Saving Local Newspapers: “Can drinks, community events, and the occasional wedding subsidize small-town journalism?”

From a New York Times story headlined “Marfa’s Answer to the Collapse of Local News: Coffee and Cocktails,” by

MARFA, Texas — When Landrie Moore was looking for a venue for her destination wedding, she knew she wanted a space that really reflected life in this small, remote desert town.

Her guests would be coming from as far as Ecuador and England, and Ms. Moore, 35, who works for a boutique hotel firm, hoped to provide a memorable and authentic experience for those travelers. When you visit a new place, she said in a phone interview, “you want to feel like a local.”

Which is why she decided to get married mere feet from the office of The Big Bend Sentinel, the region’s oldest newspaper (where I worked as a reporter in 2014 and 2015).

Ms. Moore’s wedding, in June, was the first of five held last year in the Sentinel, a cafe and cocktail bar in the newspaper’s newly renovated office building. The space is perhaps the most visible sign that The Big Bend Sentinel is under new ownership: Maisie Crow and Max Kabat, two transplants from New York, took over last year from Robert and Rosario Halpern, the paper’s publishers of 25 years. . . .

Since 2004, nearly 20 percent of local papers in the United States have folded or merged, according to a 2018 study by the Hussman School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina. In many cases, publishers have been replaced by a narrow network of large investment groups that have acquired hundreds of failing newspapers.

But Marfa is no ordinary town, and its newsweekly has been a pillar of the community for nearly a century—long before Marfa became cool. . . .

Before Mr. Kabat and Ms. Crow took over, the paper ran solely on an ad sales and subscriptions. “It was able to sustain itself on a shoestring, but we wanted to expand the potential,” Ms. Crow, 38, said. They hoped to bring locals closer, physically, to the institution covering their hometown.

So they bought the building previously occupied by Padre’s, a dive bar that went out of business in 2016, and before that, a funeral home, and began renovations. . . .

On a visit in the fall, the morning crowd lined up for coffee, served in hand-thrown clay mugs and with the option of organic oat milk. By early afternoon, the bar offered watermelon ranch waters for happy hour. Newspapers were scattered on the surfaces of the space.

Next door, the Big Bend Sentinel’s staff squeezed into a dimly lit room just a fraction of the Sentinel’s size. Now and then, the two full-time reporters dropped into the cafe to refill their mugs.

A relic of the old office remains: a neon sign spelling out “newspaper.” In the evenings, when the light is turned on, the office glows red from within.

Sometimes the reporters work out of the Sentinel, which functions as a kind of public square. “It’s a great way to keep my finger on the pulse and get new leads and find stories,” said Abbie Perrault, 27, the managing editor. . . .

Since Ms. Crow and Mr. Kabat took over, they have expanded the newspaper’s digital platform, which has seen a 7 percent increase in traffic, Mr. Kabat said, and broadened its photographic coverage. At the newspaper’s sister publication, The International, which the couple also owns and which serves the largely Spanish-speaking neighboring border town of Presidio, every article is now translated into Spanish. They added a crossword puzzle and Sudoku to both papers, too.

The newspapers still sell ads, which account for the majority of revenue. But with additional income from private events and day-to-day drink sales, the publishers have been able to keep yearly subscription costs steady: $50 for area residents and $60 for anyone outside.

“If people come in and buy a coffee and buy something from our shop, rent the space, buy a cocktail, whatever it is, their dollar isn’t just going to that,” Ms. Crow said. “Their dollar is going to support something larger.”

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