It might seem like the most unusual investment advice to give in this age of internet disruption. But media experts are encouraging people with a journalistic yearning to consider becoming publishers of actual, physical newspapers.

West Virginia University has begun a program, called NewStart, to train people to buy community newspapers — and to make money at it.

The concept sparked a lot of buzz at the annual Newsgeist event at the Poynter Institute last month — even as people there were adjusting to the recently approved merger of Gannett and GateHouse Media, which created the nation’s largest newspaper chain and spurred new rounds of layoffs.

“It’s become part of the narrative across the country that all newspapers are failing,” says Jim Iovino, a visiting assistant professor of media innovation at WVU and the person running the program. “But that’s really not the case, and especially at the local level with small dailies and weeklies across the country.”

NewStart figured their program would mainly focus on West Virginia when it started. But then the founders realized that opportunities actually exist all across the U.S.

Many family-owned newspapers operate in small towns, where the owners are ready to retire and no one else in their family wants to take over running the business. NewStart has begun building a database of newspaper owners who are quietly interested in selling.

Jim Iovino, director of the NewStart program and a visiting assistant professor of media innovation at West Virginia University. Photo courtesy of Jim Iovino/WVU.

“They’ve invested 30, 40, 50 years of their life into this paper, and if they sell to a corporation or a hedge fund,” says Iovino, who most recently worked as an editor at the Post-Gazette, “who knows what’s going to happen to that paper in a couple of years?”

NewStart is focusing on four types of potential buyers:

  • Journalism students with an entrepreneurial mindset who are open to doing something on their own, rather than going to a coastal city to work for someone else;
  • Current journalists who want to go out on their own rather than working for someone;
  • Former journalists who have taken a buyout or who have been laid off (including 3,000 let go in the first five months of this year); and,
  • Local business entrepreneurs who see the value of supporting local journalism for their communities.

How is it possible that anyone would want to buy a newspaper when so many people say print is dying?

In many small communities, newspapers are really the only option for accurate local news that focuses on what matters to residents. “News deserts” are opening up all across the U.S., leaving residents in more and more places without easy access to fresh local news and information.

The NewStart strategy clearly won’t work everywhere. The program targets newspapers in areas with a thriving business district and, ideally, some sort of large employer that supports the community.

In those places, Iovino said, it’s still possible for newspaper owners to make money. They might not make 20-30 percent profit margins like the corporate chains once did, but they can earn a nice living.

Costs for buying a newspaper vary across the country and with each particular situation. The price could depend on whether the publishers own their own printing press and their building, or on the size of their circulation. Still, Iovino says, it’s possible for a new owner to buy a newspaper for about the cost of a modest home in Pittsburgh.

NewStart has a January 1, 2020 deadline for people interesting in joining its first cohort of about no more than 20 people. People who enter the program will spend a year learning about the newspaper business while earning a master’s degree.

WVU, which is offering fellowships for some participants, will help students find a newspaper, identify funding opportunities and determine best approaches for running a local newspaper and integrating into a new community.

Most of the program will take place online, with the participants gathering several times throughout the year on campus in Morgantown, W.Va.

For the university, the program represents another small way to staunch the losses of local news across the country, Iovino said.

“Every little bit is going to matter, and if we can just start one by one in certain communities and ensure that the news desert doesn’t expand, that’s what we’re going for here with this program,” he says.

“It seems like a daunting task, but each one that we can help preserve and have it continue on and grow in terms of its digital presence, its events presence, all the things you need to do to run a successful publication these days, that’s all we can ask for a program like ours.”

Interested? You can find application details and more information here.

Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com