipped. We’ll provide information about the bills they’re introducing, supporting and opposing. 

It’s not easy to follow what’s happening in our state and federal capitals. But our new legislative update will help fix that by making it more convenient.

More local coverage

By launching print editions and expanding our coverage, I expect to increase the amount of financial support from the community and finally hit our long-standing goal of 2,000 paid subscribers. What will we do with all that money? Simple. We’ll keep working toward our mission. 

The Portager’s mission from Day One has been the same: to be a catalyst for ideas and action that help our community thrive. 

That means we’ll expand our local news coverage, providing more stories about the things you care about, including local government, businesses, nonprofits, churches, schools and courts. Studies prove that doing more of this coverage will increase transparency in government, increase civic engagement and decrease political polarization.

We’ll give you more ways to build community through our platforms and through the events and charities we support. 

And we’ll keep sharing ways you can help your neighbors or ask for help if you need it. That was the essence of what The Portager did when we launched in the early days of the pandemic, and solidarity has remained the soul of our publication. In pixels or ink on paper, it always will be.

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Ben Wolford is the editor and publisher of The Portager.

[email protected]