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How the Bangor Daily News used e-commerce as an unexpected tool for community service

A screenshot of the Bangor Daily News Store on March 25, 2024.

A screenshot of the Bangor Daily News Store on March 25, 2024.

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The BDN Store complements the Bangor Daily News’ journalism service: fundraising, helping readers show their connection, and promoting shopping sustainably and locally.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. 

This “win” comes from Allison Bradshaw, digital marketing project manager at the Bangor Daily News, which participated in the 2021 Major Market Table Stakes cohort and the American Press Institute-News Product Alliance product development sprint in 2023.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was that problem strategically important to your organization?

Answer: As a 135-year-old family-owned organization, the Bangor Daily News is a staple in our community. 

That status doesn’t protect our newspaper from the trends affecting local newspapers nationwide, and we are continually exploring new methods to diversify our revenue while also supporting local businesses and building tighter bonds with our readers. Any new revenue stream that, once established, can require relatively little maintenance would be a big win.

The training, peer learning and a grant to seed artist collaborations from the American Press Institute-News Product Alliance product development sprint program have been invaluable.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: Our readers repeatedly ask for various BDN-branded and BDN-derived products and we have not satisfied this need in recent years. 

One recurring ask from readers and customers is for the ability to purchase our photos through our website. Most of these requests include a story about a family member who is tired of cutting out the photos from the paper and hanging them up. Other requests from readers and staff alike have included branded clothing, newspaper delivery bags, calendars, commemorative archive editions and more. 

We began to explore ideas for a branded merchandise store, and the idea of collaborating with local artists and small businesses emerged as a unique way to connect the newspaper with other creators in our community. We had also seen the success of the ADN Store, and learned from the Anchorage Daily News team that artist collaborations were particularly popular with their readers.

We had hoped to launch the merchandise store at the beginning of Q3 2023, but our official launch date was pushed back due to extenuating circumstances. 

All proceeds from the sale of this poster, by BDN editorial cartoonist George Danby, were donated to a fund to support victims of the October 2023 mass shooting in Lewiston, Mainee.

All proceeds from the sale of this poster, by BDN editorial cartoonist George Danby, were donated to a fund to support victims of the October 2023 mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine.

We soft-launched the store a few weeks before the then-scheduled mid-November launch in order to, at the suggestion of our politics editor, support the victims and families of the Oct. 25, 2023, Lewiston mass shootings a few days after the horrific incident. We sold clothing and other items featuring a supportive illustration created by BDN editorial cartoonist George Danby

All proceeds from this collection were donated to a fund formed by our local community foundation to support victims and their families. We received positive feedback from the community about this donation collection. 

We launched the full BDN Store a month later, at the beginning of December 2023.

The BDN Store has a variety of products that feature our logo and icons, ranging from housewares such as mugs and blankets, to clothing and paper products. Also available are handmade coasters made of recycled BDN newspapers from a local artist. The BDN is proud to have a cartoonist on staff and have some of his prints available on the storefront. We are actively working on expanding our products to include non-branded designs. 

Q: What worked?

A: We came to the conclusion that print-on-demand would be our only viable option as we do not have the space, employee time or risk tolerance to store and ship products. Print-on-demand offers an economical and environmentally conscious way of printing items with our designs only when a purchase has been made, which limits the chance of surplus products. 

Once we had a few BDN-branded items available, we first launched internally to staff, which helped us troubleshoot some minor issues we did not catch in development with an understanding audience. 

Crowdsourcing ideas from employees via Slack channels generated new product ideas, gave insight into what could resonate with different demographics and provided a fun outlet for employees. The combination of using Shopify and print-on-demand partners allowed us to quickly and efficiently pivot from our original launch plan to a fundraising effort in the aftermath of the Oct. 25, 2023, mass shooting. 

A selection of merchandise in the Bangor Daily News Store on March 25, 2024.

A selection of merchandise in the Bangor Daily News Store on March 25, 2024.

We learned in developing partnerships with local artists and merchants that not all are able or comfortable with storing and shipping specialty products themselves. Some potential partners simply were not comfortable with this arrangement, and in a few cases we needed to decline a partnership with an artist we would otherwise want to work with because doing so would have added complexity and overhead we could not sustain. 

We also learned that by offering a competitive revenue-share agreement to local merchants, we were able to generate good will as we explored potential partnerships.

The BDN Store is still a new product for us, but we believe that this is an additional revenue stream that is worth expanding and investing additional time into. The cost of keeping the store running is minimal and with most of our products being print-on-demand, we do not have any costs associated with the products. We have aimed for all of our products to have a 25-35% profit margin built into the sales price, which provides us a nice additional revenue stream. 

Q: What didn’t work?

A:  We set out planning on launching our store with multiple collections that contained unique designs and a full list of collaborations from local merchants, but we quickly realized that we needed to adjust our expectations for our minimum viable product for launch. 

If we had stuck with our original requirements, we still wouldn’t be up-and-running yet. During our pre-launch phase, we were able to purchase some of our print-on-demand products to test, and quickly learned which printing or stitching types don’t work on certain materials. Searching forums was also helpful in learning what works and doesn’t when it comes to print quality on designs.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We were not expecting this store to become a fundraising platform, but we are pleased to have this option moving forward. We plan on using this capability in the future when needed and potentially to partner with local nonprofits to help increase their reach. We hope to never again need to respond so quickly to such a horrific event, but we now know that this store model can adapt quickly and efficiently to support charitable efforts. 

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: First, have an agreement drawn up to make sure expectations are set on both sides for partnerships with artists and local merchants. 

As with launching any new platform, take your time, develop a testing plan, test everything and draft others to test for you. The more eyeballs, the better. 

Remember that even if what you’ve created is intended to be a largely passive revenue stream, you cannot just set it and forget it – if you do, it will die a slow death. Save yourself from this embarrassment by creating an ongoing update and expansion plan to keep the product fresh. 

Finally, look to your community. Your readers and staff are wonderful assets for this work – solicit their ideas and desires. Merchants and artists in your community are also valuable partners. Even if they have not previously participated, inviting their ideas helps them imagine how they might grow their business through the platform and create an open channel for their feedback and ideas.

I’ve had the pleasure of sharing our experience with some of the other publications that were a part of the API-NPA product development program. Keep an eye out for a new store from the  Chattanooga Times Free Press and check out The Sumter Item’s new store, too. We are always happy to help other publishers, so feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

Q: What’s next for this work?

A: This spring we plan to launch our Outdoors collection, which ties into content and an area of expertise that our publication is known for. We are also expanding our community partnerships, and are working on a collaboration with a local coffee roaster for later this year. We will then begin promoting local merchants’ work outside of collaborations later this year to help increase their reach. 

Other ideas we will be exploring:

  • Promoting books written by BDN journalists
  • BDN photograph ordering 
  • More products that pertain to news stories or coverage areas (ex: outdoors, homesteading, sports, etc.)
  • Fundraising collections to support local charities
  • Special subscriber benefits such as store discounts or bundling items with subscriptions
  • Promotional campaigns such as leveraging top sellers to drive traffic to the store via ad buys, house ads, email and social promotion