Chicago journalists and Block Club Chicago readers wear Block Club-branded shirts. (Courtesy Stephanie Lulay)
Last May, a pair of endangered piping plovers laid eggs on Chicago’s Montrose Beach. As cinema stars and mascots for local conservationists, the two birds – dubbed Monty and Rose – had already built up quite a fan base among Chicagoans. The nonprofit news outlet Block Club Chicago drew so many readers with its coverage of Monty and Rose that reporters thought the story deserved its own T-shirt. So the newsroom partnered with a local artist and printing vendor to make and sell “Chicago Is For Lovebirds” tees featuring the plucky plovers.
It wasn’t Block Club Chicago’s first time selling merchandise inspired by its own reporting. In 2019, its coverage of an alligator that was discovered in a local lagoon caused such a stir among readers that Block Club Chicago started selling “Gator Watch 2019” T-shirts. They flew off the shelves, raking in more than $100,000 for the nonprofit newsroom.
The “Chicago Is For Lovebirds” T-shirts and other prints also sold quite well, fetching more than $43,750 in revenue. It considerably boosted Block Club Chicago’s total merchandise sales for 2021, which came out to more than $80,000. That year, Block Club Chicago’s merchandise strategy caught the eye of judges at the Institute for Nonprofit News, who gave it a 2021 “Game-Changer Award.”
Today’s media landscape is a laboratory of experiments aimed at finding new ways to support the reporting and distribution of news. There are paywalls high and low, wealthy owners, new nonprofit models, and even aggressive investments in puzzles. Some publishers are adding another ingredient to this mix: merchandise that helps build brand, engagement and community pride. It’s turned out to be an unexpected source of revenue for some news organizations to help support their journalism.
“Our very local merch strategy has been a win/win/win for our newsroom,” says Block Club Chicago co-founder and managing editor Stephanie Lulay. “It’s brought in revenue so we can produce more critical reporting, doubled as marketing so more people know about our newsroom, and – by working with local artists and printers – has allowed us to deepen our relationships in the communities we serve.
“And because the merchandise is presold,” she adds, “newsrooms can test this strategy without taking on debt.”
Local newsrooms’ moves into e-commerce include establishing creative partnerships with local businesses, artists and attractions, and selling locally themed merchandise in ways that benefit both the creators and the news organizations. As Lulay points out, they can be relatively low-risk experiments for resource-strapped newsrooms.
API has gathered several examples of newsrooms that have tested out merchandise strategies or mutually beneficial partnerships with members of their communities. We hope their experiences can be helpful to other news organizations that are considering doing the same.
A virtuous circle
Like Block Club Chicago, Alabama Media Group has also tied merchandise to popular stories, a strategy that creates a sort of virtuous circle in which the content feeds the sale of merchandise, which in turn creates engagement around the original story that inspired it.
[pullquote align=left cite=”Terrence Williams, Keene Sentinel”]Promoting these small businesses, which are still dealing with a pandemic, is viewed favorably by our readers.
In an effort to experiment with new revenue streams, Alabama Media Group, which runs three newspapers and the news site AL.com, launched a new division called Red Clay Media in 2017. Red Clay Media houses three lifestyle and community-focused media brands: This Is Alabama, People of Alabama and It’s a Southern Thing. The merchandise line for It’s a Southern Thing, which features regionally focused items from children’s books to T-shirts to card games, has performed especially well, says Elizabeth Hoekenga Whitmire, vice president of audience for Alabama Media Group.
Much of the brand’s merchandise is inspired by high-performing content. “Sometimes when a story takes off, we’ll ask ourselves how the interest in that topic might translate to a product for the store,” says Hoekenga Whitmire. “We often look back at top-performing content for merchandise inspiration.”
Merchandise has also proven to be a great way to engage audiences. “Merchandise can be a conversation starter in the same way a really engaging story can be,” says Hoekenga Whitmire. “If someone sees their experience reflected through a T-shirt or another product, they will share it or comment on it just as they would with a story or social post. People also love to suggest ideas for products the same way they might suggest story ideas. Listening to your audience is really important in the merchandise space as well.”
