From the publisher: An update on The Portager for our community

Photo by Markus Winkler

Hey Portagers! Over the last week, I’ve received nervous messages from readers mentioning the abrupt closure of The Devil Strip, a news startup that has done for Akron what we’re creating for Portage County. That won’t happen to us, right?

The answer is no. The Portager is stronger than it was last month. And last month we were stronger than the month before that. We don’t spend more than we earn, and we have savings just in case. All of our revenue comes from sustainable sources, like monthly subscriptions and ad sales. We don’t live grant to grant. We have no debt.

I’m sorry I haven’t given you more frequent updates about the health of The Portager. I think you’ve all seen us growing bit by bit each week, with more coverage, more ads, more events, more bylines. You may have seen vague references to our growing readership.

Although we’re an LLC and not a nonprofit, I believe it’s important for organizations that play a role in civic life, even private ones, to be transparent. So here’s what I can tell you:

  • We spend roughly what we earn each month. Sometimes we splurge on marketing activities and overshoot our revenue. Sometimes we have a wave of new ad buys and bring in thousands more than we spend. It typically averages out.

  • We currently have enough money in the bank to last two months with zero revenue. (Which is basically impossible.) This means we have a good safety net. And if we’re spending more than we’re earning, we’ll spot that trend a mile away and make adjustments.

  • Subscriptions are growing (over 5,500), social media engagement is high, and we’re getting more and more traffic on our website (over 80,000 page views per month). Ad revenue is also growing (though much of it lately is from campaign spending, which is cyclical). The numbers are moving in the right direction.

  • Over the last three or four months, between 80% and 90% of our expenses go to our journalists, including reporter Lyndsey Brennan, managing editor Natalie Wolford, reporter Wendy DiAlesandro, sports columnist Tom Hardesty and a roster of freelancers and interns. The rest is marketing to grow our subscriber base and overhead like payment processing fees and cloud services.

  • Four months ago, I began paying myself, too. I left my day job running marketing content at a tech startup and took a pay cut to work for my dad’s marketing firm. I’ve reduced my workload from a stressful 90+ hours per week to about 60, which is right where I like it. I sleep at least seven hours a night now. There were times last year when I only slept two, finishing The Portager at 5 a.m. and waking up at 7 a.m. for a meeting with colleagues in Europe or Australia, then sneaking a nap. I’m so much healthier now, mentally and physically, and thanks to all of you, I have The Portager to show for it. I need to also thank my sister, Natalie, and all my reporters whose enthusiasm and competence made it possible to navigate that first year and a half.

  • OK, that was more catharsis than financial update. Moving on.

  • The one thing that troubles me right now is that the rate of new paid subscriptions has dropped from a steady flow to an irregular trickle. I had estimated that about 25% of subscribers would choose to pay, but the actual conversion rate is locked at about 10%. We have a “pay what you can” business model, which prioritizes community over profit. It also gives readers a chance to see what we’re doing before they decide to pay. I don’t regret this business model. For many people, The Portager is simply not in their budget, and that’s no reason to deny someone access to high-quality local news. All are welcome. We will never have a paywall.

  • While our coverage has expanded and we’re covering more of the county than we were last year, we are still not giving many townships the attention they deserve. I know this. You know this. To Suffield, Freedom, Edinburg, Nelson, Charlestown… uh, Sugar Bush Knolls and all the rest of you: I think about you every day. It’s my responsibility to find a way to keep growing so we can hire more reporters.

To that end, over the next couple of months, we’ll be testing some ideas and rolling out new products. I’m still researching and planning, so I won’t get into specifics now. But I think there’s more we could be doing in the service of our mission: to be a catalyst for ideas and action that help our community thrive. 

If you have ideas of your own or questions for me, please feel free to share them in the comments below or in an email to me at [email protected].

Also, if you’re a hiring manager or you work in HR at your business or nonprofit, could you also send me an email? I’d like to pick your brain.

So, the bottom line is that The Portager is doing well. I’m not going anywhere. And we’re financially stable. 

Everything you’ve been told about the dying news industry is true, but to your eternal credit, you decided, “Nope, not in my town.”

Get a Portager subscription here.

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Ben Wolford is the editor and publisher of The Portager.

[email protected]