The Big Bend Sentinel’s formula: Burgers, brews and, now, a national ad network

Lost Horse Saloon, Marfa, Texas. Photo (cc) 2014 by Thomas Hawk.

By Dan Kennedy

It seems like a story from a world we left behind. In late February 2020, I wrote a column about The Big Bend Sentinel, a tiny newspaper in West Texas that was supporting its journalism — and boosting the community’s connection with the paper — by operating a café next to the newsroom.

“Can drinks, community events and the occasional wedding subsidize small-town journalism?,” asked The New York Times.

Well, we all know what happened next. So I was pleasantly surprised last month when Max Kabat, the co-owner of the Sentinel, popped up on the podcast “E&P Reports” and announced that the Sentinel is alive and well.

To my frustration the host, Editor & Publisher owner Mike Blinder, didn’t really press Kabat on how the Sentinel’s café made it through the pandemic. But obviously it did. The Sentinel is based in Marfa, Texas, about halfway between Albuquerque to the west and San Antonio to the east. Kabat and his wife, Maisie Crow, are not your typical rural newspaper publishers — they’re refugees from Brooklyn, where Kabat worked in advertising and Crow was a photojournalist and documentarian. They still pursue those careers, even as Kabat serves as publisher of the Sentinel and a smaller sister paper, the Presidio International, and Crow acts as editor-in-chief.

As for whether the café is helping to support the Sentinel’s journalism, Kabat said the answer is yes:

We’re now actually making money. It was starting to make money. We have never not paid any of our expenses, our loans, the things that we’ve done to try to make this thing work. We’ve always been able to do that, which is great. And for the first time, we actually have money in the bank where we’re continuing to invest. We’ve never taken money out. We just continue to invest into the business because we believe in the idea. And that’s what we’re doing. The Sentinel [that is, the café] makes more money than the newspaper.

At the moment, Kabat says he’s pursuing another revenue-making idea that could support not just his newspapers but other community-based journalism projects as well — a national advertising network based on values rather than clicks. National ads have become nearly worthless for local news websites because Google has driven their value through the floor. Kabat’s idea, called Broadsheet, would enable like-minded publishers to connect with advertisers that would rather be seen on quality local websites. Kabat described his message to advertisers like this:

Put your money where your mouth is. If you make an ad that’s about building community and then you go buy every national television, blah, blah, blah, and you spray it programmatically, you know what that does? That takes 20% of the money that you spent on making that ad. And you take 80% of the money that you spent on this advertising campaign and you give it back to the things that are making us worse.

Among Broadsheet’s early possible clients are papers in Aspen, Telluride, Jackson Hole, the Hamptons and — closer to home — the Vineyard Gazette. That’s a lot of tourist dollars. Marfa itself is a tourist destination as well as the setting for the iconic James Dean movie “Giant.” But perhaps over time Kabat will be able to build his model out and use it to serve news projects in less affluent, more diverse areas as well.

I’m firmly of the belief that, for local news projects to succeed, they need not only to serve their community but to help re-establish the very idea of community. The Big Bend Sentinel is doing that in the most direct way imaginable.

Author: Dan Kennedy

I am a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a contributor to GBH News in Boston. My blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.

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