We at Chapter love print. We love it even more when print is made accessible, which is where Newspaper Club and its CEO Anne Ward come in. Serving both individual paper lovers, as well as brands such as Dropbox and The Guardian, the Newspaper Club is making sure that print lives on.
We talked to Anne and her journey from a librarian role to CEO, the hurdles of the business during the pandemic and clients she would love to work with (Wes Anderson, we’re looking at you!).
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Your previous work experience includes web content management and community management. What drove you to join the Newspaper Club more than a decade ago?
It was quite a roundabout route! I started out as a librarian, and worked in public and university libraries for years. When information sources started to go online I got interested in how to make websites more usable and moved into content management. I also started my own website in 2001 as a space to try things out. I posted photos and wrote about things I was interested in like unusual places to visit, and through a shared interest in old-fashioned cafes, I met Russell Davies who was one of the co-founders of Newspaper Club.
The founders wanted to make newspaper printing more accessible, and were looking for someone to run the day to day business, helping customers and developing the service. I was looking for a change after working in the public sector and jumped at the chance to try something new.
How did you get through lockdowns once the pandemic hit and what that meant for the business?
It has been a really challenging time for us, as so many of our customers have been badly affected by the lockdown. Newspapers are generally for physical distribution, so with shops, venues and festivals closed for so long, there was less demand for our services.
It was interesting to see how people used newspapers in different ways though – for communicating with remote teams or bringing communities together. For example the restaurant group Dishoom started a newspaper to keep their team connected while their restaurants were shut. And Mailchimp’s design team collaborated remotely to turn one of their monthly brainstorming sessions into a printed souvenir.
While this has been really tough, it has given us some space to get on with developments and improvements that we were finding hard to get to when we were busy. We’ve totally revamped our sample newspapers, and they’ve gone down a storm! We’re also moving our website over to a new platform, which will enable us to offer more products.
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What are the biggest challenges going forward?
Although things are improving, there is still a lot of uncertainty for businesses. Some of our regular customers like festivals and theatres for example, are still not fully operational so for now, it’s hard to predict what the next few months will look like.
We’ve also had Brexit to deal with, so the challenge for us is to work out how we can support our customers to navigate the ‘new normal’, and to make sure that newspapers are helping them to develop their brand, or spread their message.
What have been your biggest learnings so far?
I came into this job with no experience of running a business, so I have learnt a lot in 10 years! The big revelation for me is how much you can achieve with a small team. We have 11 employees, who work very closely together. Most of them have been with the company for years, so they have a lot of experience and a deep understanding of our products and our customers. Having a small team working face to face with our customers means we get immediate and valuable feedback on how everything is going, and we understand what we need to develop or improve. When I worked in big organisations it was really hard to get this sort of customer insight.
It’s also very heartening to learn that if you treat your staff and customers well, they will repay you. We have always been very flexible with staff and stressed the need for a good work-life balance. As a result we have really high staff retention – a few people who left actually asked to come back!
We really struggled to get investment early on – no one wanted to invest in print. While it was difficult at the time, learning to stand on our own two feet financially was a really valuable thing to learn.
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Do you have any brands that you admire and would love to have as your clients?
We’re really fortunate to have printed for a lot of people that we really look up to. When we started out, I never imagined for a second that we would be printing newspapers for the Guardian and the New York Times. We also print for brands that we use every day, like Mailchimp and Dropbox – we didn’t really expect tech companies to be our regular customers! – and we’re constantly being introduced to exciting new brands that come to us to make a newspaper.
We’d love to print something for Wes Anderson one day – there is so much attention to detail in his films. His next film is about a newspaper office, so we’re grateful that he’s keeping the newspaper flame alive!
What are some of your favourite magazines that you’ve ever printed?
It’s changing all the time! We try to keep a running list of favourites and then put together an annual end-of-year roundup — this was our 2020 list. One of the newspapers we included was from an Italian photographer who built incredible installations from household objects every day for the first 54 days of lockdown.
We also have a few regular publications that we always look forward to. The Modern House prints a beautiful zine giving a peek inside amazing homes around the country. Art in Print is a public art initiative we’ve been printing since 2018. Throughout the year, they print batches of limited-edition posters designed by local artists. People can buy them from old school newspaper dispensers placed along a 1-mile stretch in Boston.
We also had a newspaper that was solely devoted to the joy of Birds Eye Potato Waffles – that one spoke to me. Plus some really personal stories like marriage proposals, and birth announcements. It’s always lovely to see someone else’s good news going through the presses.
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Why are newspapers a good way for brands to stay in touch with their customers? Do you have an example of a brand doing it just right?
It’s getting harder and harder for brands to reach their customers online. A newspaper is an opportunity for brands to tell their story in a way that’s more creative and memorable than an email or digital ad.
Our customers also say that newsprint makes their content more accessible. Topman told us they switched to newsprint because customers weren’t picking up their glossy catalogues. They thought they had to pay for them!
As far as brands doing it just right, Desmond and Dempsey and Fred Perry both have long-running newspapers that have become a key part of their brands. In fact, Desmond and Dempsey’s founders have said they had the idea for the newspaper before they’d even sold any pyjamas! They knew from the start how important it was for customers to really understand what the business was about.
What interests do you have in your downtime – if you have any?
I still love to find unusual places to visit, and have written 3 travel guides to offbeat places for Pocket Mountains, an independent travel publisher. Now that lockdown is easing, I plan to get out and about with my camera again.
What’s next for the Newspaper Club? Any exciting projects or launches coming soon?
Yes! We’re working on our new website, and developing some new products which will be coming soon.
What’s next for you? Do you have any goals for the next 5 years?
After the time we’ve had recently, my goal is to get through the next few months in one piece! I find it pretty hard to think too far ahead at the moment.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Trust your gut instinct and don’t second guess yourself.
We are fans of people passionate about their work. That passion is what drives us too – so feel free to get in touch with us for a chat about your big idea or project (with no obligations!).
And if you want to read more inspiring stories, find out how a baker opened up his business during the pandemic and how Tree-Free Fire started with all-natural portable campfires.