Thumbs Up in Bay City

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When Brandon Cox took over as publisher of The Bay City Tribune in June, he found little to fix. The twice-weekly paper with a circulation of about 4,000 located about 80 miles southwest of Houston had its news basics and its finances in order.

"I came into a place that was already working, and it allowed us to be creative from the get-go," Cox said.

Creative change came quickly. By August, the entire paper had been redesigned. Circulation promotions were initiated. Most recently, readers have been given an alternative, called Thumbs Up/Down, to the traditional letter to the editor and the less traditional website comment section.

Whether it's the result of one particular change or a combination, circulation and revenues are up. Cox said people in Matagorda County are excited about the paper.

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Thumbs Up/Down is a reader comment on a person or an issue, typically no more than two sentences. The feature runs on the editorial page with clip-art thumbs. It's for people who have something to say, but who don't want to write a full letter.

How often and how many comments get printed depend on the number received by hand delivery or emailed to a special in-box. The goal is to generate thoughtful conversation among readers and newspaper management.

"When I got here one of the issues that we had was reader engagement," he said. "We were putting stuff out and we weren't getting a lot of back-and-forth from our audience. We would get the 'likes' on Facebook, but we wouldn't get the comments."

Cox cheerfully admits to stealing Thumbs Up/Down from his previous newspaper, The Courier-Times in New Castle, Ind., where he served as advertising director. Tribune staff members were brainstorming one day and browsing copies of the Indiana paper Cox brought with him when they came across the feature and decided it was worth trying in Texas.

The rules for Thumbs Up/Down are basically the same as for a letter to the editor. Contributors must sign their submissions, whether hand delivered or emailed. "No libel, no unsubstantiated stuff," Cox said. "If you want to say 'good job' to somebody, or criticize the city for your potholes, here's a good place to do it."

For example, the Sunday Oct. 5 column was almost entirely positive, with thumbs up for a school, a community volunteer, a judge and the newspaper's sports editor, and a thumbs down for a board's handling of a controversy over the amount of water delivered from the Colorado River to Austin instead of Bay City.

"People are looking to see if they get a thumbs up or thumbs down. It's been well received," Cox said.

"You can always put something on Facebook or social media, but for whatever reason when you put it in print, people take you more seriously."

Other major changes include a redesign that debuted in August. The idea there was to look like a larger paper than the Tribune actually is, using such basics as section headings rather than simply putting the news in the A section and the sports in the B section. And in tribute to the state's obsession with high school football, the scores of games involving any of Matagorda County's four high schools are prominently displayed at the top of the Sunday paper.

"We actually redesigned the entire paper, beginning with the first edition in August. We're still kind of riding that high," Cox said.

"It's a small, semi-weekly paper. It never really looked like one of the big boys. My background is actually graphics design, so we just sat down and went through each page of the paper."

The Tribune has received more positive feedback with its circulation promotions. "When I got here I found that we had money budgeted for circulation promos that we weren't spending," Cox said.

The paper instituted some low-cost drawings for giveaways limited to new or renewing subscribers. They included a package of four tickets to a water park along with a cooler and grocery store gift card, and a set of school supplies including a backpack and a computer tablet.

The current promotion is called "Get Caught." The paper made up 100 business cards; employees hand them out to people they spot carrying a Tribune in public. The cards can be redeemed for a free 16-ounce coffee from a local coffee-shop.

The business cards cost $35 and the shop owner provides the coffee in exchange for advertising. "I'm really out less than 50 bucks, and people are buying the paper so they can get caught with it so they can get a free coffee," Cox said.

The Bay City Tribune has recorded 144 new subscriptions since June, Cox said. That's an impressive number for a small newspaper in a community with access to daily papers from Houston, Victoria and Lake Jackson.

"We're hyperlocal. We keep the AP out of there," Cox said. The Tribune doesn't subscribe to The Associated Press and it doesn't run a story that isn't localized.

"People are buying my paper just to get the local content," Cox said.

And maybe to see what's new.

For more information, contact Publisher Brandon Cox at brandon.cox@baycitytribune.com.


Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes is a regular contributor to the SNPA eBulletin.  She is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala., and a former editorial writer for the Press-Register in Mobile. Email her at jbnicholes@att.net.


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