Houston Defender business transformation of print, digital and social products boosted with ‘life-saving’ grant and donor support


By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

For its 90-year history, advertising has been the primary source of revenue at Houston Defender, a Black-owned and -operated newspaper.

But motivated by concern for her publication’s financial stability in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic this spring, Publisher Sonny Messiah Jiles asked more than 2,000 friends, family members and other acquaintances to contribute to the Defender’s COVID-19 Local News Fund, a Local Media Association program, through which the Defender has raised more than $110,000.

She considered the effort nothing short of “life-saving.”

Jiles

“Roll me back to March and ask if I could raise $100,000, I would say you must be out of your mind,” Jiles said. “It meant a lot to know the company is an institution in the community that is respected for its quality of content and integrity of its position on issues. To hear that from people who are supporting you not just with lip service but with dollars during a time when they aren’t sure what their own future holds is nothing short of amazing.”

The Defender was also the beneficiary of a combined $105,000 from two Facebook Journalism Project grants focused on helping local news during COVID-19.

The grant and donor support comes in the middle of the Defender’s ongoing strides to secure its future through a modern, refined strategy with existing products and the introduction of new products. New products help the Defender expand, and the audience has grown to 200,000 monthly readers across different platforms. This new audience is essential to revenue diversification and growth.

“We are in the middle of a transformation that actually started about 18 months ago,” Jiles said. “The first phase was print, the second web and social will be the third and final phase.”

The company’s evolution is guided, in part, by the Defender’s participation in two LMA projects — Digital Transformation Lab, which supports publishers of color with insights and resources for a more sustainable digital future, and Word in Black, a collaborative reporting initiative and business transformation lab that is an extension of the Fund for Black Journalism.

Here is how the Houston Defender is working to monetize multiple platforms as well as recent updates intended to help boost revenue. 

Phase 1: Print

The print newspaper has always served as the publication’s primary revenue source. Jiles said she has been selling display advertisements as well as special edition packaging, or branded content — before it was ever called as such — featuring stories from clients, including universities during a special education section.

Similar exchanges have been done for other special series, including the financial edition, which comes out in April during Financial Literacy Month, and a three-part health series that Jiles said helps the Defender expand its advertising base.

In January, a print redesign debuted, offering a cleaner, contemporary and more modular approach to laying out the newspaper content — graphics included, Jiles said. The reaction so far this year has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We want to have that same kind of impact on our website and social media,” Jiles said.

But the pandemic has stalled some momentum. The newspaper’s distribution was cut from 31,000 pre-COVID-19 to just over 20,000 because distribution points were closed.

Fortunately, the Defender already had a plan in place to overcome that lost audience by sending the e-edition to 55,000 new Black readers.

Phase 2: Digital

In March, the Defender started using Site Impact to deliver email marketing that directly targets 55,000 Black Houstonians.

“Site Impact has opened the door of opportunity for us,” said Jiles, who explained the launch came at a perfect time when COVID-19 was digging into advertisers and distribution outlets.

Same as the print redesign, similar design and user improvements are now slated for the other Houston Defender products.

In addition to traditional banner ads, the Houston Defender gains digital revenue from its newsletter products. That includes the “Daily Dozen,” a weekday offering of the daily web headlines, and “News Wrap,” a newscast-style video delivering a summary of the weekly headlines each Friday. There is also “Give Me A Minute,” a sports-themed offering that has been on hiatus since last year. Sponsors can buy into these newsletters, Jiles said.

However, those digital products are undergoing updates, as News Wrap will be replaced by a longer 30-minute news magazine program called “Black Talk” starting in September. It will include interviews with special guests as well as a Black business spotlight each week and videos from the Defender’s “Let The People Be Heard” campaign, which includes crowdsourced videos from readers.

Those changes come at the same time the Defender is transitioning to NewsPack, a WordPress content management system with help from Google.

“With that transition, we thought we should revisit our audience, our voice and our content,” Jiles said.

Phase 3: Social Media

The goal has always been to overlap the digital transformation with improvements to the Defender’s social media outlets.

“We want the two to be connected in a way that whatever we share from the web on social media that there’s continuity in the conversations,” Jiles said.

That goes for advertisers and sponsors, too. Similar to the special edition packaging, clients can have their message bundled to include email marketing and social media, she said.

They are distributing sponsored posts using Social News Desk, a social media company that makes it easier to manage your social posts — editorial content and sponsored posts — both internally and externally.

“With very little knowledge of how to function with Facebook and Instagram advertising, it’s empowered us without adding staff to basically put that packaging together for a client,” Jiles said. “The fact you can contract a team to build an arsenal of what you can offer our audience and advertisers, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

That comprehensive packaging has come to be called the “happy meal” package, as Local Media Association sales coach Peter Lamb calls it as part of the Defender’s participation in the Digital Transformation Lab.

Other Revenue Sources

The combination of social media promotion, email marketing, web banners and print ads has helped keep the Defender competitive, Jiles said, while at the same time revenue from other sources, such as events, has dwindled. However, enthusiasm for events increased after Jiles visited The Texas Tribune office in 2017 to learn how the nonprofit statewide news operation has excelled at events.

Now the Defender is part of the Tribune’s RevLab boot camp, a training program to help other publication’s hold profitable events and gain other financial takeaways from the Tribune’s first 10 years in operation.

Jiles equates events to live journalism, so she pushes the value hard. But she also was hesitant to ask sponsors for big contributions, so she focused her events on school superintendents and historically Black colleges, and turnout was higher than anticipated, she said.

And last year a “State of Black Houston” event with the Houston mayor and Harris County Judge — the highest elected office in Texas counties — attracted 650 attendees, she said.

As part of her RevLab lessons, Jiles is leveraging last year’s success by expanding State of Blacks into a three-part series.

It’s all being done virtually, including an August watch party when U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, was formally nominated as the Democratic Vice President candidate for the 2020 election. In October, the Defender will host a State of Black Women political forum.

“Will these [virtual] events be as profitable as in-person events? We’re going to find out,” Jiles said.