Local money matters: A look inside Xpress’ books

Xpress sources of income in 2019. Graphic by Scott Southwick

Follow the money. Throughout Mountain Xpress’ 25-year run, we’ve tried to follow this classic journalistic advice, tracing the money flows of local governments, organizations and political campaigns. We now turn the reporting lens on ourselves and open our books to show our readers how Xpress works as a business.

Spoiler alert: It’s not working as well as it once did. As local advertisers cope with the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, we’re projecting a $700,000 year-over-year revenue decrease. In response, we’ve been developing new sources of revenue, improving efficiencies and cutting expenses. This is our 2020 midyear report.

Graphic by Scott Southwick

Even in our best years, we’ve operated Mountain Xpress similarly to a not-for-profit organization, looking to break even while building a stronger community through journalism — rather than, like typical businesses, seeking a return on investment. Any profits go back into the company to fund our stories, maintain our newspaper racks and boxes, and host our website while keeping it accessible to all, with no paywall or intrusive online ads.

We’re proud that everyone at Xpress earns a living wage, though no one gets a big salary. The ratio of highest-to-lowest-paid is less than 2-to-1, a rarity in American workplaces. Everyone at Xpress makes at least $15.50 an hour, and compensation tops out at $27.50 an hour.

Last year, Xpress’ gross income was $1,860,000 and our expenses came to $1,815,300, leaving a profit of $44,700 (a much-needed cushion for what was to come in March 2020).

Where did that revenue come from? Most of it — 84% — was generated by advertising in our weekly print newspaper. Our pocket (stand-alone) publications, which include the Eats & Drinks, Best of WNC, Field Guide to Asheville and GoLocal guides, kicked in another 11%, with other income sources making up the balance. While some online commenters have scoffed that we’ll “do anything to generate clicks,” the truth is that online advertising contributes only 2% of our annual revenue, and given the hyperlocal nature of our news, there is a limit to how much we can increase this revenue stream.

Where does the revenue go? Overall, reporting and editing account for just over a quarter of our expenses, while design, printing and distribution cost another quarter. Administration and overhead eat up about another 25%. The final quarter pays for the costs associated with ad sales, fundraising and IT/web.

The challenge of 2020

Compared to this time last year, Xpress’ print advertising revenue is down 55%.

Of course, downturns are not new to the newspaper industry. Between 2008 and 2018, American newspapers saw a 68% decline in advertising revenue. That decline impacted Xpress too, but we fared better than most during that period, which in many ways is a testament to Asheville’s vibrant local businesses and their continued support of local journalism.

But this spring’s 55% advertising downturn was different: It was sudden, occurring over the course of just a few weeks, and could easily have spelled disaster had we not adjusted with equal speed. By April 1, we had trimmed operations and shrunk our staff, asking them to become even more efficient. We also reduced our weekly page count, thus lowering print costs.

As a result of all those cuts, we spent $210,000 less in the first half of this year than we did in the first half of 2019. But we are still behind the eight ball and projecting a $93,000 shortfall of revenue against expenses (factoring in grants received and the expected forgiveness of most of our Paycheck Protection Program loan). We’ll apply last year’s $45,000 surplus, which still leaves Xpress $48,000 short of breaking even in 2020.

Graphic by Scott Southwick

We’re not throwing in the towel, though. Morale is high overall. But we are looking for help from you, dear reader. With all that has happened so far this year, it remains clear how much communities need good local journalism — to inform, bear witness, hold local leadership accountable, and keep a thoughtful, respectful conversation going.

 The bottom line is this: If Xpress is to continue reporting, publishing and distributing in print and online, highlighting the news, arts and culture of this region, that future lies in part in the hands of our readers.

Anyone who values the contents of our weekly community paper owes gratitude to the 700-plus readers who have already supported Xpress by contributing $32,000 so far this year and a big thank-you to the advertisers who have stuck with us since March.

We hope you will pitch in to keep Xpress viable and vibrant.

If you love and value this publication, as we do, please visit SupportMountainX.com to become a monthly member or to make a one-time contribution.



Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Jeff Fobes
As a long-time proponent of media for social change, my early activities included coordinating the creation of a small community FM radio station to serve a poor section of St. Louis, Mo. In the 1980s I served as the editor of the "futurist" newsletter of the U.S. Association for the Club of Rome, a professional/academic group with a global focus and a mandate to act locally. During that time, I was impressed by a journalism experiment in Mississippi, in which a newspaper reporter spent a year in a small town covering how global activities impacted local events (e.g., literacy programs in Asia drove up the price of pulpwood; soybean demand in China impacted local soybean prices). Taking a cue from the Mississippi journalism experiment, I offered to help the local Green Party in western North Carolina start its own newspaper, which published under the name Green Line. Eventually the local party turned Green Line over to me, giving Asheville-area readers an independent, locally focused news source that was driven by global concerns. Over the years the monthly grew, until it morphed into the weekly Mountain Xpress in 1994. I've been its publisher since the beginning. Mountain Xpress' mission is to promote grassroots democracy (of any political persuasion) by serving the area's most active, thoughtful readers. Consider Xpress as an experiment to see if such a media operation can promote a healthy, democratic and wise community. In addition to print, today's rapidly evolving Web technosphere offers a grand opportunity to see how an interactive global information network impacts a local community when the network includes a locally focused media outlet whose aim is promote thoughtful citizen activism. Follow me @fobes

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