Potter wants to spur innovation at community newspapers

Jun 1, 2015

By Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary

GALLATIN, MO—Sitting in a small Mexican restaurant in the heart of Gallatin, MO, Walt Potter is talking newspapers with the owners of the North Missourian—Darryl and Elizabeth Wilkinson.

He made the 2.5-hour drive from Columbia, MO, to find out if he could help the Wilkinsons do more on the digital side with their newspaper business. Potter started his tour of Missouri newspapers earlier this year, looking to see if his Potter Fund can spur community newspapers into the digital age.

Potter started the Walter B. Potter Fund for Innovation in Local Journalism in 2010 at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at University of Missouri School of Journalism, and he recently committed $1 million to support the effort.

With the assistance of Missouri Press Association Executive Director Doug Crews, Potter made appointments to visit about 10 newspapers across the state to ask what help they actually need.

Potter comes from a newspaper family. His father, Walter Potter Sr., owned six community newspapers in Virginia, serving as president of the Virginia Press Association and the National Newspaper Association. The last of the family’s papers were sold in 1991. Starting at an early age, Potter worked several jobs at the Culpepper Star-Exponent over the years, including delivering papers, selling advertising and reporting. He also did some work at his grandfather’s newspaper, the Emporia (VA) Independent-Messenger.

Potter’s father died in 1994, leaving Walt a portion of his estate.

“I had more money than I could use,” Potter said from the front seat of his car as he drove toward Gallatin. He wanted to give back to community newspapers and MU’s journalism school. He earned his master’s degree in journalism from there, and remembers fondly his time in Columbia. He hails from Falls Church, VA, but spends a lot of time in Columbia.

He came up with the idea for his listening tour when talking with Matt Paxton, the publisher of the Lexington (VA) News-Gazette.

“My father worked for his father back in 1948,” he said. Paxton, who is currently NNA treasurer, spoke during the inaugural Walter B. Potter Sr. Conference in 2011, which was funded by Potter’s initial endowment to RJI. The conferences were started to bring community newspaper people together to talk about new technology and what works at community papers.

Potter said he decided that face-to-face talks with community publishers and their staffs would give him better insight into what they’re doing and how he can tailor his conferences to better assist them.

“Normally, when I meet the paper’s staff,” Potter said, “I talk with the publisher for a bit, then the ad manager and some others to find out how the paper operates. Then I get a tour of the operation.”

At the Gallatin paper, Potter spent all his time talking with the owners. It turns out Darryl and Liz jumped into online early on when the technology first became available.

Darryl said Gallatin and Daviess County is mostly agriculture and has been economically depressed since the ’90s. Local advertising was not strong, and he knew that he would have to expand his operation beyond his borders—beyond the newspaper—in order to have profitable business for him and his growing family.

In the late ’90s, he started a website and became an Internet service provider for the area. The electronic side of the business expanded from there.

Potter said he knew this was not a typical community paper after Darryl explained that he spends 40 percent of his time producing the 1,400-circulation weekly newspaper, but it only brings in 10 percent of the company’s revenue. The rest is through his online operations and the total market coverage publications he owns.

Darryl also noted that he didn’t have the on-the-ground reporting resources to compete with daily competitors.

Potter started a blog to chronicle his travels to Missouri newspapers. So far he’s written about the Houston (MO) Herald, The Odessan in Lafayette County, MO, The Washington (MO) Missourian, the Unterrified Democrat in Linn, MO, The Gasconade County Republican and the North Missourian.

You can read his blog at www.rjionline.org/people/25671/articles-by.

“The Potter Fund is to support journalism in small communities,” Potter said. “It’s to help them transition from print to digital.” It’s to help them to run their newspapers and make a decent living at it.

At the other papers he’s visited, Potter has found that rural communities do not have as much competition from the Internet as in the big cities.

At the Odessan, where the Spaar family now has its fifth generation working at the paper, they are currently dealing with the Internet and all the competition it can bring. Like other community papers, they are seeing local people start Facebook pages for garage sales and other activities that had typically been the local paper’s territory.

Potter said he wants to make his fund self-sustaining so that it continues to help local papers. He’s not that technically savvy, having been out of the newspaper business for about 20 years. Now in his mid-60s, Potter thought it amusing that he learned how to tweet the same week he signed up for Medicare.

He said he hopes these trips to local papers provides the information he needs to better serve community newspapers through his conferences and the Potter Fund.