2023 Mega-Conference

Going 'phygital': Community Impact publisher describes his company's transformation


Community Impact, which launched 18 years ago with three full-time employees covering Round Rock and Pflugerville, Texas, has a very simple business model, Founder and CEO John Garrett told attendees last week at the Mega-Conference. "We believe that everything about our business model starts with high-quality journalism and high-quality design.  That's been our premise from the very beginning."

During a Mega-Conference session last Monday morning, Garrett talked about his company's thriving newspaper product, what the company is doing in terms of digital transformation and shared some tools that attendees could implement at their own newspapers.

Community Impact provides hyperlocal news and information to millions of local residents and business owners each day online and monthly by mail. The print product has a 50/50 ratio of editorial to advertising.  Garrett said, "We are now the largest news organization in Texas. We are over 2.5 million Texan households."  Community Impact publishes 35 editions in 70-80 communities around the state, including four of the major metros in Texas.  

Garrett said Community Impact does not editorialize and it doesn't cover high school sports or local crime.  Its focus is on government development, business, health care, education and real estate.  And, it uses lots of colorful graphics to help explain local issues.  "Our superpower," he said, "is to make the complex compelling."

If you have high-quality editorial and high-quality design, Garrett said, you're going to get readers. Then, if you get readers, you get revenue.  It's critical, he said, to continue investing in editorial and design.  To continue expanding and ensuring that your company will be around 100 years from now, it's also important to be a talent-centered organization.  "It's fun to be a talent-centered organization," he said,  "I think that's a big part of our philosophy."

Garrett used the term "phygital" to describe the transformation that Community Impact has undergone over the last three years.  He said he first heard this word during the pandemic, with churches using it to describe the fact that — while they had a physical building — no one could go there for church services because of the pandemic.  Instead, they turned to online video services to reach their congregations.

He equated it to newspapers, noting: "We are physical human beings, but we are also living in a digital world.  You've got to have both.  That's the premise of phygital."

Key dates on the Community Impact timeline:

  • 2005 - Community Impact was founded.
  • 2009 - Community Impact expanded to Houston.
  • 2016 - Community Impact built its own printing plant.
  • 2020 - Phase One of Phygital launched.
  • 2022 - Community Impact rebrand.
  • 2023 - Phase Two of Phygital.

Among the aspects of Phase 1 (2020):

  • Implementing EOS (an Entrepreneurial Operating System).  An "integrator" was assigned to lead meetings, with accountability scorecards (KPIs) being built into the system.  Team members each had quarterly "rocks" (goals) and important issues were addressed at the meetings, complete with celebrations of completed projects.   After meetings, participants were asked to rate the effectiveness of the meeting.  Sometimes it was a 10, Garrett said.  Sometimes, lower scores were given, along with a reason why.
  • Nurturing internal talent.
  • Hiring expert consultants.
  • Investing in technology and new talent.
  • A focus on branding and marketing, including a new logo.
  • Being entrepreneurial and experimental.
  • Determining what works (the CI Morning Impact newsletter with daily curated content; it's conversational and includes paid banner ads and paid storytelling).


Garrett suggested that attendees invite some of the "coolest people that you know" who live in your neighborhood to join a  conversation about favorite news brands that they rely on.  A conversation with a group in Round Rock, Texas, showed that only one or two people knew about Axios and none knew about Morning Brew.  But, they all were familiar with the Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle and Community Impact.

In addition, the city of Round Rock conducts a survey every two years in which citizens are asked a number of questions, including where they get their news.  In both the 2020 and 2022 surveys, Community Impact topped the list.  In 2020, Community Impact was cited by 74 percent of the respondents; two years later, that number was 77 percent.

Phase 2 of Phygital:

Garrett said the print product that Community Impact mails monthly is helping to grow the digital newsletter.  The newsletter is attracting about 1,000 additional subscribers every week "because we have a great print product."

"If you focus on product," Garrett said, "you can drive digital."

He said digital is now up to 7 percent of the company's revenue, without taking away from print, which also is growing.  While other newspapers' digital percentage may be higher, he said "we're just picking up; we're just getting started."

This year, Community Impact is focused on building systems to listen to its staff and act.  It is addressing questions like: What does our next chapter look like as we focus on Texas? What does CI (and staff members) need to ensure its future?

"My people are saying that they need to know where we're going and how we're going to get there ... and I can't wait to take them there," he said.

At the bottom of the list cited by employees was an increased ability to work from home.  He said his team is inspired to collaborate and work together to build great things. 

This year is also about continuing to transform the print product. "We're looking at every part of our workflow: how a story starts, how it goes digital first and how it goes to print."

And, Community Impact is looking for Company B — to determine where they are going, despite all of the distractions in the marketplace.  "I see a beautiful future of a physical product and a digital product," he said.  "They're going to come together to really do all we want to do — connect people to their communities, help them have the information that they can trust, and have fun doing it with people that we love and respect at the workplace."

"Are we sure that there's a runway for print that ends?" he asked his audience. "Maybe the runway keeps going.  It just looks a little bit different than we thought."