It’s not all doom and gloom for local newspapers, especially in Charleston, S.C.
The Post and Courier, one of America’s oldest papers, is growing its newsroom, boosting investigative journalism and planning to keep on printing seven days a week.
While it has some special advantages, including a wealthy market and family ownership committed to public service, the newspaper’s bold and creative management gives hope that other papers can succeed with the right formula.
“Charleston shows us newspapers have a second and third life,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, visiting professor at Northwestern University, who led research documenting America’s news deserts.
Publisher PJ Browning earlier this month was named executive of the year by the Miami-based Inter American Press Association, a group of more than 1,300 publications in the Western Hemisphere.
The award recognized Browning “for engaging the community through donations to her newsroom, enabling her to support the investigative team in uncovering corruption.”
More than $1 million was raised, supporting the paper’s Education Lab and a collaborative program in which the paper supports investigative work at other news outlets across the state.
Abernathy said it’s “extraordinary and quite inspiring” that The Post and Courier uses its resources to benefit other outlets.
Browning told me she wanted to be a First Amendment attorney but started working in newspapers in college. She now has 40 years in the business, mostly in advertising at chains.
For the last decade she’s worked at The Post and Courier, a paper dating to 1803. The family owners restructured the company in 2021, splitting off book publishing and forestry businesses, while investing in the newspaper publishing operations.
Investments include a new press facility that opened in 2022 and new digital news bureaus created over the last three years to cover smaller cities.
“We try to come in and pick up the pieces where there’s a news desert forming,” Browning said, or markets where there’s a void because the local paper was thinned out.
The Post and Courier employs 114 news people, including roughly 50 added since 2020 as it staffed up and expanded into five new markets.
A turning point came when the pandemic hit and readership grew. Browning said they realized “we need to start growing the brand, we need to start growing digital subscriptions.”
“We went to our board and we said it’s kind of the time to go big or go home,” she said. “We need to not retreat, we need to put resources into the ground.”
In early 2021 the paper began a fundraising campaign to raise $100,000 in 100 days. It explained to readers that was necessary because newspaper business models were disrupted and advertising that used to support journalism is now flowing to tech giants.
The paper simultaneously demonstrated why it’s important to support local news, by launching collaborative investigations into corruption flourishing amid the state’s weak ethics laws and hollowed-out news ecosystem.
“The stakes are high,” the opening story explained. “Corruption could surge as so-called news deserts expand and federal and state prosecutors back off. Without scrutiny, we simply won’t know what our local leaders are doing, especially when it comes to those islands of government that have long operated in darkness.”
Readers responded by donating nearly $500,000 in less than 100 days, and continued to give in subsequent fundraisers.
The “Uncovered” project also generated more than 70 stories prompting at least 10 state investigations and audits. That’s according to a report in June, when the paper’s work and survival were highlighted by a special Ted Koppel report on CBS News.
Browning said the key was being transparent and upfront with readers about why support was needed and how it would be used. It also helped that she listens intently to subscribers and industry peers sharing ideas as they try to survive.
“I’ve learned to be brutally honest,” she said, relating how she’ll take calls from readers upset about rate increases and explain the business cost pressures.
Browning’s also brutally honest about how the newspaper industry is alienating loyal subscribers by reducing days they print and shifting to slower mail delivery.
“I do think we are pushing them away. The more we push them away, then we shouldn’t be surprised our business model isn’t working,” she said.
The Post and Courier is investing in digital news and aiming to grow digital subscribers from 22,000 to 48,000 as it expands into new markets.
But print, with around 25,000 subscribers and 4,500 to 5,000 single-copy sales, will remain the base of its business model.
“It’s not in any of our planning to reduce days of the week, it’s not even talked about,” she said.
This also makes The Post and Courier a rarity in a time when most daily newspapers are cutting print frequency as they stake their future online and look for ways to cut costs.
Browning said online and print are different audiences and print is “a strong, good audience” and “it’s just as important to keep them as informed as it is the digital people.”
She’s also a “true believer” in consistency.
“If we do away with a day and we’re inconsistent with the news of that day, and we think people are going to go online — they won’t, and they’re going to learn to live without that news,” she said.
To a daily newspaper fan, Charleston sounds better and better.
Less clear is whether this model, elements of it or Browning’s leadership can be replicated in the thousands of other communities that have little to no local news anymore.
But The Post and Courier’s success shows that with local support, committed ownership and an infusion of capital from owners, philanthropy or government, there’s potential for newspapers to reinvent themselves and thrive again.
Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley is the editor of the Free Press Initiative, which aims to inform the public about issues facing newspapers, local news coverage, and a free press. You can learn more about the Free Press Initiative, or sign up for a newsletter, at company.seattletimes.com/save-the-free-press.