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Ad Initiative Saves Community Media Outlets that Save Lives

  • By Center for Community Media

In January, the Center for Community Media launched the Advertising Boost Initiative (ABI), a unique program that works with the New York City government to make sure half of its agencies’ print and online advertising dollars go to community media outlets.

As dozens of local newsrooms lay off staff and shutter altogether amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it unleashed, government agency ad budgets could very well be the lifeline that saves this essential service for years to come.

In just four months since its launch, ABI is helping 82 New York City community media outlets receive advertising from city government agencies. Of these, 30 are first-time beneficiaries, according to available data. Many of the 52 previous recipients, some of whom took in as little as $129 in a fiscal year, have seen their ad revenues increase, some by as much as 500%. We continue to work closely with all 132 outlets who opted in to the ABI by filling out this survey, to make sure they are positioned to get their fair share of city ad dollars.

ABI offers a model and a roadmap for saving local journalism in cities, counties, and states all over the country – and for helping governments at all levels reach and better serve the most vulnerable.

From Research to Accountability: The Road to ABI

In 2013, CCM published Getting the Word Out (Or Not), a groundbreaking study of advertising equity in the New York City media landscape, written by Sarah Bartlett, who has served as dean of Newmark J-School since 2014. Her findings were a wakeup call: Just 18% of NYC’s ad dollars were going to community media publications, whose combined circulation was then 4.5 million, over half of the city’s total population.

We opened a dialogue with the NYC mayor’s office, which realized that its multi-million-dollar campaigns weren’t reaching the very communities it wanted to inform about public health initiatives, education programs, census participation, and voter registration.

In May 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio took the unprecedented step of issuing an executive order to guarantee at least 50% of all city agency print and online advertising would be placed in community media outlets. This is no small sum: In a document we received from the city government via a FOIL request, we learned that the global ad budget for all city agencies in 2019 was almost $58 million. While this figure includes television, radio, and other large campaigns, and the Mayor’s executive order specifies only digital and print campaigns, these figures still hold real promise for the city’s community media.

CCM launched ABI this year to help the city uphold its commitment to the community media sector. The initiative supports 132 New York City community media outlets with training, coaching, and professional consultation, and advocates on their behalf as an accountability partner with the city government and advertising agencies that make their ad buys.

Our results have been striking. We’re pleased to report several of ABI’s great success stories, which publishers and advertising directors at participating ABI outlets have shared with us.

Previous Ad Recipients See Massive Gains

COVID-19 has dealt a deadly blow to Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish communities. COLlive, which has served these communities since 2008, has received $19,454 under ABI, says its advertising director, Yossi Soffer, up from just $5,500 in city agency ads last year at this time. Soffer likens this windfall in ad revenue to divine bounty. “I look at this advertising money from the city agencies as God finding a way to help us stay afloat. This is a livelihood for us when we were thinking things would go really bad,” he says.

As Haiti faces a worsening COVID-19 outbreak, New York City ad revenue may even support response efforts there. The Haitian Times, one of ABI’s greatest success stories, has seen its city ad revenues skyrocket from $2,162.36 in the last fiscal year to $35,000 this year as part of ABI, according to Publisher Garry Pierre-Pierre. The outlet, which serves bilingual Haitian-American audiences in New York and Florida, has just celebrated its twentieth anniversary. (Pierre-Pierre is a former executive director of CCM.)

Pierre-Pierre tells us he was able to capture analytics from increased online traffic to its special virtual town halls in the early days of the pandemic to show the outlet’s reach. The first infusions of advertising revenue helped Pierre-Pierre expand the outlet’s social media presence, which he was able to leverage to host a wildly successful fundraiser to support pandemic aid and relief in Haiti, in partnership with the Haitian American Community Coalition.

Ad Revenue Funds Staff, Tech Expansion

Perhaps more importantly, Pierre-Pierre tells us that city ad revenue has created jobs at The Haitian Times. He used increased ad revenues to hire three reporters to cover the pandemic.

Forum Daily, another 20-year-old publication, serves the more than 1.6 million Russian Americans in the New York Tri-State Region. It never before received city advertising dollars, says Advertising Director Marina Baranchuk, but under ABI, it has now benefited from seven different city advertising campaigns in the amount of $17,232. “In the new COVID reality, we are experiencing an audience growth, and we also keep getting more and more requests to cover more topics,” says Baranchuk. “Nowadays, we publish 25 articles per day, minimum. This would be impossible if we were to cut our team payments because of the tremendous loss of earnings.”

