The Changing Face of Community Supported Journalism, with Newspaperwoman Bridget Wingert
In this episode of On Record PR, we go on record with journalist Bridget Wingert, founder and editor of the Bucks County Herald. Bridget will talk about her experience founding the community newspaper and discuss its newly launched Community Journalism Fund to help the paper survive the precipitous drop off in revenue caused by the pandemic of COVID-19.
More About Sarah Larson
Sarah Larson is a guest host of On Record PR and the executive vice president of Furia Rubel Communications. She works with the Furia Rubel team to create and tell their clients’ stories in a variety of ways. Before moving into PR, Sarah was a journalist for nearly 20 years.
More About Bridget Wingert
On October 16th, 2002, Bridget and her late husband Joe founded the Bucks County Herald, a community newspaper covering Central and Upper Bucks County in Pennsylvania and Hunterdon County river towns in New Jersey. Before that, Bridget served as the editor of the New Hope Gazette, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and is a well-known leader in community journalism in southeast Pennsylvania.
What drew you to the news business?
I had a family, and I found a job really close to my home in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. It was a way to be close to the kids and to work. I went from newspaper to newspaper and then ended up with my own newspaper.
What encouraged you and Joe at the time to make that leap? What caused you to found the Herald, and what role did you hope that it would play in the community when you first started?
It was at the beginning of the downfall of newspapers. We didn’t realize it at the time. I always thought that a newspaper in one region was needed, and people would like it. Joe, my husband, consented to be the publisher. He was the business side of the paper, and I was the editor. We started in Lahaska, which is where we still are. We’re in a different building, but we’re in the same place.
When you first started the Herald, how much ground did you cover? What sort of municipalities were your focus?
The municipalities in the beginning were just three to four and people further upfield in Upper Bucks County. I thought the idea of the newspaper was very good. We grew just because of the need.
Sarah Larson: Today you went from covering two or three municipalities to how many, roughly?
Bridget Wingert: Almost all of Bucks County, which has 54 (municipalities), but most of our focus is on about 25.
Over the course of those years in the news business, what has been your favorite story or two to cover? What kinds of things have you enjoyed the most?
That it is hard to say. Some great coverage came early in the Herald’s career. It was back in 2004 to 2005. There were several floods in Bucks County from the Delaware River, and it was amazing because people sent The Herald many photographs. We had photographs from people from all over the county, and we did a few page spreads. Those floods are something that Bucks County is still recovering from.
Was that one of the first stories where you really saw the birth of community journalism, with people sending in photos and sharing directly with you what they were seeing and what they were experiencing?
People had done it before, but not to such an extent. It was as if they knew that we would use them, and we did.
What is the best way for people out in the community, whether they’re business owners or community leaders, to work with the Herald if they have a story idea or something to share?
To call or to email. We take pride in answering the phone. We do not automatically send people to an answering machine, so we’re really responsive and accessible.
Sarah Larson: That really has been the hallmark of some of your coverage over the years. It was always easy to get hold of an actual person at the Herald to get a story idea too.
What’s your structure? How do you cover so much news? Do you work with a staff of full-timers or do you use freelancers? How does that work these days?
As for editorial staff, we have three. That’s Jodi Spiegel Arthur, Regina Young, and me. We get hundreds of emails a day, and we sort through them. We use what’s local, or we use what somehow has an effect on what’s local. We have up to about 40 freelancers, which includes photographers and writers. We have a very strong presence throughout our community.
The world of news has radically changed over the course of your career. When you were first launching the Herald, that was essentially the beginning of the end. I went and looked at some numbers before we chatted today. The total circulation of daily newspapers in 1990 was 62.3 million people, according to Editor & Publisher Magazine. That used to be the flagship, niche industry publication for readership. Over the years, that readership has dropped dramatically, more than in half. By 2018, it had been slashed to about 28.5 million. Again, that’s nationwide numbers for dailies. What has been the experience at the Herald, which is a weekly print publication and seems to have expanded during that time?
People want local news, and we supply it. All over the country, local newspapers are mostly doing well. However, printing is very expensive. Everything is very expensive, so we struggle. With this pandemic, we lost 50% of our advertising, and we’ve cut the size of the paper. We told freelancers we would mostly not use them, but some have volunteered to send things anyway, which is very nice. We have also started a Journalism Fund, and it has been enormously successful. We’ve had 400 people send donations to this fund so far, and we are very grateful for it.