Brewing coffee and beer
The Keene Sentinel, a daily newspaper serving southwest New Hampshire, ran a promotion that pairs subscriptions with locally roasted coffee. The Sentinel partnered with the Prime Roast Coffee Company of Keene to offer a free, one-pound bag of coffee with an online-only subscription or weekend print delivery and full online access. The subscription was moderately discounted (by 35%), in an attempt to avoid the high churn that often comes after steep initial discounts expire.
This is an example of a promotion from the Keene Sentinel to market their collaboration with Prime Roast Coffee.
The Sentinel purchased the coffee at a 50% discount from the roaster, starting out with 20 bags but quickly selling out and ordering more. The offer led to 55 subscription starts. Ten months later and several weeks after the full price went into effect, they’ve retained 44 of those subscribers and earned $2,933 in profit. They’ve also gone on to partner with a local candy company, a baker, a soap manufacturer, an oil and vinegar producer, a maker of rum and a chocolatier.
“Quite frankly, we didn’t expect the volume of orders we received,” president and COO Terrence Williams wrote for Better News, which shares outcomes from innovative ideas that emerge from news organizations that participated in the local news transformation program Table Stakes. “Again, we are a small news organization, so high start volumes are not the norm. Getting an average of nearly 50 new orders a month through this program had a meaningful impact on circulation.”
Overall, the program combining subscriptions with local product offers has led to 341 new subscriptions, with a retention rate of 88% (and 80% retention of those subscribers who’ve since moved to full price). The retail partners like the program, said Williams, and many are willing to participate again, perhaps selling their products at a much lower price to the Sentinel.
“That said,” added Williams, “promoting these small businesses, which are still dealing with a pandemic, is viewed favorably by our readers.”
As its award-winning podcast “Brave Little State” reaches its fifth year, Vermont Public Radio partnered with Vermont brewery Lawson’s Finest Liquors to create a special brew in the podcast’s honor, also featured on Better News. The Brave Little State Pale Ale is brewed from barley, wheat and hops grown in the Green Mountain State, and a portion of the proceeds from its sales are donated to Vermont Public Radio. The design on the beer can depicts a hand holding a microphone, and there is a brief description of “Brave Little State” and a QR code linking to the podcast’s landing page.
The collaboration was a good fit for Lawson’s Finest Liquors’ Good Brews for a Cause initiative, wherein the brewery creates beers dedicated to social impact organizations. The Brave Little State Pale Ale is now part of Lawson’s permanent lineup and is available year-round, on tap at the brewery or at retailers across the state.
“We’re huge craft beer fans here at VPR, so we would not have explored a potential collaboration with just any brewery,” wrote Angela Evancie, director of engagement journalism and the executive producer of Brave Little State. “Lawson’s Finest brews some of the best beers around, so we knew the product itself would be top-notch.”
Evancie and her team took the time to get to know Sean Lawson, founder and CEO of Lawson’s Finest, and understand the company’s mission and approach to its work. “It didn’t take long to realize that our organizations have much in common in terms of our commitment to community, and belief in the power of community; it also didn’t take long to build a foundation of trust,” she wrote. “In retrospect, this was a critical first step, as the process we eventually embarked upon involved lots of teamwork in areas that were uncharted territory for our respective companies.”
The Chatham News + Record, a newspaper serving rural Chatham County, North Carolina, also partnered with a local coffee roaster to create “The Chatham Brew,” a special blend of coffee that carries the News + Record’s label. The specialty coffee is promoted in the paper’s e-newsletter (also called “The Chatham Brew”), which goes out three times a week.
“We spent $600 to buy at a wholesale price bags of coffee we’re offering as gifts to entice new subscribers,” publisher and editor Bill Horner III told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “That way we can support a local business, add value to our new readers and bring a smile to our e-newsletter readers who see the promotion.”
