RJI Fellowship delivers digital services to publishers for local businesses

This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.

Ashley Wimberley
Ashley Wimberley
Mark Nienhueser
Mark Nienhueser

To help community newspapers compete against digital ad agencies for their clients’ advertising needs, Missouri Press Service stepped in to provide extra resources and manpower.

MPS, in partnership with its vendor Amplified Digital of St. Louis, created a suite of digital services during a 2015-16 fellowship. The institutional fellowship allowed project leader Mark Nienhueser, then MPS advertising director, to continue working at MPS while developing the digital suite within the organization. In 2017, Ted Lawrence took over for Nienhueser as the advertising director and now manages the digital suite.

Providing digital services to ad clients provides opportunities to generate additional revenue and boost relationships with ad clients.

Services in the digital suite include selling:

  • YouTube TrueView ads.
  • Mobile geo-location targeting ads.
  • Interest-based targeted ads.
  • Social media pages.
  • Website design and hosting.
  • Search engine optimization.

Like community newspapers, state press associations don’t always have the means to provide similar digital suites and training to their members. Thanks to the MPS fellowship, associations can provide the same digital suite through white labeling, says Nienhueser. White labeling allows the press associations to take the suite of services and brand it for their members as if they created it.


So far, MPS has partnered with six other state press associations: Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Arkansas Press Association Director of Marketing Ashley Wimberley works directly with her member newspapers to develop digital strategies for ad clients and then works with the Missouri Press team to implement the strategies.

I interviewed Wimberley and Nienhueser for this Q&A.

How did an RJI Fellowship advance MPS’ work with its member newspapers?

Nienhueser: Number one: resources. We had access to two teams of students who could do research and look into the various concepts of digital services that we were wanting to get into. 

They were tasked with trying to find out what we were trying to do, how we could make money, what the margins look like, what our potential would be like. The classes were instrumental in talking to our newspapers and seeing if the need was really there.

Secondly, I would say the financing that was awarded to us helped us add a staff member and travel.

How did MPS’ digital suite of services help you and your newspapers the most?

Wimberley: [Before we became involved with MPS,] we had done some digital campaigns and some social media services on our own, so we had already broadened our services a bit. It’s brought us more products to add to our arsenal. We are offering all services MPS is providing. I think MPS has given us more bench strength in having these offerings and services.

Our industry, in general, is changing so quickly, so press associations have to change as well. With advertisers looking to couple print with digital, it has allowed us to stay relevant and have a seat at the table with those advertisers, who think they might just want digital.

Did you end up implementing any of the students’ concepts or ideas?

Nienhueser: Oh yes, most of them. Some of it was theory based. We brought in the concept, thinking it would work. I think honestly that’s why our fellowship was so successful in that we brought the concept, and we wanted to make sure we were thinking along the right lines and they were able to prove it correct. They also proved that not only could we be the middleman for our newspapers, helping them get into this business where they didn’t have to have a whole lot of overhead, but (the newspapers) could make money. We could also make money and advance the digital concept especially for weekly newspapers that just didn’t have a lot of knowledge about how to get into that business.

The students also came up with some marketing ideas including suggestions on our logo, which we are currently using. They created a book with different concepts showing us some upscale ideas to kind of bring us out of the old stodgy way of thinking into a more vibrant concept that would go along with digital.

What advice would you have for applicants as they prepare to complete an application for a fellowship?

Nienhueser: I was very blessed to have the help of [Director of Program Development] Roger Gafke as a source of help to ask questions, even about what the application [question] was truly meaning. He was very instrumental in helping me in getting what I was trying to say — and what I wanted to do — on paper. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the RJI people, who you could build a relationship with, and maybe they can help if they believe in your idea and can help you get it across to the people who are to be picking these.

(Gafke retired in 2017. If you have questions during the fellowship application process, send an email to RJI Associate Director Mike McKean at mckeanml@rjionline.org.)

What was the hardest challenge of an institutional fellowship and what did you do to overcome or alleviate it?

Nienhueser: I would say time, specifically trying to juggle a full-time job and also work on the fellowship piece. And then finding the time to meet with the students was sometimes challenging. But we did it.

I had very good support from [now-retired MPA Executive Director Doug Crews] and my board of directors. Current Executive Director Mark Maassen then came in and championed it.

What was the key to making the time and what advice would you have for institutional fellowships candidates to balance both a job and fellowship project?

Nienhueser: Organization is key. If you’re involved with a student group, you have to get on their time schedule as well. We did a lot of early-morning meetings. We even did some evening meetings. Just stay committed to finding a schedule. And just know you’re going have to redo that now and then.

If you’re interested in learning more about the digital suite, send an email to Ted Lawrence or call him at 573-449-4167.


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