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Overview of Start-Up Considerations

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I have been emphasizing writing and editing, but many other elements of a powerful publication–including photography and graphics–also deserve discussion; to do justice to those topics, this book would have to be much longer. The same goes for crucial business matters: Examinations of advertising and circulation would require a multivolume work.

This brief chapter, however, is the consequence of the telephone calls that I have received since 1988 from those who feel called to start up Christian newspapers or magazines. I tell the callers that they need to think through principles of Bible-based journalism, but not stop there: They also need business sense and judgment. This book cannot provide that, but I can suggest a few procedures to follow before jumping in.

To start with, you should remember that directed reporting requires lots of legwork, and so does start-up or reorientation of a newspaper or magazine. Traditionally in Judaism, the youngest child at a Passover seder asks four questions so elementary that adults might be embarrassed to bring them up–but those four questions form the basis for all that comes afterward. Here are the four questions that any current or prospective Christian publisher needs to ask, and answer well, before asking anyone else to support his vision with time or money:

• Who are my current or prospective readers?

• Where do they live or work?

• What are their current information sources?

• Do they want something different?

You will have to do demographic, theological, political, and psychological research to begin answering those questions, and you will then need to assess critically the information you have gained. To see how the professionals do it, take a look at the Simmons Market Research Bureau’s annual Study of Media and Markets, which includes demographic and attitudinal information on readerships of over a hundred magazines. Census Bureau and other statistics also will be helpful to you. Closer to home, you can gain information from pastors and other church leaders, and can also set up a simple focus group of Christians within your community to learn about their interests and needs.

The desire to start a Christian publication often is planted by God, but the particular way of going about it is a choice (and often a foolish choice) of man. We inevitably see heaven through a glass darkly, but there is nothing inevitable about unrealistic looks at the marketplace. Many publisher wanna-bes underestimate how much it costs to reach readers and overestimate the desirability of their publications’ advertising space.

From a business standpoint, publishing is actually a subset of manufacturing, but some people mistakenly think of it as art: Those who would not merely jump in with a new type of toothpaste and expect to compete with Crest sometimes speak glibly about putting out a daily newspaper. Similarly, some who would not assume that everyone would patronize a new restaurant in their city, assume that all evangelicals will subscribe to a Christian newspaper or magazine. The rule of thumb that publishers use suggests otherwise: It is generally believed that no more than 10 percent of any demographic group will be interested enough in something to buy a magazine about it.

If you can broaden your base by bringing in conservative subscribers who may not identify with evangelical products, and do so without diluting your message, you are significantly increasing your target demographic group. Cities that sport clearly liberal newspapers and have no conservative alternative are especially good venues for Christian publications.

Wherever you are, you need to develop a publication business plan in order to work through fundamental questions and convince potential supporters that your vision has legs. The business plan should begin with a concept–a statement that summarizes in one or two sentences the essence of your publication. Under that statement should come a description of your publication and a statement of editorial need that shows why your publication is not merely an ego gratifier; this statement may include an explanation of how your publication differs from others that serve in part a similar function. (For example, if you envision a Christian magazine for your metropolitan area, you should note other magazines and news sources in your area that might appeal to some of your potential readers.)

The second section of your publication plan should be a detailed analysis of your prospective editorial content and design, with a projection of frequency of publication. You should specify here the types of articles that will appear in each issue, and give examples of each type; include columns, sections, and departments. Planning here is crucial: Without careful preparation, many dismal Christian publications have little local coverage, and rely heavily on press releases for what there is. If your goal is to put out a newspaper, you should explain here how you will cover local government, local high-school sports, local crimes and accidents, and so on.

