LION member spotlight: The Worcester Sun

By Matt DeRienzo | Jan. 2, 2018

Mark Henderson

A Q&A with Mark Henderson, publisher of the Worcester Sun in Massachusetts.

1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?

We launched Worcester Sun as a weekly subscription site in August 2015. We went twice-weekly in November 2015, and launched a paid weekly print product on Dec. 9. We cover Worcester, Massachusetts, almost exclusively, but we have plans to expand our coverage to neighboring towns as growth allows.

2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?

I spent nearly 25 years at the local daily, the Telegram & Gazette, rising from part-time copy editor (1990), to online director (2009), when the T&G was owned by the New York Times Co. The last five years of my tenure are what prepared me most for this endeavor, which I undertook after being let go by Halifax Media Group, which purchased the T&G from Boston Globe owner John Henry, who bought the T&G with the Globe in 2013.

3. How would you describe your operation and business model?

We're a lean general interest news site and newspaper that stresses the businesses, people and causes in greater Worcester. We went paid digital and paid Sunday print for two reasons: We believe that it's the model of the future for media companies that focus on the creation of journalism; and we bootstrapped this project, so we didn't have funds to do the normal media company growth pattern of wide reach then focus on consumer support. In essence, we skipped the first part and went right to consumer support. That kept our growth curve flatter but allowed us to deeply connect with the audience we do have.

4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?

From a coverage perspective, the local daily, the Telegram & Gazette. From a frequency perspective, the local alt weekly, Worcester Magazine. At least that is how the public perceives us.

5. What makes your site unique?

We've devoted our resources into areas the local daily has disinvested in. Our hallmarks are thoughtful perspective and commentary, quality editing, and a great online experience. We convened a diverse group of contributors, some with more than 40 years experience in journalism in Worcester, some new voices that bring a fresh perspective to what's going on in New England's second-largest city.

6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?

Personally, I spent too much time trying to appeal to local angel investors or venture capitalists to get funded, even after we launched. Our core audiences are readers and advertisers who are unhappy with their current options. While that's always been a focus of the Sun, I should have dedicated more of my time to reach them because they have been most receptive to our message and our products.

7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?

My biggest source of pride is the community we've convened. It's a wonderful community of contributors, readers, subscribers and advertisers that's gotten us where we are and is ready and willing to help us take the next steps.

8. What do you struggle with the most?

Advertising sales, for sure. My respect for people who have the skill is boundless, especially as I've had to attempt to do it. Advertising has also been hampered by the fact that we're still relatively new and explaining our model is a natural barrier between you and the customer, especially as we don't have the reach of others in the market.

9. What are some of your future goals for the site?

Paid print is giving us reach we haven't had before, and it's a model where we can compete very well because of our cost structure. The hope is to use that platform to build out more complete news coverage. The ultimate goal is what we refer to as the 6&1 model (6 days digital, 1 day print).

Additionally, our print product allowed us to work with other local publishers, namely Mass Foodies, which focuses on the restaurant and hospitality industry around Worcester. We recently purchased print syndication rights to their content, and that's a model that benefits everyone.

Lastly, we believe we can be disruptive in the coverage news space, so that's something we'll be building to as our financial condition allows.

10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?

Since there is not yet a defined path to sustainability in the next generation of journalism, it's critical to know what's working, what's not and get a better sense of where we're heading as an industry. Being a member of LION Publishers offers that. It wasn't that long ago that as a member of a legacy daily I had access to a nationwide network of people with whom I  compare notes. Those days are gone as things become more centralized. LION Publishers fills that void. I have no doubt that over time a model or models with emerge, and they'll probably surface via LION.