Media entrepreneur starts newspaper that bucks Missouri trends

If they’re still out there somewhere, Will Talbert has a message for Democrats living in rural Missouri: You are not alone.

Talbert, of Excelsior Springs, wanted to find and rally rural Democrats. So earlier this year he put up his own money and started the Rural Democrat, a statewide broadsheet published every six weeks. In doing so, he turned an electoral drubbing into a viable media enterprise.

With online subscribers, a print run of 4,000 and an expansion on the way, the Rural Democrat is making headway.

The idea of marketing anything to Democrats living in the hinterlands beyond Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia sure sounds like lunacy, though.

A quick glance at Missouri’s electoral map shows a sea of red between urban centers. In 2012, Republicans won all rural seats up for the state Senate and about every rural district in the state House, setting aside a couple of anomalies in southeast Missouri.

But where many might see a no man’s land for Democrats, Talbert sees an opportunity.

He launched the Rural Democrat after a failed bid for a seat in Missouri’s General Assembly last November. Talbert picked up less than 45 percent of the vote in the 39th District, which covers most of Ray, Carroll and Chariton counties.

To give you an idea of how optimistic Talbert is, or just how rough Democrats have it in Missouri’s rural districts, Talbert calls his run “competitive.” Forty-five percent was enough to give Talbert hope that Democrats were out there.

In a post-election huddle of party activists and leaders, Talbert and others agreed that those lonely rural Democrats needed “a hub of communication.” Talbert stepped in with the Rural Democrat to fill the vacuum.

A partisan guy

Housed in an old barbershop building in Excelsior Springs, the newspaper is written and published mostly by part-timers and volunteers made up of political and labor activists, journalists and Talbert’s friends.

Even Talbert’s mother has contributed. She conceived and designed the mascot for the paper’s masthead, a donkey with spectacles sitting on a stool and reading a newspaper. She sketched her first draft of the donkey on a napkin.

Talbert’s sidekick from his campaign, Larry Tesar, a retired teacher, joined the staff to run the books, create the crossword puzzles and basically do whatever else Talbert doesn’t want to do, all of it without a salary.

Both say they enjoy publishing far more than campaigning.

“I’d much rather ask for a $25 subscription than a $1,000 contribution,” Talbert said.

Indeed, the $25 a year subscription is for print and online content.

Before his campaign for the state House, Talbert ran a cattle operation in Ray County, near Excelsior Springs, meaning he can talk as easily and endlessly about the price of hay as he can the problems in state-level politics.

As for his politics, they’re straightforwardly — you might even say conventionally — Democratic. He likes Harry Truman and admires Bill Clinton. He believes in a strong social safety net and investments in infrastructure. He wants to see the Medicaid expansion happen in Missouri.

If you can’t tell by the name, the Rural Democrat is a decidedly partisan paper. There are no “fair and balanced” pretenses to its satirical digs at Missouri’s Republican legislators and conservative politics.

Talbert himself admits to being a “partisan guy.” He said he won’t even take money for ad space from Republicans.

Kevin O’Neill, publisher of the Greater Kansas City Labor Beacon, which regularly publishes stories from the Rural Democrat, said he and Talbert don’t see eye to eye on everything — given that labor has supported Republican candidates around the state — but they still work well together and like each other.

“The thing I love about Will is that he can have an argument with anybody and it’s civil. And that’s rare in today’s politics,” O’Neill said.

Reaching out

In all likelihood, Talbert’s paper will not persuade die-hard conservatives to defect. Instead, it speaks to those Democrats in rural areas that might otherwise be ignored by a party that sees their districts as lost causes.

O’Neill said that often rural voters turn against Democrats simply because they never hear from the party.

“Will is trying to reach out … so they know he’s looking out for them,” he said.

That “reaching out” is literal as well as figurative. With the same shoe leather mentality of a political campaign, Talbert and his staff have been crisscrossing the state selling subscriptions and getting the word out about the paper.

So far, Democrats out there seem to appreciate it. Joe Duffy, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, said there is “definitely some buzz” about the paper throughout the state. His own office receives copies.

Amid the buzz, the paper is already rolling ahead with expansion plans. Due out Sept. 1 is the first run of a Kansas City edition called the Metro Democrat.

The Metro Democrat will feature largely different writers and content for a very different audience.

“Jackson County is a whole different animal than rural Missouri,” Talbert said.

Talbert and his team will also be breaking into new media. Along with the new metro paper, the Democrat will start producing podcasts downloadable free on the paper’s website.

Into the void

The ultimate goal, the “pie in the sky” for Talbert and the Democrat, would be to launch editions in other Midwestern states.

Yet profits don’t necessarily figure into that goal of growth. Talbert said it would be nice to make a little extra money from the paper, but his main goal is just to get the Democrat out there and have it pay for itself.

Without disclosing subscriber numbers, Talbert said the Rural Democrat was near the break-even point. In the meantime, Talbert finances out of his own pocket what revenues from subscriptions don’t cover.

In the end, Talbert defines success in terms of politics, not publishing. His goal is not to reap windfalls from a media enterprise, but to turn the tide toward Democrats in Midwestern statehouses and the U.S. House.

That said, Talbert could still run a successful media venture whether or not a Democrat wins a seat in the General Assembly ever again.

In politics, 45 percent of the vote is a flat-out loss, and losers get nothing. But in media, 45 percent represents a huge share of the market.

“What surprised me was the giant void we walked into,” Talbert said. “It’s like being the only beer vendor at a baseball game.”