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How 100 Days in Appalachia seeks sustainability while staying true to its mission

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: As an independent nonprofit newsroom, move beyond philanthropy as a core strategy and begin reader revenue and community membership experiments in order to move toward sustainability.

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 a team at 100 Days in Appalachia, including Dana Coester, editor in chief; Ashton Marra, executive editor; Jesse Wright, chief data officer; and Kristen Uppercue, deputy editor for special projects. 100 Days in Appalachia participated in the Poynter’s Local News Innovation Table Stakes program in 2021.

Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?

Answer: 100 Days in Appalachia is an independent nonprofit newsroom and digital publication born out of the 2016 election and national narratives that reduced our region to a handful of narrow stories. 

We share the diverse stories of this place by working with local voices to apply a cultural lens to national stories. We have received national recognition for our reporting, winning a 2021 Edward R. Murrow Award, among others. We have three editorial managers, all women from rural communities; four contributing editors, representing minority and LGBTQ communities; and two correspondents. Most of our reporting, however, comes from freelancers living and working in Appalachian communities.

An overlook of the Appalachian Mountain range. Courtesy of 100 Days in Appalachia.

100 Days covers the 13 states that make up the region and the more than 25 million people that live within it. Our content reaches nearly 2 million people annually through digital and social media platforms. This includes Appalachians themselves, but also a national audience of policy-makers, Appalachian ex-pats, and influencers interested in the economic, political and policy issues of the region. We are followed by journalists in national news media such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and others who are not just reading our work, but rely on us as a resource for their own coverage.

Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

A: In early 2021, 100 Days in Appalachia had just begun a period of transition from being a university-incubated collaborative media project to becoming an independent, fully self-sustaining nonprofit newsroom. This transition was central to our primary Table Stakes challenge — “to become an independent, self-sustaining news organization that will grow our audience and brand recognition through data-focused content and product development.” 

But to become a self-sustaining news organization, we needed to become a revenue-generating newsroom. 

The university model relied solely on grant funding and did not have systems in place for collecting reader revenue. We sought to move beyond philanthropy as a core strategy and begin reader revenue and community membership experiments in earnest, and we needed to build our own systems to do that. 

But leaving the university didn’t mean abandoning our origin story. The transition forced us back to our mission and asking ourselves, Why do we really exist? 

We had entered the Table Stakes process with four years of experimentation, a scattered array of stop-and-go product development (from launching a podcast to 360° social video series), multiple collaborations and several ambitious grant-funded projects in various stages of production. 

Going through this transition at the same time as Table Stakes required having goals that might at first seem at odds with each other — reducing operations to a minimum viable product while growing in alignment with our founding mission

The 100 Days in Appalachia team attends a staff retreat before the pandemic. (David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia)

100 Days in Appalachia began as a pop-up newsroom covering our region’s collective response to the previous administration’s first 100 days in office through a lens of nuance, with special attention to the role of context and place. We wanted to tell a deeper story about America’s divides through the prism of Appalachia and with the kind of complexity that national reporters simply can’t capture. We launched by taking the lead in a national conversation surrounding the 2016 election and found an assertive voice in telling Appalachia’s stories with moral force.

It turns out these were not conflicting goals at all. Rather they were clarifying goals, or, as we commented more than once, “clarifying like an acid bath to the brain” and that required setting — and sticking to — strategic, data-driven priorities. 

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A:  This approach is related to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”) and Table Stake No. 4 (“Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists”).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: When we started the Table Stakes process, we had a preconceived notion that focusing on operational sustainability would threaten the mission-driven aspects of our work. In fact, it had the opposite result. 

Throughout the Table Stakes process we had two checkpoints for decision-making — Data + Mission — for prioritizing how we would invest our limited time, resources and funds. Each data-informed decision, rather than detracting from mission, served to highlight precisely who we are, not just for our audience, but for our staff and our contributors as well.  

This precision of identity increased the relevance of submitted content from our community of freelancers, allowed for freedom and agency among our core team operating from the firm footing of shared mission, and resulted in deeper resonance of content and products with readers. 

We started seeing patterns in the kinds of content people connected with most. For example cultural identity stories, such as Holler, Y’all and Appalachian Drawls: My Childhood of Code Switching in Appalachia, outperformed others. 

Data also gave us insight into how we were becoming a resource for people outside our targeted audiences, especially around our reporting on domestic extremism. Our search engine term data showed just how important our accessible explainer pieces about QAnon and Jan. 6 were to a general audience looking for information about those topics. 

We were consistently on the first page of results when people searched for terms related to those topics. While that didn’t necessarily lead those people down the funnel to membership, it did serve our mission and helped to reinforce our expertise on covering topics of importance in our region with authority.

The first step we took was to change how we collected data. We had to shift from collecting data designed to inform grant and project-based reporting to collecting data to inform strategic decision-making for sustainability. 

This started with questions, such as: How many people were returning to our website after an initial visit? What did they look at when they came back? Which content produced sustainability actions like newsletter sign-ups, membership sign-ups and donations? 

Then it was a matter of capturing the data that answered those questions. We had to build tools to capture the data and make sense of it, which took some time, but once the tools were in place, this initial data collection helped us to move through a phase of reduction to determine what we should STOP doing. This allowed us to be much more decisive and focused as a leadership team, and allowed our limited (part-time) staff to focus their energy on the places where we could see success. 

