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How the UNC-Duke rivalry helped two nonprofit student newspapers collaborate — and make revenue

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The University of North Carolina and Duke University’s student newsrooms teamed up to create the Rivalry Challenge around the Duke-UNC men’s basketball game earlier this year. There were two big parts to the challenge — a fundraising competition and a joint editorial project in print and online between the two teams of student journalists.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Erica Beshears Perel, general manager of The Daily Tar Heel, and Chrissy Beck, director of The Chronicle

You can also hear all about it on the It’s All Journalism podcast.

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

Answer: Declining advertising revenue is a fundamental business problem for college newsrooms as well as for professional media. Both The Daily Tar Heel and The Chronicle are independent, nonprofit student newsrooms that do not receive financial support from the universities we serve. We value that independence, because it allows us to report critically without censorship. But it means that we have been significantly affected by changes in the advertising business model.

The Chronicle’s annual budget is about $731,000, and The Daily Tar Heel’s budget is about $550,000. Both newsrooms see fundraising as a new revenue stream that will allow us to continue our mission as a crucial learning lab for student journalists. We’re also looking to make fun specialty print products that will capture the attention of our advertising clients and our readers. The Rivalry Challenge presented an opportunity to test both those approaches.

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: The Rivalry Challenge comes right from the Table Stakes playbook, most specifically Table Stake No. 6 (“Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost”), but also Table Stakes Nos. 4 and 5 (Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists,” and “Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build”).

The partnership extended each newsroom’s reach and capacity and drew on the audience for the well-established rivalry between alumni of the two schools.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: For years, the staff at The Daily Tar Heel and The Chronicle talked about collaborating on a revenue generator related to basketball, but the ideas never went anywhere. In December 2018, after about seven months of participation by The Daily Tar Heel in the Table Stakes program at UNC, the two halves of an idea came into focus: a first-ever joint print edition and online coverage plan, and a fundraising competition. We would see which newsroom could raise the most money between Feb. 1 and tip-off of the game on Feb. 20.

Daily Tar Heel cover

The Daily Tar Heel’s front page of the shared Rivalry Edition. View the full PDF of the double issue here.

The first hurdle was to get our editorial teams on board and to work out the logistics. The section would have two covers, on the front and back, and each newsroom would build half the pages in their own fonts and styles. The two “papers” would come together in a center spread. We agreed to a certain number of ad placements and sizes.

We used a shared Google Drive folder and several conference calls to get the full team on board and to make sure everyone felt included. The neighboring newsrooms share a printer and a web CMS, which eased the logistics. Then we got to work: selling ads, planning content and marketing the fundraising competition.

We went into the fundraising competition with a key goal: to capture the imagination and support of new donors outside those who had worked for The Daily Tar Heel or The Chronicle in college. We wanted to reach alumni of Duke and UNC who read our newspapers as students but didn’t work there, as well as non-alumni fans of the two basketball teams.

That meant getting our message out to as wide an audience as possible. Chrissy and Erica created a joint press release that highlighted the historic nature of the collaboration and took turns pitching it, mostly via email. Each organization created an individual fundraising plan that played up the rivalry as much as possible.

The two halves of the challenge seem separate, but they combined into a powerful project that touched all our departments and turned everyone into stakeholders.

Q: What worked?

A: The successful outcomes were clear:

  • The two newsrooms split about $20,000 in advertising revenue and raised a total of nearly $55,000 between them in the fundraising challenge, which took place between Feb. 1 and tip-off on Feb. 20. (The Daily Tar Heel won the challenge, at $29,800 to The Chronicle’s $24,600.)
  • Both schools added new donors — 176 for The Chronicle and about 325 for The Daily Tar Heel.
  • Demand for the print edition was high. You couldn’t find them on campus the day of the game.
  • The Daily Tar Heel’s total page views in February 2019 were 45 percent higher than February 2018; The Chronicle’s total page views were 61 percent higher in that period.
  • Both newsrooms received significant positive attention as innovators from our alumni, supporters and the journalism community.

The DTH’s fundraising committee brainstormed a list of sports journalists and others with big followings, and asked them to publicize the challenge. ESPN’s Marty Smith was among those who shared a photo of the special section.

The fundraising tactics that were particularly efficient:

  • A joint fundraising page that was updated several times a day to show who was winning the competition. Our biggest fans monitored the page for lead changes (which were frequent) and shared it on social media again and again.
  • Chrissy and Erica pitched the Rivalry Challenge as a story idea to the (Raleigh) News & Observer. The story ran in print and online across several McClatchy properties, and donations saw a bump after every new publication.
  • The fundraising video by NBA All-Star Antawn Jamison brought a lot of attention to the Rivalry Challenge and created early momentum.
  • We asked early and often. Both sites added a pop-up that directed readers to the Rivalry Challenge page. That ensured that anyone who came to the site to read basketball content was also asked for money. Well-timed email appeals also worked. The Daily Tar Heel sent two emails to its full marketing list (not just alumni or prior donors) the final day of the challenge, and saw bumps both times.
  • We did extended social media campaigning. The Daily Tar Heel’s Facebook campaign focused on nostalgia — asking readers to remember where they were during famous moments in the UNC-Duke rivalry.
  • The Chronicle did fundraising by sending information via email to its newsroom alumni.

Alumni and friends of both schools monitored the Rivalry Challenge page and frequently encouraged others to support the cause when it got close.

The Rivalry Challenge also provided key insight wins for our teams. It showed that our teams, however diminished by revenue declines, staff layoffs and pay cuts, are capable of excellence and innovation. It showed that we have broken down silos and built the kind of trust we need in order to create change.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Our plan to have a shared digital component to the Rivalry Edition didn’t work as well as we’d hoped. We still saw very high online traffic numbers for the days leading up to the game, but our plans to share each other’s stories on social media got lost in the mad rush. And on the print side, high interest in the Rivalry Edition made it harder for account executives to sell other products. We also didn’t see as much success in local digital advertising sales as we had hoped.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Chrissy says, “I didn’t expect the general good will from alumni, parents and the community. People were literally talking about it in a positive way, and I even got emails congratulating me on a forward-thinking idea.”

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

A: On the fundraising side, we wouldn’t do much differently except plan further in advance. On the advertising sales side, we will be making a few slight changes to prices, timing and sales strategy to balance interest in other products. For example, at The Daily Tar Heel, we will be including the Rivalry Edition in sales contracts from the beginning of the year, which means that salespeople won’t have to spend as much time selling in January or February. And some typical sales discounts won’t apply to ads in the Rivalry Edition.

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

A: Let go of your hang-ups about working with a rival. Break down the silos between departments in your own news organizations. Have fun.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: Support independent student media at your alma mater! Student journalists are telling stories no one else is telling on campuses today. They’re holding powerful institutions to account. They’re learning about how to build and serve audiences and how to make tough choices and live with the consequences. And they’re doing it with fewer resources than ever.

Related content: Learn how the Sacramento Bee and Bay Area News Group — two competitors in Northern California — collaborated to grow their audiences.