The Ester Republic

the national rag of the people's independent republic of ester

Reorganization Materials

August 21, 2011 Meeting Notes

August 21, 2011

notes by Deirdre Helfferich

Agenda:

  • introductions
  • quick recap of background and problem
  • discussion of publisher's proposal
  • brainstorming alternatives, refinements, approaches, needs
  • next steps: where should we go from here?

Introductions

Attending: Amy Cameron, Neil Davis, Richard Fineberg, Pat Green, Deirdre Helfferich, David A. James, Hans Mölders, Jeremia Schrock, Richard Seifert

Comments provided in advance by Kim Bridges, Tim Elllis, McRoy & Blackburn Publishers, Jeremia Schrock, Richard Seifert

Interest also expressed by: Sine Anahita, Theresa Bakker, Kyle Batley, Mary Bellamy, Heather Bryant, Tania Clucas, LJ Evans, Dick Farris, Marmian Grimes, Merritt Helfferich, Greg Hill, Hannah Hill, Harris Koushel, Philip A. Loring, Tom Moran, Rayna Nelson, James Shewmake, Sue Stewart, Kayt Sunwood, Christine Pearsall Villano, Erin Parcher Wartes, and others.

Recap

Only a couple of people had seen the background document/proposal, so the first part of the meeting was a review of some of the information provided there (please see www.esterrepublic.com/Revamp/reorganization.html for links and various documents).

The Publisher emphasized that the essential problem is one of management, financing, and organizational structure, not lack of news/opinion content (or variety!). She would like to go to a community-based, nonprofit business model, expanding the reporting and in particular move toward investigative journalism, while maintaining the current content and tone of the paper. Encouraging new writers/photographers and journalists is also an important aim. One possible business model is that of community ownership through shares in combination with a foundation (e.g., the Green Bay Packers model), but she is open to other models.

Discussion

Advance comments

(Note: some of these were mentioned during the meeting, but others were not, and are provided here)

  • Kim Bridges (ret. professor of botany, Univ. of Hawaii Manoa): go to quarterly publication, get editors for the different sections, focus each issue on two themes (how we got through the last season and what we need to do for the next season), charge the current annual rate, and move to all-electronic format.
  • Tim Ellis (reporter, KUAC): would like to participate, but has limitations due to working for KUAC (must avoid conflict of interest). May be interested in it as a story.
  • McRoy & Blackburn, Publishers: interested in the possibility of forming a publishers’ consortium, of folding M&B’s book publishing into a larger community-based publishing house with the Ester Republic Press.
  • Jeremia Schrock (reporter, SunStar): may know of possible ad salespeople; possibly increase publication to every two weeks; interested in working as staff member; have other local people or businesses been approached yet on community-owned model?
  • Richard Seifert (ret. professor of engineering extension/energy & housing specialist): in for the Green Bay Packers proposition.

Points raised

A community-based structure generally appealed; question of the community of interest vs. the geographic community. The community of interest for The Ester Republic is much broader (international) than the physical community of Ester. Community-building an important aspect of the character and purpose of the paper; tying to a physical place can prevent its takeover by a chain or Outside company, keep it responsible to its core area. However, can also prevent help from coming from those not in the geographic core. Combination of the two might be the answer (tiered or two-pronged ownership model); broadening the defined core area (Ester Fire Service Area to Fairbanks North Star Borough) another possibility.

General agreement that the character of the paper should be maintained; one of the strong points about it, makes it unique and an alternative voice to mainstream media in the state.

General approval of more reporting, analysis, and investigative content, focusing on gaps left by other local media, mainstream media.

Discussion on nonprofit journals: Mother Jones, ProPublica, The Sun, Yes! magazine. The 501(c)(3) structure is unsuitable due to restrictions on free speech (cannot endorse candidates, for example).

Book publishing provides good income, but a lot of work.

Cooperative model has strength as a community of interest; tremendous support shown for Fairbanks Food Co-op, for example, but problem in that cooperative model might lead to sense that members have editorial control (“Why aren’t you reporting about the UFOs landing on top of Ester Dome?”).

Worker/employee-owned model would not have a large enough financial base to support the business needs. Employee ownership has benefits, though.

Editorial board could be problematic, point for takeover by group with ideals opposed to essential character of paper and publisher. Could be controlled through bylaws, perhaps. Board may not be necessary (see section editor suggestion by Kim Bridges). Publisher provides editorial direction.

Going fully online an option, but hard to raise revenue that way, and Publisher is philosophically oriented toward the Net as a source of free information. Public domain is imperiled, prefers to provide more free content, not less. Also, not everyone has net access; print a satisfying medium, tactile, and useful/accessible in different ways than online. Subscription walls/archiving to public accessibility after short time one possibility.

Brainstorming

Rough financial needs estimate: a few part-time staff and one full-time person plus expenses means around $150,000/year, or $1.5 million over ten years. That’s a lot of dough.

Problem with share sales is that it provides an initial chunk of cash, perhaps a few times, but does not sustain the organization. Need both initial funds to get the ball rolling and an ongoing funding source better than what is coming in now.

Ad revenues provide ongoing income, but 60% of real estate normally seen in major publications is far too much; most of the advertising in dailies is from large Outside corporations or government (oil companies, US military, chain stores, etc.). If the purpose of the paper and emphasis is on supporting and giving visibility to community-based endeavors, then local advertisers unlikely to be able to support that level of income even if the paper would want that much of its space covered with ads. (Delta Wind does well on local ads, though.) Other business models exist: The Sun doesn’t use any ads, relying on donations and subscriptions. The Guardian is partially supported by a foundation. Local ads important as a means of building community, but cannot be expected to support the income stream needed as the sole or perhaps even major source.

The Birthday Bash (not held since 2009) could be a fundraiser. Poetry slams, or other literary events, could be a feature and/or used to raise funds. Insurgent49 held a fundraiser musical benefit every month or two, but the planning involved and effort was considerable. (Also was in a MUCH larger community: Anchorage.) Fundraisers also can lead to problem of donation exhaustion; community of Ester already tapped regularly for library, fire department, community association. Another one would be too much. However, a fundraiser doesn’t have to focus so heavily on Ester, and does create community involvement and sense of personal investment in a good cause.

Interns could be valuable source of labor; ties in with educational aspect. However, there’s the “slave labor” problem, also reliability, regularity, and frequent turnover. The Publisher has had real trouble in getting the journalism department at UAF to take the Republic seriously and has given up on recruiting interns that way; seems to be little to no support from faculty in steering potential interns to the paper, or perhaps not much interest on the part of the students. It’s difficult to tell—result is no interns.

UAF School of Management might be able to provide a different sort of student assistance/internship: term project for business development would provide an undergraduate with a great CV-building opportunity and help him or her find employment after graduation. Research/development project could create model for business, work with publisher, etc. to tweak as desired so that requirements (nonprofit, community-oriented, financial stability, etc.) are met in design.

Where next?

Firm steps will require more research. Still, the meeting concluded with the following plan:

  • Schrock and Seifert will look into student term project for developing business model. Model to include true/full costing, nonprofit, community-based aspects, business plan and financial/operations sustainability. (Timing is good since school is about to start; Schrock has a person in mind to approach.)
  • Publisher will look more fully into nonprofit news organization models, narrow approach.
  • Next year’s birthday bash (11-12-13) will be organized as a fundraiser as well as renewing the annual party.
  • Financial figures need to be refined.
  • Try again for journalism interns.
  • For the time being, stay with current number of issues, PDF/online/print mix. Futue editorial direction: maintain current tone and eclectic approach, but increase reporting & analysis and investigative journalism.
  • Increase online presence.

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