Partnering with local artists
Working with local artists can also be an effective way to engage audiences and reach new ones.
In Illinois, local artists rallied behind Cicero Independiente, a bilingual news outlet serving the Chicago suburbs, as it sought to raise funds during its 2021 NewsMatch campaign. One artist designed a Cicero pride T-shirt and promised to donate proceeds from the sales to Cicero Independiente. Another artist (and regular donor) urged her followers to donate, and featured those who did in her artwork on Instagram.
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While the individual support was spontaneously offered, Cicero Independiente hopes to collaborate more formally with local artists moving forward.
“Central to our work has been providing paid opportunities for young artists to showcase their work in our reporting,” said co-founder Irene Romulo. “A lot of our stories use illustrations and all of them have been made by young people in the community. Some of these artists have been commissioned by other outlets after seeing their work on our website. It has also become common for some of the people we profile in our reporting to then reach out to us wanting to volunteer or report.”
“Emergence” on view at the Hi-lo Gallery in Long Beach, curated by Asia Morris in partnership with POW! WOW! Long Beach. Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (Photo by Thomas Cordova)
The Long Beach Post, a digital publication covering Long Beach, Calif., worked with local artists to drum up interest in its new arts and culture vertical. The newsroom turned part of its offices into a gallery space where artists could showcase and sell their work, timing the event to the launch of the new beat, called the “Hi-Lo.”
“We even had a local raunchy puppeteer offer dating advice in a booth we set up,” Stephanie Rivera, who was the Post’s engagement editor, told API last year. (She has since moved to Colorado Public Radio). “All the artists [and] entertainers were locals we met during our reporting. They were super fun and a great way to engage the community and our readers.”
Supporting local businesses
Many of these examples show that audiences tend to want to support local businesses — especially in hard times. When the coronavirus pandemic descended in early 2020 and many small businesses were forced to close up shop, newspaper chain Gannett found a creative way to rally communities around them. It launched a “Support Local” website that allowed readers to buy gift cards or book services from their local shops and restaurants. Readers and business owners are also encouraged to add more businesses to the site.
Screenshot of Gannett’s “Support Local” website.
For now Gannett isn’t charging businesses to use the platform, but its success “could help nudge more local news publishers toward a marketplace model that takes advantage of the role they play in local communities,” wrote Max Willens for Digiday.
6AM City, a hyperlocal news network made up of outlets across the U.S., recently launched an e-commerce platform that features apparel, decor and other products from local businesses in each of the cities it covers. It highlights those creators on the shop’s website, and emphasizes the importance of buying local.
Remembering the mission
Some newsrooms have found that selling merchandise can be a surprisingly successful venture. But can it become too successful, distracting from the journalism that it is designed to support?
Richland Source, a digital news outlet that covers North Central Ohio, started selling T-shirts bearing the slogan “Made in the 419” (419 is the primary area code it covers). The shirts sold out, so the team made more. The shirts sold out again.
“Pretty soon we found ourselves in this retail apparel business,” said publisher Jay Allred at the 2022 Knight Media Forum. After expanding the merchandise line for a couple years, however, Source staffers reached a moment when they realized they didn’t want to be retailers anymore, having to coordinate logistics like printing, shipping, and returns. They wanted to be free to focus on their journalism and expand their membership program. So they sold the brand to a local retailer (where it still lives on today).
“It’s about being clear-eyed about what you’re good at and what you want to focus on,” said Allred. “If you feel like you’re going away from the reason why you’re in the business in the first place … you’re probably on the wrong track. Even if it’s lucrative. You have to ask yourself which business do you want to be in, and how do you want to show up for your community.”
Go deeper with two case studies from New Hampshire and Vermont on API’s Better News site, where we showcase outcomes of innovative ideas that emerge from organizations that participated in Table Stakes, the local news transformation program:
Have you seen other creative examples of locally themed merchandise from local newsrooms, or revenue-sharing partnerships between local newsrooms and small businesses? If so, we’d love to learn about it! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.