The best sign that entrepreneurial journalism endeavors are moving in the right direction is that so many of them are heading in different directions. That was obvious Thursday during a pre-conference workshop hosted by J-Lab and executive director Jan Schaffer, the day before the annual Online News Association conference, held this year in Boston.
The event offered an amazing stream of data points from operations big — Texas Tribune, New Haven Independent, St. Louis Beacon — and small — DavidsonNews, RVANews, for example — with these compelling insights (for more details, check the Twitter stream from the session).
A non-profit model works best when associated with investigative journalism, especially at a city, regional or state level. This insight came from Cory Bergman, co-founder of Next Door Media, a network of neighborhood sites in Seattle (Bergman is also a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board). The non-profit model is working well at places like the Texas Tribune, which expects to raise $3.5 million this year and reach the break-even point. (As Bergman said on Twitter, “non-profit life isn’t so bad is it?”)
And it’s working at the Vermont Journalism Trust, which supports VTDigger.com and is using the goal of an informed society as a motivating factor to solicit checks from donors, according to the trust’s founder, Bill Schubart.
DavidsonNews.net, meanwhile, is officially a for-profit but has a volunteer subscription payment model that contributes 10 percent to its $120,000-150,000 in annual revenue from readers. (The site gets about 10 percent of its readers to pay.)
Paying writers and sales people varies widely from site to site. For example, the founders of Baristanet and DavidsonNews don’t pay themselves a salary so they can pay their writers more. Writers at local, start-up sites are making anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a month. Good advertising sales reps are a key, but not cheap. RVAnews has a rep who is “killing it,” according to founder Ross Castrow, who expects to bring in $160,000 this year. The New Haven Independent, meanwhile, expects to generate more than $500,000 in revenue in 2011, and has a staff of 10 full-time writers.
Events are hugely important, both for revenue and marketing. The Texas Tribune and St. Louis Beacon each generated more than $200,000 from events last year and the Tribune expects to make $500,000 with about 1,000-1,200 attending the first annual Texas Tribune Festival this year.
Hosting, sponsoring or simply participating in community events is the best way to spread the word about a startup news site, many founders said. Baristanet has a float in the Fourth of July parade every year and DavidsonNews.net founder David Boracks says that appearing in the community is far more effective marketing than anything they could do on Facebook or Twitter, whether it’s attending community meetings wearing buttons or T-shirts or sponsoring local sports programs.
This conversation will continue next week at the Block by Block summit in Chicago. As Boraks said Thursday, he had no idea how many other people were fighting this startup news battle until he attended this workshop and Block by Block a year ago. He’s now motivated, in part, by the national community that has emerged to share information and ideas and support one another in this very important mission. Here’s hoping that conversation continues.
Mark Briggs is a Ford Fellow for Entrepreneurial Journalism at Poynter and the author of “Entrepreneurial Journalism,” published by CQPress and due out next month.