Like news organizations across the United States, Embarcadero Media -- publisher of three newspapers and six community websites in the Bay Area, including the Pleasanton Weekly and DanvilleSanRamon.com -- has been working to reinvent itself as the traditional newspaper business model of advertising has declined.
Now, the company is getting support from the Facebook Journalism Project to build a sustainable business by focusing on memberships, much like public radio and television stations have been engaged in for years.
Embarcadero Media is one of 30 organizations across the U.S. and Canada this spring that are participating in the intensive reader revenue program, which was launched three years ago. It is funded by Facebook but administered by the Blue Engine Collaborative, experts with extensive journalism experience.
The two-month-long business training program for news publishers aims to transform grassroots membership programs into industry-leading models. It is built on three pillars: virtual workshops in which participants learn from experts about world-class best practices; weekly calls with a dedicated coach with a background at a leading national news organization; and grant funding to execute projects using lessons learned.
"We are honored to have been selected to participate in this program and are looking forward to learning how we can improve the effectiveness and value of our membership program," said Bill Johnson, president and CEO of Embarcadero Media.
The funding crisis in local journalism started long before the pandemic but is becoming more and more dire because of it, Johnson said.
Over the past 15 years in the U.S., in excess of $37 billion in annual newspaper revenue alone has disappeared, according to the report, "News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?" by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"As advertisers followed consumers and moved online ... the nation has lost a fourth of its local newspapers and more than half of the journalists employed by newspapers, leaving residents in entire communities without access to credible and comprehensive news coverage of their everyday lives, as well as historic events," the report stated.
Since 2018, another 300 U.S. newspapers have closed and 6,000 journalists have been laid off, according to the University of North Carolina report.
Locally, Johnson said, "there's been a steady decade-long decline in advertising brought on by the disruption of independent local retail by online shopping. To secure the future of our company, we had already begun to shift our business model over the last two years to one built on reader support rather than on advertising."
To date, more than 8,000 people have stepped forward to become members of one of the Embarcadero Media publications, which include the Palo Alto Weekly, the Almanac, Mountain View Voice, Pleasanton Weekly, DanvilleSanRamon.com and The Six Fifty.
"Only through a robust membership program in which readers value the role of journalism will we be able to continue our mission of providing insightful and incisive reporting that helps our readers participate actively in their community," Johnson said.
The Facebook Journalism Project's Accelerator program is focused on supporting both local and minority-owned newsrooms: More than half of the new participants (55 percent) are owned or led by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and/or other communities of color, and 75 percent focus on local news.
The roughly 175 news organizations that have participated in the digital reader revenue program over the past three years have seen increases in customer lifetime value in excess of $60 million, 200,000 new paying supporters, and 2.5 million new registered audience members, according to Facebook.