Now in Europe, Table Stakes aims to help local news publishers

The past 10 to 12 years have been tough for many local news publishers: print revenues have fallen; consumers are increasingly fickle; and newsrooms have shrunk. Now, a growing movement called Table Stakes aims to improve the situation by helping publishers to help each other and themselves.

by Brian Veseling | July 16, 2019

Launched in the United States in 2016, Table Stakes is the brainchild of Douglas K. Smith, who developed the initiative for the Knight Foundation after spending much of his career working with dozens of different industries across the private, non-profit and government sectors.

Four US news groups took part in the Table Stakes pilot programme: the Philadelphia Media Network; The Dallas Morning News; the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald; and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Today, more than 90 local US news organisations across the country are using the framework to help reinvigorate their businesses.

Now, WAN-IFRA and the Google News Initiative (GNI) have launched Table Stakes Europe, which was officially announced at the World News Media Congress in Glasgow in June, and applications are already being accepted (the deadline to apply is 1 September).

On hand in Scotland to discuss Table Stakes and how it’s working in the United States, were Smith, its architect, and Stan Wischnowski, Executive Editor and SVP of the Philadelphia Media Network.

What Table Stakes is

Douglas K. SmithDouglas K. SmithThe name Table Stakes comes from “a way of thinking about business strategy as poker, the card game,” Smith said.

Specifically, Table Stakes refers to the minimum requirements for a player to get a seat at the table. For example, he said that in Las Vegas, a gambler who has only $80 is not allowed to play at a $100 poker table.

The other part of Table Stakes’ strategy, Smith said, is called “‘Differentiators.’ So, once you have a seat at the table, how do you win the game?”

Essentially, in this framework, “you can look at any business – breakfast cereal, automobiles, financial services or journalism – and ask yourself ‘What are the table stakes?'” he said.

“It’s not magic. No one has figured out the answer going forward. But what it does is put local enterprises on a hopeful path toward the future that’s grounded in the own experienced reality of making progress and transformation,” – Douglas Smith

Specfically, the seven “Table Stakes,” publishers identified are:

  1. Serve targeted audiences with targeted content
  2. Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences
  3. Produce and publish continuously to match your audiences lives
  4. Funnel occasional users into habitual, valuable and paying loyalists
  5. Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build
  6. Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible costs
  7. Drive audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher” perspective

While noting that these themes should already be familiar to most publishers, Smith said they have provided a foundation that has helped all of those who have gone through the Table Stakes programme so far.

“The new attitudes, skills, orientation towards audiences and so on of newsrooms and the larger news enterprise as it tries to do the fundamental work, which is to build valued and valuable audiences,” he said.

“The work we do is always driven by a set of performance outcomes, not change. We focus on performance outcomes and then let the changes evolve from that. The performance results have been impressive. Impressive enough that it continues to grow,” – Douglas Smith

Stan Wischnowski then told delegates about the recent history of his company, the Philadelphia Media Network, and how Table Stakes has helped them and other US publishers.

After enduring a decade of disruption with seven different owners, he said the last owner, the late billionaire philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, created a structure that has provided them with financial stability.

“The Lenfest Institute of Journalism took over in 2016 and put us on a great path towards sustainability,” Wischnowski said.

It also allowed them to get grant-funding in areas such as investigative journalism, which has helped enlarge their investigative team from a staff of six to 24.

Grants have also been used to create what they call “Lenfest Fellows,” of which Wischnowski said there are now eight, adding that all of them are top notch digital journalists.

“The Lenfest Institute has given us a great shot in the arm with this ownership structure. We’re no longer looking at that dark cloud above us,” – Stan Wischnowski

Tables Stakes in the United States

About the same time that they were getting a new ownership structure, the Philadelphia Media Network was invited to become part of the Table Stakes pilot programme.

All the work done by the pilot teams was documented and collected into in a book. And the programme remains open sourced, Wischnowski said. “It’s being shared. And since then, other cohorts have started going forward. The LA Times is involved now. Milwaukee, Houston, Seattle – it’s from coast to coast.”

“The Table Stakes programme has created a common language, a common methodology, a spirit of collaboration. No one single entity has the answer to local journalism,” he said.

Stan WischnowskiStan WischnowskiThe collaborative spirit has been especially important, he added.

“Not a week goes by that I am not texting or emailing a group of six or eight editors to talk about budget situations, union situations, stories of great sensitivity and how we could collaborate,” Wischnowski said.

While the local publishers still face substantial pressures, Wischnowski said the best practices being gathered through Table Stakes have already helped to develop initiatives that are paying off, such as a newsletter strategy being used in Seattle and an events strategy in Minneapolis that has brought in millions of dollars.

“I think Table Stakes is the best thing that can happen at the local level during this crisis that is so common for all of us. I think it’s great, and I think the learnings, the documentation that we have yielded in America, can only serve as a force multiplier for local journalism across the globe,” – Stan Wischnowski

Hear Wischnowski talk more about Table Stakes in the video below.

To learn more about Tables Stakes Europe, click here.

For eligibility requirements and to apply for the programme, click here.

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