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NguyenSLate last fall was slow for Scott Nguyen’s Coffee News of Northeast Indiana. He’d started one edition in June 2016 and another in October. They weren’t as full of ads as he wanted and he knew he needed to change the game a bit. “I sat down and made some goals,” he says. While selling ads, he’d noticed flyers promoting nonprofit events by different clubs and organizations. “You’d see flyers from four or five organizations—Rotaries, a downtown business alliance.” He got the idea of donating space to boost the community value of his editions, which would help nonprofits and demonstrate that Coffee News was committed to the area.

He learned that groups needing flyers typically went to the town hall, where a woman in the marketing department made the designs for them. They gave her a small stipend, then printed the flyers and distributed them at hair salons, in restaurant windows, and other places. “I realized it would be a good thing if I could highlight the events, too,” Scott says. “And that would mean less clutter in people’s windows.” So he walked into the town hall and told the woman, “I’m starting up this paper, and I have some space available that I’d like to give to the community.” She was happy to hear it and passed along his contact information to the nonprofits.

At first, he donated just one space, to see how it would work. Then in December, he decided, “Let’s start gambling.” Now he donates four spaces in each edition for family-friendly community activities—anything geared toward making the community better. The response has been great. Since January, he says, “it’s been crazy.”

With the sudden boom, he started asking around: “Why are people buying ads?” The clear answer was that Coffee News “didn’t look like a foreign object. It looked like, ‘Wow, this guy is highlighting the local community.’ ” One big area event features the arts and hot air balloons. “They partner up with the Visitors Bureau in the county,” Scott says. “They put hundreds of balloons in the sky, hot air balloons. So I was able to highlight that.”

His third edition, which he started this May, was successful, “right off the bat.” With every edition, he learns new things and tries to do something different with each one. For his first edition, he says, “Honestly, it took about 16 or 17 weeks to get my first inquiry. For the most part, it was just me on the ground, pounding pavement.” This was in the area where he grew up but, he says, it tends to be conservative and Coffee News was completely new. “Dekalb is known for classic cars, and to introduce something new was a challenge. We knew folks, and that helped. And time. I think I probably sold out in January of this year” about seven months after starting. Last fall, he began a second edition. “And in the first week, I got two inquiries. The last edition was in the spring, just real crazy. The day I laid it out, I had three inquiries.”

Besides donating space, Scott is committed to keeping local advertisers, not chains. How to target different consumers was something else he learned. “With my first edition, I wanted to be everywhere—McDonalds, Subway—and I would get bummed if a place like that wouldn’t carry it. But with my third edition, I realized there are lots of restaurants. If McDonalds won’t carry it, that’s not a big deal. But I have to get into all the sit-down restaurants.”

Steuben County, his third edition, is in an affluent tourist area. He thought, “Let’s go where all these folks who have money are likely to spend it.” Subway carries his other two counties, but not that one. “I wasn’t stressed out about it because all the other restaurants were saying yes. When people called me, they would always say, ‘Man, I see your newspaper everywhere.’ And I never got that from the other two, not right away.”

Scott also made four months his minimum ad buy. “Three months go by so fast,” he says. “The longer the better. It gives you more time to build relationships with your clients.” He visits each client every other month. They often don’t even talk about the ad. “I just get to know them, the family. It’s never really about the paper. It’s about relationship.”

His advice is common among publishers. “You’re a brand. People are going to look at you first, and then buy. First you have to sell yourself.” Over the years, he’s worked in many different fields, from coaching college soccer to owning a truck-cleaning business, and he has acquired lots of people skills. “I always try to find a way to connect. That’s just really key. You have to find a way to connect.” Another piece of advice is to get involved in groups that have “spheres of influence.” He says, “This is important and will help you get noticed much more quickly.” But he suggests first doing your homework to assess each group’s impact on the community. Scott is a Chamber of Commerce member in each county he serves, and is involved with a Downtown Coalition, and Rotary and Elks clubs.

So far, Scott’s commitment to his communities and his ability to connect are working just fine.