Iowa newspaper uses an escape room to solve the profit puzzle

Exterior shot of Escape Room Dubuque. Photo by Lyz Lenz.

DAN BELLOWS IS JUST A GUY in Iowa who loves a good puzzle. He enjoys crosswords and riddles, and even likes to hide his kids’ Christmas presents and leave them clues for finding them. But the puzzle that’s occupying most of his time recently is the one facing local journalism: how to make money.

In early 2017, Bellows, who is the maintenance manager for the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa, took his family to Florida on vacation. While there, they visited an escape room. Bellows was hooked.

When Bellows returned to Iowa, he told Tom Woodward, CEO of Woodward Communications, which owns the paper, that they should start an escape room in an empty company-owned building. The crazy thing is, Woodward listened.

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The Telegraph Herald is 97-percent employee owned. And according to Steve Fisher, publisher of the paper, the company has a culture of employee-led innovation. Many of the paper’s money-making schemes started as ideas from employees—such as their self-published local history books and their popular video series on sports, “More than the Score.”

This independent-minded culture dates back to the early days of the newspaper. The Telegraph Herald is a direct descendant of the Dubuque Visitor, which was founded in 1836 and was the first newspaper published west of the Mississippi. After a series of mergers, the Dubuque Visitor became the Dubuque Express and Herald in 1854—at which point its stubborn independence began in earnest.

Bellows’ idea for an escape room, while a little oddball, fits with the history and culture of the Telegraph Herald

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The first Dubuque Express and Herald editor, Dennis Mahoney, was a noted partisan crank who wrote scathing attacks on President Lincoln, accusing him of perpetuating an unconstitutional war and for violating states’ rights by promoting abolition. In August of 1862, Mahony was arrested by orders of the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and his writ of habeas corpus was suspended by Lincoln. He was released from prison that November after swearing allegiance to the federal government. Lincoln wasn’t the only one annoyed by Mahoney. In 1874, his own paper described Mahoney as “a proverbial liar [who] gripes like Satan with the bellyache at the idea of telling the truth, and who would forswear himself into Satan’s friendly embrace in two minutes to satisfy a grudge.”

In 1901, the paper merged with the local Telegraph and become the Telegraph Herald. And despite Mahoney’s legacy with the paper—or, perhaps, because of it—the Telegraph Herald has always taken innovative approaches to making money. The newspaper was the first to issue a state directory of “professional men and farmers” and, in 1937, began a “foods of the nation” cooking school.

Bellows’ idea for an escape room, while a little oddball, fits with the history and culture of the paper. And because of that history, Woodward listened and encouraged Bellows to draw up a business plan. So in spring of 2017, Bellows and Fisher began investigating what it would mean for a newspaper to own an escape room.

 

ESCAPE ROOMS ORIGINATED in Japan; the first, according to a recent New York Times story, opened in Kyoto more than a decade ago. According to Room Escape Artist, a site that tracks escape rooms, there were 22 escape rooms in the US as of 2014. Today, there are approximately 2,300 across the country. Most of those escape rooms, including Escape Room Dubuque, run as independent businesses. With little overhead, and with tickets priced between $20 and $30, it’s easy for companies to start turning a profit within the first couple months.

Bellows and Fisher and a team from the Telegraph Herald took a road trip around the country, visiting escape rooms in Tennessee and Georgia. Their favorite escape room, “Water Landing,” was in nearby Madison, Wisconsin. “Water Landing” simulates an emergency aircraft landing in the ocean. Participants are smugglers in the cargo area of the airplane. The challenge is to open the escape hatch before time is up.

Bellows, Fisher and the rest of the team brought their lessons back to Dubuque. Implementation took about six months, from idea to opening day. Escape Room Dubuque launched in November 2017, and began turning a profit after the first month.

‘I don’t know,’ Bellows shrugged, with genuine honesty, when I asked him about his puzzle-making process. ‘We just sit down and do it.’

The Telegraph Herald escape rooms are housed in a long, low commercial building on the west side of town. The other half of the building is an abandoned LEBEDA Mattress Factory store; across the parking lot is a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop. Bellows says the location was chosen for its proximity to nearby Kennedy Mall and Highway 20. Inside, the waiting room is clean and well-decorated in a furniture store aesthetic—soft tan walls, blue couches, wiry metal clocks. There’s also a gallery wall with pictures of skulls, clocks, and an antique key.