Personnel often is policy: You should present in this second section the names and titles of your prospective editors, and you should at least list the kinds of writers you will employ; if possible, give their names and backgrounds. Many local Christian publications read very poorly; it is apparent that they are advertising vehicles, with editorial content almost an afterthought. The second section also should provide a sense of what your publication will look like. You should be able to describe the kinds of photographs, drawings, or other illustrations you plan to use, and the kinds of headlines you envision, with specific fonts and type sizes. You should note here the name of your art director, and mention others who will be involved in design and layout. The typical local Christian publication looks terrible; many who start one give no thought to questions such as these.

The third part of the editorial plan should provide detailed information about production. List here the computer hardware and software that you will be using. Show who will handle printing and production, and give specific detail about how many pages your initial issue will contain, and whether they will be in color or black and white. Note the type of paper you will use and list printing costs. Finally, include information on who will print the first issue, and on what type of press.

Part four of the plan should stress circulation issues. This section should begin with a detailed analysis of your market that will address questions such as: Is your good idea economically feasible? How many potential readers do you have? What is their income, educational background, marital status, and so forth? You should consult census data and then gain information on churches in your area.

Then, you should say whether you will sell your publication, or give it away and depend on the advertising revenue that a larger circulation can bring. Some technical (but important) questions related to circulation can be answered down the road: For example, if you are publishing a magazine, will you use blow-in subscription cards, and will you send reduced-price renewal notices to unresponsive subscribers? (Architectural Record was known for sending out nine; the first three or four asked for full price, and subsequent notices dropped the price.) But you must address in your publication plan the basic issue of pricing your product, because if you start out with free distribution it will be hard to switch to paid subscriptions.

In making this decision, pay close attention to the history of other publications in your area, and other Christian publications in similar areas. To answer the big question, you will also have to think through a host of smaller questions: If your publication has a price on its head, will it be sold largely through subscriptions, or at single-copy sales points? (Newsstands and their modern equivalents, or Christian bookstores?) If you rely on free distribution (the trade name is "controlled circulation"), will you work through churches or other outlets? Will you have your circulation audited, so that advertisers can rely on your figures?

You may have to develop this section of your publication plan at the same time you develop part five, which should be a summary of your advertising potential. Advertising is essential to journalistic survival: Newspapers and magazines rarely make much money from subscription sales, but instead use their circulation to attract advertising. Today, there are so many different ways for advertisers to get across their messages that the environment is very competitive. You should indicate in the plan your awareness of potential competitors for advertising dollars, and you should then explain why your publication will be a good buy for advertisers.

To develop this section it will be important once again to look at the experience of Christian publications in communities similar to yours, and of other publications in your area. See how many ads, and of what type, they carry per issue; note their ratio of advertising to editorial matter; study their rates, and find out all you can about (or estimate from their ad space and rates) their billings per issue and annually. Then, make your projections, and include with this section a prospective, basic-rate card.

It will be important for you to consult with those who are knowledgeable about advertising: You do not have to be a rocket scientist to determine advertising rates, but they do have to be structured carefully so that revenue from the most popular sizes of ads (often 1/8- and 1/4-page) can be maximized, with repeat advertisers encouraged by reduced rates. (Rates need to encourage both size and frequency, so that an every-issue, full-page ad rate has the lowest cost per square inch, and the one-time, 1/16th page ad has the highest cost per square inch.)

You can put off decisions on some of the details–agency rates, camera-ready discounts, discounts for multiple runs, and so forth–but you do need to have a rough sense of what revenue and advertising ratio (ad pages to all pages) to expect. In making that determination, look at the ratios of competitors in your community and parallel publications in others; it is improbable that you will be able to beat their ratios during the first year.

Part six of your publication plan should major in the financial, providing estimates for the first three years of operation. You should include costs in four areas (editorial, production, circulation, and advertising), including costs of office space, insurance, utilities, and telephones; do not forget start-up costs, including those for direct mail for test marketing. Then, after you add up how much money you need, you should show where you plan to look for it. Are there potential underwriters? (They will be looking very closely at this business plan.) Show whether you will have to borrow money, and if so, from whom, and at what cost, both for paying back monthly principal and taking care of interest payments.

