Solution Set is back, and this week we’re partnering with Democracy Fund’s Local News Lab and Engaged Journalism Lab this week to showcase Black-led local news organizations that have been putting engaged journalism into action to meet their communities’ news and information needs while developing sustainable business models.
As industry-focused publications based at funder organizations, we recognize the importance of calling attention to outlets that have been doing the work and especially led by Black publishers and journalists. Learn from the Engaged Journalism Lab about how Flint Beat built a new newsroom from scratch and from Local News Lab about The Triibe’s deep commitment to building community in Chicago.
Here in Solution Set, my colleague Elise Goldstein reported on Madison365’s path to business sustainability by focusing on serving communities of color in Wisconsin.
“We’re community news, which means we are members of the community that we’re covering and we have a stake in it,” Associate Publisher Robert Chappell told Elise in an interview. Keep scrolling to read her in-depth report.
Next week, we’re going to publish my report on how Bridge Detroit, which began publishing this spring, is focused on understanding what Detroiters need from a local news site.
We hope these reports will provide you with an understanding of the work these publishers have poured into their communities and actionable insights you can apply in your newsroom. For more insights on how diverse publishers are transforming the industry, subscribe to Local News Lab’s Local Fix newsletter and follow Engaged Journalism Lab on Medium.
Now, here’s Elise with the TLDR on Madison365.
– Joseph Lichterman
• The Challenge: When a multicultural local news organization was sold and gaps were seen in the mainstream media, the co-founders of Madison365 stepped in to create a platform serving local communities of color.
• The Strategy: Madison365’s coverage centers the city’s communities of color by amplifying their stories through targeted coverage across platforms.
• The Numbers: By creating community-focused coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing racial justice movement, Madison365 grew its audience to more than 250,000 users per month this summer.
• The Lessons: Madison365 is able to leverage its community ties to build a sustainable business, and it make sure it’s not an impartial observer — it’s focused on uplifting its communities.
• The Future: Madison365 plans to expand its coverage to Milwaukee and other areas of Wisconsin.
• Want to know more? Scroll down for an in-depth INN case study on Madison365’s business practices.
In March 2015, a white police officer in Madison, Wis. shot and killed Tony Terrell Robinson Jr., an unarmed Black teenager.
The shooting set off a wave of protests in the city, and for A. David Dahmer, Henry Sanders Jr., and Robert Chappell, it crystalized the importance of the new project they were undertaking: Launching Madison365, a new local news site serving Madison’s communities of color.
The three co-founders identified the difficulties that the mainstream press faced in accurately covering this story from a white lens. The Madison365 team knew it would be able to spearhead a different and more specific dialogue.
“We saw the real deficiencies in the way that story was told,” Chappell, the site’s associate publisher, told me. “And then we just said, ‘Okay this would be an entirely different conversation right now if we were already up and running.’”
Madison365 launched in August 2015 as a nonprofit online-only news site with the help from a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and an initial sponsorship from a local utility company.
The site thought it was filling a particular community need because in 2014 The Madison Times Weekly Newspaper, the city’s Black-owned newspaper, was sold to another Black-owned company based out of Milwaukee, which subsequently made cutbacks at the paper.
Wisconsin’s population is 87 percent white, and Madison itself is 78.4 percent white, according to the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data. Madison365 is committed to covering and elevating the voices of all communities of color through its website, podcasts, social media platforms, and weekly video shows, Chappell said.
“We’re covering all communities of color, not just one,” he said. “So we’re kind of bridging gaps between communities, not just serving within the community.”
But even as it managed a successful crowdfunding campaign and identified a clear need for its coverage, Madison365 needed to plot out both editorial strategies that met the needs of the communities it was covering and also find a way to generate revenue to support its work.
What makes Madison365 consciously different from other news organizations is its mission to bridge gaps between communities and serve communities of color in Madison and statewide. (The site also operates FoxValley365, which serves northeast Wisconsin.)
“We’re bringing those stories from those communities out into the mainstream,” Chappell said.
Madison365 partners with community organizations, local nonprofits, and individuals to share the stories of communities of color underrepresented in other local media. Prior to joining Madison365, Dahmer was the editor of The Madison Times for a decade, so he has a strong network to engage.