The rooms are themed “Casino Heist”, “Race to Treasure,” and “Motel Mystery.”  In “Motel Mystery,” participants have to comb through the room looking for clues to solve the murder of a traveling salesman. Bellows says he once saw a man count out all the prop coffee filters in the room and then insist to his group that the number of coffee filters was significant. It wasn’t. And isn’t. But Bellows keeps the coffee filters there, and loves to watch from the observation room and laugh when people flip through them counting.

Escape room owners can order kits to develop their rooms. But Bellows and Escape Room Dubuque Manager Renee Pregler wanted to bootstrap it, and came up with every room, every clue, and every concept. Lisa Spira, an editor of the Escape Room Artist site, told the CJR that, while it’s hard to put a number on it, “most people/companies come up with their own room concepts. It’s the overwhelming majority.”

Pregler and Bellows are autodidacts, and it never occurred to them that they couldn’t do it themselves. The pair is still finessing their designs, and plan to swap out the least popular room, “Casino Heist,” for a new room very soon. “I don’t know,” Bellows shrugged, with genuine honesty, when I asked him about his puzzle-making process. “We just sit down and do it.”

Escape Room Dubuque has hosted a lot of corporate groups who come through on team-building exercises. Bellows says he can tell right away if a group will be successful based on how they operate. “A group that just listens to one person will fail every time,” he explains. “But a group with a lot of different leaders who work together, they always succeed.”

 

It’s a midwestern ethic—jack of all trades—that keeps the Telegraph Herald alive. Local newspapers are uniquely suited to try new things, says Fisher, because they have deep roots within their local community and have so much of the talent and know-how in place.

 

ACCORDING TO FISHER, the Telegraph Herald is running Escape Rooms Dubuque as a purely profit-driven venture. The business is separate from the other newspaper endeavors as far as branding and management; everything is completely run by Bellows and Pregler.

The Telegraph Herald isn’t the first small newspaper to branch out into incongruous endeavors (or, as Fisher calls it, “a diversified portfolio”). Calkins Media, which owned newspapers in Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Jersey, began its own real estate company before selling its papers; the parent company of the Cedar Rapids Gazette owns an emergency vehicle manufacturer; and in 2012 The Washington Post bought a majority stake in Celtic Healthcare, an in-home health care and hospice provider. Given those businesses, an escape room doesn’t seem like such a gamble.

But staying alive and competitive in the fluid mosaic of the media landscape is a challenge that the Telegraph Herald grapples with daily. Fisher notes that while the paper is doing well, Woodward Communications is always looking for ways to expand their empire. In the past year, the company has launched new live events and special publications.

Not every venture is a success. Fisher admits that their recent “Boys with Toys” and “Made in the Midwest” trade shows didn’t really take off. And then there was the wine walk, kind of like a bar crawl, that got hampered by local liquor laws. Fisher thinks they’ll try that one again.

It’s a midwestern ethic—jack of all trades—that keeps the Telegraph Herald alive, even as media companies across the nation struggle. It’s an ethos of adaptation, ingenuity, and flexibility. Local newspapers are uniquely suited to try new things, says Fisher, because they have deep roots within their local community and have so much of the talent and know-how in place. “We look local first,” explains Fisher. “The reason we’re able to do these things is because we already have the human resources department. We already have the accounting department. Some of these administrative functions are already in play.” There’s also thrift: Fisher explained that Escape Room Dubuque was possible in part because they got a lot of the materials for a good deal.

As far as plans for the future go, Woodward Communications isn’t planning anything quite like an escape room. Right now, as Fisher tells it, they are looking at products and services that their subscriber base might need or want. Fisher declined to be more specific, but wouldn’t rule anything out.

At the start of the 2017, Fisher wasn’t worried about how well an escape room might perform in Dubuque. “Because it wasn’t even in our head then,” he says. “And when you think about when it got in our head, and how fast we took it to market, that’s kind of what I mean.”

For now, Bellows and Pregler will continue to use Escape Room Dubuque to help solve the puzzle of profit. I asked Bellows if watching people solve his puzzles gives him hope for the survival of the news media and humans, but he just silently shook his head.

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Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @lyzl.