Realism is needed here. Christian publication start-ups have a history of undercapitalization, and revenue during the first two years of publication often is hard to come by: The first year is speculative, with new subscriptions rarely taking in much over what it costs to get them, and the second year can be particularly difficult because cash requirements to service the new readers are high. Successful magazines take at least three years to break even; Sports Illustrated lost money for thirteen years.

Part seven of your publication plan should include a prototype cover and table of contents; if you are ambitious and need to impress investors, you might even have a dummy issue. Since a fully worked out plan can run to a lot of text–forty double-spaced pages, or ten thousand words, is not unusual–once you complete all seven sections you should also write an executive summary of not more than two pages, or five hundred words.

Going through this type of planning and being able to put your vision on paper is complicated but essential. The process will help you think through your goals and come to understand intimately that if God is calling you to start a publication, it does not glorify Him for you to fail abjectly. And yet, many people write out, at best, a vague summary of their idea and call it a business plan. Some get nods from their friends when they ask whether putting out a publication is a good idea, and they call that research.

It is a fearsome thing to have good intentions but to fall into a financial squeeze that can quickly devour both cash and spirit. One intelligent and well-intentioned young man with $100,000 (left to him by grandparents, plus some other funds) read a book that made the high-wire act of publication start-up seem like a piece of cake upside down. As he later wrote me (names are changed to protect the enthusiastic), "I decided to launch the Call after reading Publish Your Own Newspaper in Ten Easy Steps Without Losing a Dime, a simple little paperback by a retired journalism professor from Samson College. He made it sound so simple. I badgered the Lord for wisdom and guidance, and He told me to launch a newspaper here in my hometown."

The monthly newspaper, launched in November 1992, was traditionalist in orientation but not clearly Christian. It initially grew in circulation; its largest issue was published in June 1993. Salaried advertising solicitors were hired, but they were unable to pull their weight as circulation stopped growing. For a year beginning in July 1993, publication revenue declined so that during the spring and summer of 1994 the newspaper, with a circulation of 11,000, was losing $5,000 each month.

Why did the publication not find more of an audience, so that it became an advertising imperative? A basic problem was its dullness. The publication called itself a local newspaper, but much of its material was not written locally. It had flaccid writing. It ran press releases. It did not contain coverage of local government, high-school sports, or other high-interest, local events. It did not run investigative stories that could have slayed local dragons and given the newspaper a must-read quality.

The news pages suffered from the bland is beautiful aesthetic that typifies both Associated Press style and the articles of Christians who are afraid of giving offense. The young publisher then tried to compensate for the blandness of his news pages by occasionally running columnists who preferred hysteria to historia.

The formula did not work. "I moved out in faith," he wrote in one letter, "knowing that my goals were good and God would bless the attempt. It seems almost unbelievable to me that I’ve gone through that much money, but indeed I have." In the fall of 1994, a phone call came. It was the publisher, saying in a disconsolate voice, "We went belly-up."

This publisher’s sad experience exemplifies some hard truths. First, most publication start-ups fail. Second, Christian publication start-ups have an advantage in that their principles tend to be sober. Third, they have a disadvantage in that many Christians believe the so-called gospel according to Charlie Brown, which states that sincerity outweighs sense. Overall, the pluses and minuses seem to balance out.

Compare the failure just discussed with the history of a publication that by the summer of 1995 was modestly but solidly established: The Dallas Christian Heritage. The entrepreneur here, John Dwyer, received a degree in journalism in 1978 and had a variety of business experiences through most of the 1980s: selling business machines, working as an insurance agent, heading a company selling and leasing copying machines, and starting an insurance company. By 1990, after seminary study, he was ready to look into the possibility of starting a Christian community newspaper.

