GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers’ business model could help save a newspaper, which would be appropriate since a newspaper helped save the Packers.
Leaders of The Sentinela weekly publication in Aurora, Colorado with twice-daily e-mail newsletters, have been investigating whether the Packers’ model, based on public ownership of the team, could provide financial viability for the news organization.
This week, Dave Perryeditor of The Sentinel and Laura Frankexecutive director of the Colorado News Collaborative, attended the annual Packers shareholders meeting at Lambeau Field so they could see up close what drove 539,062 shareholders, many of them outside of Wisconsin, to invest in the Packers.
“I was on a Zoom call with Colorado Public Radio and their head of news,” Frank said. “He was saying, ‘I’ll go out to Green Bay and we’ll do it,’ and over his shoulder he had a framed stock certificate for the Packers.”
The idea is to use community ownership and a loyal, engaged fan base to help change the course of an industry whose business model struggles to support the local journalism that is essential to democracy.
Joaquin Alvaradoan Oakland, Calif.-based consultant who led the formation of a holding company to operate the Aurora role until a new ownership model is developed believes there is a case for the Packers model.
He knows how the media works. He is the founder of studiotobeconsulting and media company, and president of Consumer Reports. He was previously general manager of the Research Reporting Center and was executive with American public media and the Public Broadcasting Corporation.
He is also involved in the NEW News Lab in northeastern Wisconsin, which is part of a nationwide effort by Microsoft to help rebuild the capacity of local news ecosystems, restore trust in the news and reduce legal and cyber risks for journalists.
The News Lab is a collaboration between the Community Foundations of Green Bay and the Fox Valley Region and includes The post-crescentThe Green Bay Press-Gazette, FoxValley365, The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio i Wisconsin Clock. The Department of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is an educational partner.
“I always wondered, what would it be like to come out to the Packers in a local paper?” said Packers shareholder Alvarado. “How do you make a different set of economics possible?”
Seeking to stem the tide of local newspaper closures
It’s part of an effort to save local news organizations, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, in its 2022 reportsaid the country lost more than a quarter of its 2,500 newspapers since 2005 and is on track to lose a third by 2025. More than 360 newspapers ceased publication between late 2019 and May 2022, all but 24 weeklies serving populous communities. from a few hundred to tens of thousands.
Most communities that lose a newspaper do not receive a digital or print replacement, the report found. The country has 6,377 surviving newspapers: 1,230 dailies and 5,147 weeklies.
Medill’s research found that more than 20 percent of the nation’s citizens live in news deserts, with limited access to local news. The 208 counties without a newspaper are home to 70 million people, while another 1,630 counties have a newspaper, usually weekly, that covers larger areas than local government, schools, or other important community institutions have the resources to cover.
Most communities that lose newspapers and lack an alternative source of local news are poorer, older and lack affordable and reliable high-speed digital service that allows residents to access the important and relevant journalism that newspapers produce and surviving digital sites in the country. Instead, they get their local news — what little there is — mostly from social media apps on their cellphones, the report said.
“How do you preserve what a community is and what it does?” Alvarado asked. “You’ve got to get the community equity in this. We’ve got to engage the community so they have a seat at the table for what’s going on.”
Packers inspire the community’s approach to news ownership
In its early decades, the Packers organization was closely tied to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, which promoted the team, sold its tickets and performed most of its administrative functions.
The Packers are publicly owned, but its shares are not traded. The team has only had six stock sales in its 103-year history. The shares do not pay dividends, so all income stays with the organization. Shareholders vote on a board of directors and other matters that may arise, but many of the organization’s decisions are made by the president/CEO and executive committee.
This works for the Packers because football is very popular and lucrative, and the Packers are the most successful franchise in the NFL, with the best history. The team has a loyal and motivated fan base.
One of the challenges Sentinel owners will face, should they choose the Packers’ method, is convincing the citizens of Aurora that the news they receive is worth paying for in more than just subscriptions.
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Aurora can ring a bell. Ten years ago this month, Aurora was the site of a mass shooting at a movie theater that left 12 people dead and 70 others injured, 58 of them by gunshots.
The father of one of the victims, Tom Sullivan, a mailman who was spurred to run for the state legislature to try to help prevent these incidents, explained the importance of local news being there day in and day out to cover the event and its consequences.
“That kind of sustained coverage helped him and the community move forward, understand this is what really happened here and how we can prevent it in other places, but also how to internalize this kind of massive disaster and move on,” he said. Perry.
Frank believes the Sentinel has the seeds of the kind of audience the Packers enjoy.
“Right now, the Sentinel gets more money from community donations than even community subscriptions,” Frank said. “…which I think is fantastic evidence of how much the community supports this. That’s why we think a Packers-type model will work.”
Colorado: A Lab for News Industry Innovation
The conservation is a collaboration of the National Trust for Local News i The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned public interest publication. The Conservancy, the first local and national association of its kind, bought a family-owned 24-newspaper chain in Colorado, but because it’s new and still finding its way, the Conservancy wasn’t ready to take on the Sentinel.
“CoLab had been working with Dave and his staff at Sentinel trying to get a deep understanding of how we could help them evolve,” Frank said. “That’s when the owner (Sentinel) said, ‘I have these other things I need to focus on. I want to donate the paper to CoLab.”
CoLab was in no position to take ownership of the Aurora paper, so Alvarado led the establishment of a holding company to buy time to figure out what to do with the Sentinel.
That question led to this week’s trip to Green Bay.
Perry was particularly anxious to learn the extent to which public ownership informs the team’s decisions; How well do team leaders listen to stakeholders?
“We will have a board of directors, probably, that will have no say in how we run the editorial department. That has to be independent,” Perry said. “On the other hand, as journalists and editors, we are desperate to be less insular, especially after two years of the pandemic, to find out, are you reading this? Do you like it? What are we missing? How much more should we give to just features and events and things like that?”
Frank said it’s clear the Packers behave differently than other professional sports teams because of public ownership, which is an important element of the paper’s potential public ownership.
It’s still too early to tell if a Packers model will work, but in any case, Frank believes a combination of funding sources, including grants, subscriptions and partnerships, could be necessary.
“It’s not so much the newspaper itself, but the purpose we serve,” Perry said. “There is a great need for direct information, for people who have the time and resources to ask questions that no one else is asking, and to tell people things that are so important in their lives, that they have no other way to figure it out.”