BY RYAN FRANK
Community Impact Newspaper is bucking the trends of today’s media landscape. In a world where most newspapers are still struggling to adapt to digital publishing, Community Impact is putting out a physical product — and the hyper-local newspaper seems to be succeeding.
Before launching Community Impact in 2005, founder John Garrett had worked in many different areas of the field of journalism, from editorial to advertising and distribution. He feels that experience has helped him lead Community Impact to success.
The impetus for Community Impact came from an insight Garrett had regarding news sources for Round Rock, Texas. “All we had at the time was the Round Rock Reader, which was really geared towards students and parents,” he said. “My wife and I didn’t have any kids at the time. All we really wanted to know was, ‘Hey, where are those toll roads that they’re building going?’”
In an interview with Nieman Lab, Garrett said his motivation for starting Community Impact was to “take the community feel of a local paper, cover neighborhood news the big papers won’t, and focus on business and development stories relevant to a typical resident.”
As he was building his newspaper, Garrett looked at the media landscape of the time, and saw the mass migration towards digital. To make matters worse, Garrett was just beginning to gain traction when the recession hit. Originally, he was looking to expand outside of the Austin area.
“Houston in 2008 was brutal,” he said. “[Everywhere] had ‘For Lease’ signs. Most of our [advertising] comes from mom and pops, but we got it to work.” By building relationships with local stores, Garrett was able to keep ad partners despite tougher economic times.
In a 2016 analysis of the print media market, the Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media found that the average weekday circulation of newspapers fell by 7 percent in 2015, while Sunday circulation fell by 4 percent. This followed a continuing trend from 2014, which posted similar losses.
Community Impact, meanwhile, added six new editions, completed building a $2.5 million headquarters, was given its own day of recognition by the State of Texas, and opened a $10 million printing facility.
As of 2016, Community Impact has 22 editions that cover 34 communities across Texas. Serving communities in the Austin, Dallas and Houston metropolitan areas, its weekly distribution is over 1.7 million copies.
JJ Velasquez started at Community Impact in 2013 as a reporter covering Central Austin. He became a part of the editorial board in 2016. As one of 50 members of the Austin bureau, he works with writers and fellow editors on the weekly newspaper.
“I try to maintain this collaborative sort of environment for all the content in the central Austin edition,” Velasquez said.
Each new neighborhood edition of the newspaper starts as a team of three people: a reporter, an editor and a salesperson. The team works together to provide relevant and accessible news to the area it covers.
“With every story, we try to gear it towards the average Joe and Jane, just trying to make it understandable and relatable and accessible,” Velasquez said. “We do a lot of ‘explainer’ journalism. A lot of our articles … take the approach of a concept that not a lot of people understand, and break it down for them in a very simplified, easy-to-understand [way].”
“We have a pretty careful strategy about [advertising]. Any Central Austin ads will be pushed out on our Central Austin pages,” said Velasquez.
As a free newspaper, Community Impact is sustained entirely by ad sales. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to advertising, the newspaper uses narrowly targeted ads. “What we’ve done is we’ve basically taken all of our carrier routes and then merged it with demographic data that allows us to understand those carrier routes better,” Garrett said in a March interview with the Reynolds Journalism Institute. He attributes the success of his newspaper to this laser-focused advertising.
“[For ad sales] we’re going after Google and Facebook,” Garrett said. “We believe those are our competitors. We’re going to beat them.”
Community Impact is also trying to grow beyond its physical product and become both an online source of news and a national news brand.
“We are pushing our web presence more and [improving] our digital strategy … to push content to our website as soon as it’s out there,” Velasquez said. “We are definitely on that 24-hour news cycle along with other media outlets.”
The website doubled its traffic over a period of six months, and will soon hit its goal of one million total unique visitors.
“We call ourselves an evergreen company,” Garrett said. “We believe we’re going to be around for forever, doing good work and trying to do the right thing.”