The site also targets its coverage to different communities depending on the platforms they utilize. Black and Latinx readers tend to congregate on Facebook, younger audiences are on Instagram, and progressive white readers congregate on Twitter, Chappell said.
Madison365 has been able to amplify voices of color in Madison through building up trust and access during the past five years.
For example, last year Madison365 broke the story that a local teacher allegedly assaulted an 11-year-old Black student. The teacher was put on leave and eventually resigned.
“People bring those stories to us because they know we will tell it properly, we will tell their story,” Chappell said.
In recent months, as racial justice protests swept the country after the killing of George Floyd, and especially after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. — about a two-hour drive from Madison — more “white progressives” have been reading Madison365’s coverage. It’s also seen a spike in donations.
The weekly Black Oxygen podcast is hosted by local advocate Angela Russell and aims to feature and highlight Black voices in Wisconsin and beyond. Russell begins each episode by saying, “I’m a Black woman that loves Wisconsin, that being said with so few Black folks in the state, sometimes I need a little extra dose of Black Oxygen, a place where I can breathe, connect, and restore by hearing and listening deeply to Black folks in this shared journey of life.”
It’s Only 10 Minutes is hosted by Chappell and his wife and Madison365 contributor Stephanie Díaz de León, and it brings their audience up to speed on the top headlines and key news of the day in approximately 10 minutes each day.
In addition to serving communities of color, Chappell saw the podcasts as an opportunity to reach white listeners and engage a new audience.
“There’s an audience there, and it’s an opportunity for us to educate white folks on our issues,” Chappell said.
Madison365 has come a long way since its launch in 2015 when its Kickstarter raised $10,341 from 154 backers.
In January, Madison365 attracted 61,363 unique users, but by July its audience grew to 251,755 unique users due to consistent coverage of COVID-19 and the ongoing social justice movement, according to an INN case study. The site produces an interactive map that is updated daily with the number of cases in each Wisconsin county. Readership on the site has also increased since the uprising of civil unrest, attributing to the tipping point of George Floyd’s death and a nationwide reckoning of racial injustice.
According to INN, on social media, Madison365 went from 1 million impressions per month in January to 3 million impressions per month as of July.
The site currently has four full-time employees, one part-time, and three to five stringers write for the publication on a regular basis. The full-time roles include CEO and publisher, editor in chief, associate publisher, and director of business development.
Madison365’s parent organization, The 365 Media Foundation, reported total revenue of $385,000 in 2019, according to the INN study. That’s an increase from the $291,000 in revenue reported on its 2018 Form 990.
As a nonprofit publication, Madison365 has built its business on a series of core revenue streams: A business membership program, advertising, foundation and major donor support, individual donations, and events.
Here’s more on each:
The business membership program at Madison365 is more of a corporate entity than an individual package. When a business becomes a member of Madison365, it’s identifying with Madison365’s mission and brand to commit to serving communities of color.
“We call it a membership because we want you as a corporation to feel like you’re part of our family,” Chappell said.
The 365 Media Foundation earned $80,000 from its business membership program in 2019, according to INN.
The organization works to understand each business to create a curated package that will satisfy the client’s needs.
Here’s a breakdown of the Madison365 Membership Benefits from its website:
Chappell noted that businesses will not get special treatment for being a member and cannot use Madison365 to cover for any potential racial incidents.
“[Membership] is a way to signal to your customers and our audience that you value people of color, that you understand that there are issues and that you’re doing your part to support those communities,” Chappell said.
Advertising falls under the umbrella of the business membership program, but it’s also a separate line of business for the site. According to INN, the 365 Media Foundation earned $12,000 in advertising sold separately from membership in 2019.
The advertising options are display advertising, newsletters, and custom content.
Madison365 offers various flat-rate digital advertising options; a sidebar ad is $250 per week and an inline or banner ad is $500 per week. The client gets added to the newsletter as sponsor for the week they are buying a banner ad on the site. The custom content can either be submitted by the client (at $500 per article) or written by Madison365 ($750 per article).
Madison365 has also received grants and support from foundations and individual donations.
Madison365 accepts individual donations, though it hasn’t gotten much traction there. It takes part in NewsMatch each year, though it’s had limited success.
In recent months, however, Chappell said it has received a large increase in donations, and Madison365 is thinking about starting an individual membership program.