Dwyer systemically assessed the Dallas metropolitan area in 1990 and 1991 and came to a thumbs-down decision; capital seemed insufficient, and Dallas in any event was one of the rare cities that had two competing daily newspapers, the Morning News and the Times-Herald, as well as a great expanse of local magazines and suburban newspapers. At the end of 1991, however, the Times-Herald folded; even though Dwyer was not planning to compete with the big boys, the media environment seemed a bit less crowded. After taking another look, and knowing that he had savings from previous work to keep his family afloat during a no-return start-up period, Dwyer in March 1991 began to work full time to realize his vision.

He began with realistic expectations: "Christian newspaper publishing is not normally a profitable business . . . typically, it’s a very labor-intensive, low-profit operation." He examined the experience of others, including a Dallas predecessor who borrowed $40,000 from the bank, hired a full-time advertising manager, and soon stopped publication, the money gone. "If you staff up," Dwyer learned, "you’ll lose your shirt before you even know it’s on. So I decided to be my own advertising manager. Not everyone wants to advertise in a Christian newspaper; I decided that I wanted to know who those people are."

Dwyer also analyzed circulation needs and "decided to distribute the newspaper free through churches, but to do it the right way. It’s easy to throw out a bundle of papers at a church, but if you don’t have personal contact and keep checking back then you find out that six months worth of papers have been thrown into the closet." From March through June 1992, anticipating a July 1992 start-up date, Dwyer contacted Dallas area churches and worked on distribution mechanisms.

Once publication began, Dwyer continued to keep personnel expenses low: "I’m the only full-time employee. I have now hired a distributer who works on both primary and secondary accounts, revisiting the racks. There are half a dozen freelance writers, and I pay them by the job. I edit and direct them." The newspaper in 1995 had a distribution of twenty-five thousand and was available at nine hundred locations, half of them churches and the other half largely restaurants, libraries, and Christian schools.

Dwyer’s experience in Dallas shows that careful planning plus continued commitment to a project that becomes not a job but a calling–"it doesn’t work unless you care deeply about it," he says–can overcome some hazards. Common factors in successful start-ups include: The principals have spent time as disciples before becoming leaders; they have test-marketed their ideas before making an overall commitment to them; they have learned about all aspects of the business.

There are also examples of publications that have gained financial solvency but have lost their souls in the process.

Staying afloat financially is a means to an end: Your goal should always be to communicate God’s truth. Thriving as a Christian publisher requires boldness: In almost any venue, you will be facing entrenched organizations that often have built broad support by trying to be all things to all people. Christians who play that game lose. Courage is not only biblically correct, but a quality conducive to survival in a competitive environment.

To survive, in other words, new publications need not only breadth of readership but depth, a core of readers who care so much about the publication that they will not only subscribe but contribute to keep it alive. Those committed readers will promote your publication because they believe in its message; if your publication becomes vanilla, their support will liquefy.

Newspaper and magazine publishers are sometimes advised to downplay Christian conservative content for fear that it will scare away potential advertisers. It may have that effect on some, but smart advertisers will not care about the content as long as the ads are getting a good response: Building up circulation by getting people to want to read your publication is crucial. (Also, if anti-Christian groups attack and threaten boycott, it’s important to have allies who will rush to your support–and that will happen only if you do not cravenly offer to compromise with ungodly forces.)

Sometimes, sadly, Christian publications show no boldness, because their owners see them as promotional pieces, not as necessary communications links for people under attack. One printing company looking for customers had some success in asking Christian radio stations to set up local newspapers in order to promote "local concerts, station events and community activities. . . . You can have all the benefits of a monthly printed promotional piece, for a lot less than you thought."

When the business sense is missing from a publication, problems quickly pile up. But when publishers and editors are content to be in the business of delivering product and delivering customers to advertisers, then they should be in some other business.

The journalist’s calling is truth-telling, and his primary means of support are circulation and advertising; the heart and the rib cage are both essential, but their functions should not be confused. When a publication is looked upon as promotional, little honest news can be expected from it. Journalism worth honoring requires good business sense, but it needs more than that: It needs the mind and the arm of crusaders.


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