This increased traffic has also affected website usability, says Baranchuk. The outlet has used city ad revenue to hire contractors to improve its website and expand its social media reach. “This money really saved ForumDaily’s life,” she concludes. “We would be close to bankruptcy without it, and now we can keep working and keep our audience growing.”

First-Time Ad Recipients Serving Hard-Hit Black & Latino Communities

As New York City became the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health agencies launched campaigns to share information and guidance to communities and neighborhoods throughout the city. Through ABI, it had a better shot of reaching new – and hard-hit – communities. Since mid-March, 11 community media outlets that had never before received city government ads received COVID-19 campaign ads. 

Harlem is not only the cultural home of Black America, it has also seen the most COVID-19 cases on the island of Manhattan. Before ABI, Africa in Harlem, a multilingual community news site that has served African and African-American Harlemites since 2009, had received just one ad from the city government. Since April, it has received $16,000, says its founder, Isseu Diouf Campbell. This cash influx couldn’t be more timely; Campbell says that Africa in Harlem previously relied on income from Campbell’s photography business and from the site’s online store, but both revenue streams have dried up  in the pandemic.

The East Harlem zip code of 10029 – in the heart of El Barrio, where Afro-Latino immigrants settled among longstanding Puerto Rican communities, has had the highest COVID-19 death toll in Manhattan. Uptown Collective, which has served upward of 10 million Latinx readers, from East Harlem to the northernmost tip of Washington Heights, since 2010, has also received its first ad buys from city agencies, in the amount of $4,840, says Editor-in-Chief Led Black. “It’s a small amount, but every drop helps,” he says. “That money has helped me keep the site going.”

Caribbean Times, a four-year-old publication serving the one million Caribbean Americans in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx, also tells us it has received its first-ever city ad, in the amount of $3,000.

Community media outlets serve some of the city’s neighborhoods that have been hardest-to-count in collecting census data. Under ABI, all 30 first-time city ad recipients have received census ads.

One of these is Bushwick Daily, an independent media outlet covering community issues, arts, and culture in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. Last year, says Editor-in-chief Alec Meeker, Bushwick Daily received $3,000. But under ABI, it has this year received $12,640. Two of the ads it has placed are for the 2020 census, which it has paired with its reporting on why Bushwick has historically been so hard to count.

As New York City endures a pandemic, strives to count its millions, registers voters for the upcoming election, and supports its vulnerable elderly and school-age populations, ABI will help it reach communities through trusted voices. Among these is Catholic New York, which serves the city’s diverse Catholic communities and has increased its city agency ad revenue from $9,000 in 2019 to $21,940 under ABI, says its publisher, Matthew Schiller. Likewise, Lassi with Lavina, a community blog serving Indian-American and diasporic South Asian women, has just received its first city agency advertising, totaling $1,920, says Publisher Lavina Melwani.

What’s Next for ABI

Part of ABI’s mission is to create transparency around advertising budgets and community media.  We do this by:

  • strategically collecting and verifying the data in this initiative; our data comes from FOIL requests from 2013 and 2019 and self-reported figures from participating outlets;
  • updating CCM’s community media directory and sharing it with city agencies;
  • opening a conversation with city agencies to help them identify the media outlets serving the communities they most want to reach with their ad campaigns;
  • hosting trainings, seminars, and gatherings to connect ABI participants, government agency staff, and advertising agency representatives;
  • creating a guideline for outlets that includes critical information and best practices.

A complete report on this initiative will be published at year end.

As we have previously reported, many community outlets have been forced to reduce or suspend print runs or even shutter altogether amid COVID-19. We hope that city advertising dollars will reach the remaining 50 outlets that signed up to participate in ABI under sunnier skies and which have yet to receive advertising dollars from the city government.

Meantime, we continue to offer training and tailored consulting for all 132 ABI members in how to create an advertising department, compile analytics, develop a professional media kit, and attract agency attention for specific audience segments. And we stay in close touch with the city government and its trusted advertising agency representatives to help the city meet its goals for supporting this vital media sector.

For more information on the Advertising Boost Initiative, or to participate, please contact Program Manager Darlie Gervais at darlie.gervais@journalism.cuny.edu.

ABI would not be possible without the generous support of Citi and the Charles H. Revson Foundation.