Paige Ladisic kept her eyes anxiously glued to the television screen as she watched the UNC men’s basketball team in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals with a crew of other Daily Tar Heel staffers and alumni.
A UNC victory would give the team a Final Four berth against its archrival Duke University, an unprecedented matchup in the storied history of March Madness. More specifically for Ladisic, the managing director of sales and strategy at The Daily Tar Heel, it would mean another special edition paper.
“We’re watching the basketball game, but also thumbs are flying as we’re texting back and forth to plan all the little pieces,” Ladisic said.
Video from Linda’s. My voice is shot. My nerves are shot. The win of a lifetime for Tar Heels, especially this incredible team, but also the UNC students who lost so many college experiences to a pandemic. I was with my paper people tonight, and my cup runneth. #GDTBATH pic.twitter.com/Sm836UFVd1
— Courtney Mitchell (@CJM_UNC) April 3, 2022
As Ladisic knows from her time as an editor at the DTH during a championship run in 2016, these commemorative papers can be profitable. And this year was no exception — in total, the DTH made around $80,000 from this year’s March Madness run alone.
For UNC Table Stakes participants and alumni, recent rivalry games and national championships have brought in much-needed revenue to their newsrooms through innovative fundraising and commemorative merchandise sales. They’re also an opportunity for newsrooms to serve their communities by providing the quality local coverage fans are hungry for after a big game.
Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, had an impressive year of sports coverage, publishing a book documenting now-retired basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s legendary career, featuring work from current and former Chronicle reporters. In another college town, the Athens Banner-Herald, a current member of the Table Stake’s fifth cohort, found itself in a similar position after the University of Georgia’s football team won the College Football Playoff in January.
“It’s the wildest and most exciting revenue because it’s not revenue you can plan for,” said Ladisic. “It is a lightning strike.”
Finding success in those unexpected moments goes beyond the initial “lightning strike,” though. Each of the three papers capitalized on those revenue-making opportunities because they knew their audiences well and had the necessary communication channels in place to reach them.
One of the best examples of this kind of engagement is The Daily Tar Heel and The Chronicle’s Rivalry Challenge, an annual fundraising competition held each year in the weeks leading up to the first UNC-Duke men’s basketball game of the season.
“Both of us went into (the Rivalry Challenge) thinking that we didn’t want this to be a one-off,” said Chrissy Beck, director of the Chronicle and a current UNC Table Stakes coach. “I was tired of doing one-offs and things that we couldn’t replicate or make better year after year.”
The 2022 iteration saw over $90,000 raised between both papers, nearly $40,000 more than the inaugural event in 2019.
Over its four years of existence, the Rivalry Challenge has become a meticulously run operation. That made it easy for The Daily Tar Heel to launch another fundraising initiative before March Madness, with the goal of sending a team to the first round of the men’s and women’s tournaments in Fort Worth, Texas and Phoenix. When the men’s team kept winning, The Daily Tar Heel staffers kept traveling, first to Philadelphia and then to New Orleans.
“(The fundraising) allowed the community to feel like they were involved in a way that still protects the integrity of what our students are doing, but also really pulled our readers into the fold,” Ladisic said.
Back in Chapel Hill, the newsroom was putting together commemorative sections for each major victory that the basketball team pulled off. The first paper was free, and each copy after that was sold for a dollar. Long lines of people formed outside The Daily Tar Heel’s office and on campus where they were being distributed. The papers and other commemorative merchandise continue to be sold on an online store.
— Evan Sery (@evanserytv) April 4, 2022
The Athens Banner-Herald found itself in the same position after UGA football’s championship victory in January.
Executive Editor Caitlyn Stroh-Paige knew how momentous the victory would be for the Georgia fanbase at large, which had not seen a national championship in more than 40 years. The Wednesday following the victory, the Banner-Herald released a paper emblazoned with the headline “DAWGS WIN IT ALL.” That Saturday, the Banner-Herald released a dedicated commemorative section.
A better look at each design, for those interested. pic.twitter.com/yDIZm0eAZ4
— Caitlyn Stroh-Page (@caitlyn_stroh) January 14, 2022
By Stroh-Paige’s estimations, the paper sold around 20,000 – 25,000 copies out of its office in the week after the Saturday commemorative section was released. Later in the month, a hardcover coffee table book edited and compiled by the Banner-Herald’s staff was on sale for $39.95 on the newspaper’s website.
Just like Ladisic at The Daily Tar Heel, Stroh-Paige knew that this was a lightning strike.
“It’s not a recurring revenue opportunity,” Stroh-Paige said. “So how do you take this win and then try to maximize it as much as possible? Where do you put that money where it makes the most sense?”
The general idea is to treat that money like an investment that will have lasting positive effects on the newsroom. It’s a good problem to have, and one that all three newsrooms will put a lot of thought into.
At the Banner-Herald, some of its earnings will go into supporting a new Report for America reporter, the paper’s third. The sales from The Chronicle’s Coach K book will pay for the sports desk’s travel costs for the next four to five years.
“It’s a good thought exercise, whether you’re a student paper, if you’re at a legacy, small paper, or if you’re at a big paper,” Stroh-Paige said. “How do we take this one moment that’s probably not going to happen again, and turn that money into something that benefits (the organization)?”