By Deron Lee, CJR
This article first ran on April 26, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.
About 500 subscribers over the course of eight months: If your reference point is Facebook-fueled pageviews, or even a typical newspaper’s print circulation, it might not sound like a lot.
But for the leaders of The Frontier, an investigative journalism startup in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that number is reason for encouragement—a sign that some people will spend real money on local news online, and that their unique business model may yet pay off.
The Frontier was founded a year ago by Robert Lorton, whose family had owned the daily Tulsa World for generations before selling the paper to Warren Buffett’s company in 2013. As he contemplated a return to the news business, Lorton says, he knew one thing for certain: “I didn’t want to sell advertising that was going to bring in pennies and that will be clunky and distracting to the reader.”
The target, instead, was a user-supported model—and even for a lean newsroom, support doesn’t come cheap. Frontier subscribers pay a monthly membership fee of $30 for access to paywalled stories, the kind of price that’s associated more with trade publications aimed at niche audiences than with local news. The for-profit site still has a long way to go to become self-sustaining, but it’s made some progress down that path.
“I preach all the time, content is not free,” says Lorton. “What we’re trying to sell is the value of having someone in your community being a watchdog.”
In the beginning, The Frontier almost didn’t get off the ground at all. Lorton’s first and only choice for editor in chief was Ziva Branstetter, a veteran investigative reporter at the World. But Branstetter wasn’t sure she wanted to leave the paper where she had worked for two decades, enjoyed latitude to pursue stories, and had colleagues who were “like family.”
“It sounded frightening,” Branstetter says. “It sounded like a risk.”
In the end, she said yes, drawn by Lorton’s pitch and the opportunity to grow professionally without leaving her hometown. And she reasoned that, for better or worse, “it’s no more a risk to do something like this these days than it is to work for a newspaper.”
Three other World staffers—Cary Aspinwall, Dylan Goforth, and Kevin Canfield—followed Branstetter to the nascent Frontier, rounding out the staff. They work out of a start-up incubator in downtown Tulsa filled with, in Branstetter’s words, “hipsters and vegan coffee and West Elm furniture.”
The hires immediately made the site stand out, says Andy Rieger, a former longtime executive editor of The Norman Transcript, and now an adjunct instructor in public affairs journalism at the University of Oklahoma.
“They were some of the best writers and editors the World had,” says Rieger. “That gave it credibility not only in Tulsa, but in Oklahoma.”
That credibility was bolstered by the fact that, on the same day the new venture was announced, Branstetter and Aspinwall were named Pulitzer Prize finalists for their reporting in the World on the botched execution of Clayton Lockett.
At The Frontier, the new staff hit the ground running: Before there was a paywall, or even a website, Branstetter and Goforth followed up on a story they had broken just before leaving the World, in which they revealed that officials in the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department had pressured employees to falsify training records on behalf of a citizen “reserve deputy”—a wealthy local insurance executive—who accidentally shot and killed an unarmed black suspect when riding along on a gun-sting operation.
Since then, as more disturbing revelations have come to light, and the sheriff was forced to resign, The Frontier has remained “at the tip of the spear” on the story, Rieger says. The coverage is marked by both ambitious scope and irreverent tone: Late last month, with a criminal trial in the case approaching, the site rolled out an epic three-part series called “The Shit Sandwich,” after a phrase one officer used to describe the executive’s involvement with the department. The series contains a well-produced 11-minute video and, like all Frontier stories, is rich in links and embedded documents. All three installments were released simultaneously—as in a Netflix series—in an effort to keep users binge-reading.
Other deep dives from the past year include a report revealing that Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry intervened on behalf of a controversial Oklahoma surgeon who faced the loss of his medical license; that story was followed by an ethics complaintfiled against Fallin. And Branstetter’s reporting on the practice of “selling rank” in the Tulsa Police Department led to an investigation by the city auditor.
The “selling rank” story was one of several done in partnership with KOTV, the local CBS affiliate; the ongoing arrangement gives the TV station access to The Frontier’s investigative resources while giving the website some on-air publicity. The site also partners with The Marshall Project as part of the national “Next to Die” series, contributing storieson Oklahoma’s controversial death-penalty regime.
The stories produced via partnerships are available free on the Frontier site, as are the podcasts and staff blogs, which mix daily items and explainers into the investigative fare. Most of the rest are behind the paywall, accessible for the $30 monthly membership fee or individually for $5 or less.
So who’s buying? Lorton acknowledges that the paywall restricts readership, but he says the audience is loyal, influential, and, he insists, not exclusively affluent—akin to the slice of committed newspaper readers who might take action after reading a story. “I think every community has a percentage, say 10 percent, of people who are engaged in their community—the person who calls the mayor, who volunteers on their school board, who is willing to invest in finding that content.”
Big stories do reach beyond monthly subscribers: A well-read paywalled piece might reach 3,500 unique views, according to Lorton; free stories have gone as high as 10,000. Impact was a concern at first, he says, but “I think we’ve built up enough traction that people are paying attention to us.”
His goal is to reach 750 members at the end of 12 months with the paywall, which went up in August, a target that puts The Frontier more or less on pace. Ultimately, he says, the site needs least 1,000 members to be sustainable, a bit of a recalibration from the targets sketched out at the launch.
Though there are no ads, the Frontier does have 30 to 40 corporate sponsors, along with about a dozen “pioneer” members, who pay $1,000 to get additional perks. The annual budget currently runs to about $300,000, Lorton says. The goal is to add more staff eventually, says Branstetter, but “we’re just trying to stay lean for a couple of years.”
It’s too soon to tell, both she and Lorton acknowledge, whether The Frontier can maintain its growth and survive those first few crucial years, much less blaze a trail for other journalists to follow, as they hope it might. Even if they can make it work, the high-cost paywall approach may not replicate easily. As Michael Mason, editor of the Tulsa startupThis Land Press, says, “the model is tricky.”
Lorton says that if the for-profit approach doesn’t pan out, he might consider going the nonprofit route, as many other investigative startups have done. But he chafes at the idea.
“Does the industry really have to be nonprofit to survive?” he asks. Another possibility, he says, might be to establish a nonprofit solely for defraying the costs of obtaining public records.
Whatever the future holds, at a time when even the most prominent new-media businesses are facing financial obstacles, as Google and Facebook eat up a huge proportion of the digital-ad “pennies,” and readers increasingly revolt against web advertising, this experiment in ad-free, reader-supported local news is worth watching. The Frontier took a risk, and we should all learn something as a result.