UNC Table Stakes participants detail wins in diversity, audience and revenue

Increased revenue. Innovative engagement with communities of color. Audience-driven product launches.

These were just some of the wins detailed at a recent meeting by the 14 media organizations participating in the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative, currently in its fourth cohort at the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM), housed at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

The UNC Table Stakes initiative identifies opportunities and creates sustainable solutions for media in the digital age. The 14 media organizations currently taking part in the yearlong program represent the initiative’s most diverse yet — covering everything from local news about the South, sports, Black innovators in tech and business, Latino communities and more.

The theme of diversity, both in thought and practice, threaded through conversation at the Feb. 10-11, 2021, meeting, the third in a series of five throughout the year in which participants work with expert coaches and update one another on progress surrounding their chosen performance challenges.

This year, several of the participants’ performance challenges center around diversity, specifically in increasing audience engagement in underserved communities of color.

“Many of the organizations in this cohort are focusing on the hard work it’s going to take to repair — or build in the first place — relationships with ignored people of color,” said Tim Griggs, a UNC Table Stakes coach.

The current cohort launched Sept. 30, 2020, only months after high-profile violence against Black Americans ignited social protests and conversations about race throughout the country.

“This cohort’s challenges are marked by that change in the nation’s social conversation,” UNC Table Stakes coach Lizzy Hazeltine said.

It is a conversation that directly influenced the Knoxville News-Sentinel’s UNC Table Stakes challenge — to create meaningful coverage of Knoxville’s communities of color, said Joel Christopher, the newspaper’s executive editor.

“If we’re going to be truth tellers, conveners, problem solvers — you can’t do that representing a small part of your community,” said Christopher, who noted that initiatives like increasing diversity of sourcing had allowed his newsroom to “get in front of” stories like a series on urban removal important to the city’s communities of color.

Similar diversity wins were seen across the cohort.

The Asheville Citizen-Times increased content about its Hispanic population. Memphis’ The Commercial Appeal increased readership in a predominantly Black suburb.

“Our goal was to transform our relationship with communities of color,” said The Savannah Morning News’ Executive Director Rana Cash, who spoke about the Georgia newspaper’s UNC Table Stakes-inspired Black-focused content, such as stories on Black entrepreneurs and a Black History Month essay contest — efforts that will not only better serve the community but create more subscribers.

Without solid revenue and audience, there can’t be good journalism, and in a cohort also diverse organizationally — media from for-profit legacy outlets to nonprofit digital startups are represented — it has been the startups that found UNC Table Stakes’ business coaching especially helpful.

“Table Stakes has allowed us to sit down and do the work on the business side,” said Wali Pitt, a partner with HBCU Gameday, a North Carolina-based digital startup covering sports at historically Black colleges and universities. Staffed by only three full-time content creators, HBCU Gameday’s UNC Table Stakes challenge is simple — to be as profitable as they are popular, which has meant drilling down on basics like smoothing out work-flow processes and building relationships that have led to gains in efficiency, revenue and audience.

HBCU GameDay, along with fellow cohort participant Nuestro Estado, generated substantial new revenues, showing the possibilities for more, said UNC Table Stakes coach Charlie Baum.

Baum noted more of the cohort’s wins: “The Florida Times-Union published three different stories about topics and communities in ways that led to concrete outcomes as models of ways to engage with the communities they want to serve — including stimulating a $50,000 contribution to a local nonprofit. Enlace Latino NC achieved a 140 percent increase in subscribers to their core newsletter, and a 40 percent increase in site users — all within the first three months of the program.”

For all the cohort’s media organizations, building audience is key. Griggs gave a talk focused on audience funnels during the meeting.

“Audience funnel discipline is the practice of deliberately/systematically identifying communities of shared interest, deepening engagement with and among them, and ultimately building lifelong relationships,” Griggs said.

All the cohort’s organizations face a common list of challenges as local news continues its move online and traditional revenue sources diminish — challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mary Kelli Palka, editor of the The Florida Times-Union, finds the camaraderie offered by UNC Table Stakes motivating.

“UNC Table Stakes has allowed us to meet so many wonderful, inspiring journalists,” Palka said. “They’re doing incredible work and they’re moving forward. So are we.”

A $2.23 million investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation renewed support for CISLM and the UNC Table Stakes initiative this fall. The fourth UNC Table Stakes cohort meets again in May 2021.

Read more about the Knight investment and the fourth cohort here.

Applications for the next cohort, which will start in fall 2021, will be available this summer. Media organizations interested in learning more should email cislm@unc.edu.