“The community has finally kind of gotten on board with that,” he said.
Another revenue stream that the publication earns comes from event sponsorships. Each year it sponsor the Wisconsin Leadership Summit. According to the INN case study, in 2019 the event had more than 600 attendees, 30 sponsors, and brought in $100,000 in revenue. Like most events in 2020, it will be online later this month.
• Tie business to editorial mission: In October 2019, Madison365 hired Jill Gade as director of business development to take on the sales portfolio, according to INN. Gade handles most of the interactions and sales with clients, which is an integral part of the site’s business model.
Gade’s role enables the importance of having positive relationships with local businesses and bringing them into their membership program. This partnership sustains revenue for Madison365 while also helping the business partner uphold their mission of serving communities of color through trust and access.
“[Gade’s] not selling the number of clicks on your ad, necessarily,” Chappell said. “She’s selling your involvement in the community.”
A key part of Gade’s work after making sales is putting in the effort to maintain relationships with customers and clients. To do this, Gade uses Pipedrive as a CRM to track clients and leads, according to the INN Case Study.
• Amplify community voices: Madison365 is not an impartial observer of its community. Its staff members live in the community and want to see it thrive. They view their journalism as being part of an effort to build stronger communities by holding power to account and amplifying voices that are traditionally left out of narratives.
“We used to say early on, ‘we were giving a voice to people, to communities that didn’t have a voice,’” Chappell said. “And we quickly realized that was actually wrong. We weren’t giving them a voice. They had a voice.”
For example, since Madison365 launched in 2015, it has published annual lists of the most influential Black and Latinx leaders in the state. This year, it’s expanding the lists to highlight Indigenous and Asian American leaders as well.
“I have always intended these lists to highlight the beauty of the diversity in our community,” Sanders, the CEO and publisher, wrote in the introduction to the lists. “I wanted young people here in Wisconsin to see role models of people who are succeeding, to know that it’s possible for people of color to achieve great things here, and to highlight people of color doing great work in a variety of fields and pursuits.”
• Respond to community needs: Madison365 is committed to putting its community first. So when lockdowns first went into place in the spring as the coronavirus spread, the site sought to get actionable information to its community as quickly as possible.
It created a special COVID-19 landing page on its website, and it began publishing daily updates on case numbers in Madison and around the state.
But it also wanted to reach its community where they were already spending time, so in April Chappell began using Facebook Live to provide more context to the stories. There is a committed audience that tunes in daily for the Facebook Live updates.
And Madison365 was able to additionally create broader video and podcast products that bring in audiences for more coverage beyond COVID-19.
“Different people engage content in different ways,” Chappell said. “And what we’re trying to do is meet people wherever they are.”
By just launching and getting a product in front of its community, Madison365 learned what resonated with them and was able to adapt and continue to grow.
While the future is uncertain for most things in the world right now, Madison365 will continue covering Madison and beyond, especially as the pandemic continues to rage and the upcoming presidential election will put Wisconsin squarely in the spotlight.
In particular, the site is looking to expand more into Milwaukee, the state’s biggest city. The site had been thinking about expanding for a while, but the shooting of Jacob Blake and the protests that followed added a new sense of urgency.
Since then, the publication reorganized the coverage on its site by region and plans to continue covering statewide news, planning to use its social media platforms to help reach new audiences and gauge interest.
“The shooting just reinforces our understanding that the need is there for a statewide outlet like ours,” Chappell told me via email.
While the organization dives into more statewide coverage, Madison365 also plans to continue building its podcast business. It has a third podcast in the making and understands that there’s a growing audience — and monetization opportunities — in that sector.
Want to know more?
• For more information on how Madison365 has managed to build more than half of its revenue from event sponsorship, business membership packages and additional advertising, check out INN’s case study.
• For more information on the background of Madison365, take a look at this feature piece by LION Publishers, spotlighting Robert Chappell.
Anything to add?
As always, please feel free to reach out with any questions or if you have a story you’d like to share.
We also want to let you know about a new training opportunity through the Lenfest News Philanthropy Network. Later this month, in partnership with Texas Tribune’s RevLab and Membership Puzzle Project, we’ll be launching a Membership 101 course to introduce you to the basics of creating and running a membership program for news.
Thanks! See you next week!