For example, data told us that original content dramatically out-performed republished content when it came to user loyalty and sustainability. Our executive editor had typically spent 5-8 hours per week reviewing potential content to republish. She would then assign the task of republishing to our editorial assistant or intern who would spend an additional 3-6 hours per week preparing the content for publication. 

As part of the Table Stakes process, we conducted an audit of the pageviews of stories republished in 2020 and found only 24 of the 372 stories we republished in 2020 received more than 300 pageviews. Based on this audit, in 2021, we reduced republished content to a total of 41 partner stories, significantly reducing the time spent on that activity, and shifted our efforts into high-level collaborative work with partners and producing original content. 

We pushed our newsletter and donation asks to our original content, which drove sign-ups higher. Slowing down our publishing schedule did push our first-time user traffic down a little bit, but our returning users went up, along with other loyalty metrics, such as time on page and pages per session. 

We believe this change helped us to spotlight our central mission and identity through content choices, which translated into more clarity about who we are. This led us to focus on a few primary goals that emerged from this data-informed process: To attract and maintain a more diverse audience through content and coverage; and to use data to identify and define our most loyal audiences to better serve their wants and needs to support brand recognition and growth.

Q: What worked?

A: In collecting data on content that performs well for us, such as cultural and identity pieces, and in alliance with our mission to surface diverse Appalachian voices, we experimented with a young Appalachians vertical called the Youth Creators Project

This project provides a destination for creative media from young people in Appalachia – from poetry to photography to personal essays to interviews and reporting – exploring their stark realities through a personal lens in this historical time. 

It also brings a vibrant new network to the 100 Days community that is underserved in most other news media — young people. 

Our contributing editor leading this project, Rainesford Stauffer, brought her own network of young Appalachians to this effort, as a native Kentuckian and a writer and editor who had long reported on issues that shape the lives and perspectives of young adults, including as a contributor and columnist for Teen Vogue. 

Our data revealed that this project drives 20% of all traffic on our site annually, which reinforces the value, and audience, for this work. One of our highest performing stories across all of our content, Holler, Y’all and Appalachian Drawls: My Childhood of Code Switching in Appalachia, is authored by Ava Dixon, then a senior at Hazard High School in Hazard, Ky., earning more than 32,000 pageviews since it was published in April 2021. 

In addition to co-building a space with them to publish (and paying them), we’re building what we hope will be an enduring relationship between 100 Days in Appalachia and this next generation of news consumers. It’s a long game in regard to an experiment in audience development, but one we’re willing to invest in, because no one else is. 

Q: What didn’t work?

A: We learned that sometimes shorter-term experiments weren’t effective at yielding meaningful data. For example, our newsletter experiments took longer than anticipated to generate enough data to make decisions. So we had to learn when to “fail fast” and when to take our time in other areas. 

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We’re conditioned to feed the content beast, and it feels unnerving to take steps to publish less. And when you’ve been an organization that has had a lot of different projects in motion, the idea of reducing operations feels like you’re reducing your impact or relevancy. It was a revelation to us that not only did our worst fears not happen, in fact the opposite happened. We increased our audience and our audience loyalty, we clarified our role and relevance in our region, and we took necessary steps toward operational and financial sustainability.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We learned that taking time to do the necessary team building in developing — or in our case redeveloping — a mission/vision statement is a vital process for sustainability. 

When everyone is involved in that process, there is more buy-in and ownership of the mission, but we think people underestimate how this kind of unity translates into other benefits like operational efficiency. 

As team member Jesse Wright noted, “You don’t have to explain the mission as much when the people who most need to understand the mission were involved in its creation.”  

For example, through the Table Stakes process, we held regular full staff meetings where our core team would reinforce how each project related back to our mission and Table Stakes challenge statement, and opened up space for the entire team to brainstorm new projects and initiatives to reach those goals. 

When the time came to start promoting our first reader membership campaign, we asked our staff to each write a brief email to our audience detailing the work they do and why it was important. Every single one of those emails expertly detailed 100 Days’ mission and reinforced to our audience why we exist without any input from our core team – including the email written by a staff member that we onboarded just a few weeks prior! 

Clarity and unity show up in other ways, too, such as more diverse applicants for positions because they are themselves gravitating toward that mission and see themselves in it, which then translates into content that connects with our communities. 

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

A: It’s worth taking the time to build accurate data measurement tools. It was a frustrating process with a slow learning curve, but ultimately everything else flowed more smoothly from the insights gained from the data. 

We were fortunate that one of our core team members, Jesse Wright, spearheaded this effort as our chief data officer. Although we prioritize data collection, Jesse advises, “Don’t just collect data for the sake of collecting data. The data should work for you, not the other way around.” 

He recommends that you start with the questions you want answered, like: “What kinds of content drive users to come back once they’ve discovered our platform?” Or: “What kinds of content drive newsletter subs and/or donations?” 

The purpose of the data collection should move your team beyond assumptions to greater knowledge on those questions. And given that Data + Mission are our touchstones, it’s also essential to take the time to collaboratively craft a centering mission statement that is assertive and resonant for the community. It is messy, cathartic work, and if you’re a newsroom leader, you have to let go of that process being top down or hierarchical in any way.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: A final piece of advice comes from Executive Editor Ashton Marra: “Trust the data! Refusing to change when the data is showing you something doesn’t work doesn’t help anyone. Move on quickly, and try the next thing that will enhance your mission. Don’t get stuck on the personal.”

More on digital workflows: How the Minneapolis Star Tribune flipped its production workflow to better meet audience needs