When did you start the Community Journalism Fund?
We started it on March 13th, I believe, at the beginning of when we started daily briefing about the coronavirus. At that daily briefing, we tried to focus on what affects the local community. It’s not all news from the local area. A lot of it’s from the state or national level, but we think it’s important for local people to know, and we think it’s a little different from what everybody else is doing. We also have a couple of grants. We have one from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, and we have another from Facebook.
Sarah Larson: It sounds like advertising has slowed to a fraction of what it was before and what you need to survive. You’re turning to the community for support, and you’re also turning to some foundations and grant- making bodies for money to continue.
Bridget Wingert: Yes. We have really been pleased because our advertising and salespeople are still working, and they actually have acquired a few new clients, but we still have a long way to go.
Sarah Larson: As we’ve seen in Bucks County, the restaurants are closed for everything except take out. The bars are all closed, the liquor stores are closed, and the theaters are closed. All the places that might advertise in the community events section are closed. There are no places to go to. For community newspapers, those things are really important. That’s the lifeblood of how your community operates.
What kinds of businesses are we seeing pivot to finding new ways to advertise through the Herald to reach their subscribers, and to reach their people during this time?
A lot of restaurants are promoting the fact that they’re still open, but you have to pick it up at the door or outside. A lot of the banks are still advertising. Certainly, health centers are advertising, as well as auto services. This week, we had a story about a man who does bicycle repair, and he’s really busy. There are some things that are profiting by the coronavirus, but many others of course, are not.
Sarah Larson: As people shift their activities, the services that support those activities often become in more need. That’s interesting about the bicycle business because the one thing that my kids have been able to do is go outside and ride their bicycle up and down. If you need a bike chain or your tire pops, then you’ve got literally nothing left to do. There are lots of ways that businesses can pivot. Let’s go back to the Community Journalism Fund for a minute. This is really the Herald saying that you’ve never charged a fee to subscribe to the paper, correct? It’s always been free for readers?
Bridget Wingert: Yes, but we have charged for mail subscriptions.
Sarah Larson: Because you bear a cost to mail that out.
Bridget Wingert: We’ve raised the price of that significantly because it really wasn’t paying for itself.
Sarah Larson: That’s covering your sunk costs. Now, through this fund, you’re saying to the community, “This is a way that you can support us. Help bridge the Herald through this time to the other side.”
How can people donate to this Community Journalism Fund? Is the best way to start with the website? Is there a banner on the website?
Yes. On the website, buckscountyherald.com.
Sarah Larson: While you’re trying to find ways to keep The Herald going, the news actually never stops. I know you have another big issue in the works that you’re focusing on.
What’s happening behind the scenes? What news are you planning for next?
We’ve had a series of coverage by Lee Friedman, who’s one of our freelancers who’s still working. He’s doing what’s available to local people. It started to focus on different hospitals and what they’re doing. This week we have Hunterdon Medical Center. Next week, I believe he’s focusing on St. Mary Medical Center. We’ve had a lot of coverage of Doylestown. What we have in the works is hard to say because the news builds up over the weekend, except for Earth Day. We’re going to do Earth Day next week. That’s probably our big thing.
Will that include a look back at how some of Earth Day started in the New Hope area?
Yes. It was a very big, powerful day when it started. A very powerful message. We had people supporting it, and somehow over 50 years it just has faded. Even though people talk about climate change, Earth Day was the beginning of talking about climate change. It’s very sad, but we hope it will revive.
Sarah Larson: We look forward to that coverage for sure.
Of course, the news about the coronavirus continues. We never know what the next day will bring. We wake up, and see what news has happened overnight. I know that a lot of the news is happening much more quickly than just weekly. Are you updating your website with stories and information?
We are updating news on the coronavirus daily, which is a big change for us. One of the grants that we got is for supporting the briefing. It’s just a list of things, but we’re trying to make it look a little better. We are open to people sending in information about what’s changing, when they’re coming back, and if they’re still going to be closed for another month. Some groups have gone into June and some into July. This is a big, time spring for events and fundraising by nonprofits. Many of their events have been canceled, and many of them had been rescheduled for the fall. We expect to be ready for that.
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