Raise hell and take names

It’s not hip, going into a small county and starting a newspaper. It’s a lot of work, too. But, damn. You want to be a journalist and no big paper will hire you? Screw ’em. Start your own.

That brings me to the Yancey County News, which was started in 2011 and has now won the E.W. Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment and the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.


Here’s the story.

Yancey County is in the mountains of North Carolina, but this can be done just about anywhere. Short answer is that it takes a little startup money, hard work and brass balls. But, damn, it sounds like fun…you know, what we used to do: raising hell and taking names.


3 thoughts on “Raise hell and take names

  1. John,
    I love the Yancey County success story, but we have to be clear when looking at what some folks call the “invisible capital” of such success, including skills.

    In this case, the Yancey County journalists sound like they have these things:
    A paid-for home with no rent or mortgage payment;
    Paid-for cars that still run;
    Helpful family to drive to the press (my school paper paid students small fees for such runs long ago);
    Business skills as well as journalism skills developed over a lifetime with help from the NYT Regional editors, bless them;
    The ability to be comfortable with a ramen-like frugal lifestyle;
    Some savings.

    So the lessons include, “Keep your overhead low.” That will limit the kinds of people who can do this work, but the Yancey editor is free to raise hell and take names exactly because he kept overhead low, including *not taking* someone else’s money for startup costs. It can be done.

    I see several folks responding to your post on Twitter already, hoping to do the same. I’m glad this kind of story inspires interest, but I hope we’re clear and transparent about the invisible capital in such stories. If people have obligations like student loans, car payments, young families or rent or mortgages, diversifying revenue streams would be important. And partners help. Howard Owens at the Batavian succeeds with a spouse who helps on the business side. Tracy Record at the West Seattle blog succeeds with a spouse who does the tech. Jonathan and Susan Austin succeed together, and Susan has a background in sales. David Boraks succeeds in Davidson, with the overhead of children to raise, because he has a professor spouse as an economic safety net.

    “Mom-and-pop” has endured to describe small businesses because there’s deep truth in the need for two people, or at least two streams of income, to succeed. This point was often lost in the breathless stories about hyperlocal online startups in recent years. And those stories could mislead and then spawn frustration.

    I can see some of these sites starting as side gigs for individuals, with lots of hard work and safety-net streams of income from somewhere else. But often, as solo projects for people who have committed overhead from school loans or families, they’re a tough row to hoe. Asking someone else for startup money isn’t the answer: You can easily lose that independent voice that way. Bootstrapping allows independence, but it requires a careful analysis of the often invisible resources available.

  2. Andria, thanks for the mention. One correction: My wife is editor. Most importantly, she’s my editor (anybody who has read my writing knows, man, I need one). She also posts announcements, calendar items and such, and she also takes care of the home (which is a major, major help).

    In the early days, I sold all the ad and designed them and did nearly all the journalism. Now, I have a part-time assistant who handles 90 percent of the ad site stuff. I take care of the books and do most of the journalism (or as I’ve been told recently in the great paywall debate on CJR, the pseudo-journalism).

    One thing about going online-only, you sure eliminate a lot of overhead.

  3. Pingback: Where small-time journalism digs out big-time corruption « North Carolina Miscellany

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