Is your journalism valuable?

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

Several weeks ago, as we started this conversation on what journalists know and need to know about the business of our business, I asked people to share what their work was worth, literally, and how they knew it.

Then ... nothing. 

So either, I thought to myself, 1. no one cares or 2. no one knows. 

I didn't consider number 3: maybe some people who know and care didn't see the original newsletter. 

That day, I got two really fantastic emails from two of those people. So this week, our final (for now) in this conversation about money, I'm letting them drive.

Meet Irene McKisson, editor at This Is Tucson, and Matt Kiser, the creator of What The Fuck Just Happened Today? This Is Tucson is a multiplatform project from the Arizona Daily Star. WTFJHT, which has a site, a podcast and newsletter, is free and funded by donations. Matt and Irene don't know each other, but they both said the same thing in their own ways: You have to listen to the people you're trying to serve to figure out what's valuable to them.  

I'm going to get out of the way now, but I'll meet you back at the end to talk about where I think we're headed next. 

Irene and Matt, take it away. 

 

Irene: I am thinking about revenue and working toward a new business model literally every day. And I often feel like I’m getting shade and scowls. We’re not supposed to think about money! I think that is super short-sighted. I agree that if we don’t educate ourselves about HOW we make money and why it is or isn’t working then we have no standing to complain about it. Local news has some really serious revenue problems and they won’t be fixed by pretending that our advertising staffs are fixing it. They cannot fix it alone.

I run an off-platform digital vertical for young women and families in Tucson. The Arizona Daily Star has given me (and my partner in this, Becky Pallack) the freedom to innovate on the editorial level AND the revenue side. We have no display ads because our readers don’t click them and don’t like them. Ad blockers are real. Our revenue streams are a form of native we call integrated editorial (basically a higher-quality native content written by journalists), live events, event listings and newsletter sponsorships. We are heading into our second year right now and the revenue piece is HARD. There are systemic issues inside newspaper advertising departments that make no-brainer revenue opportunities fail. There are systemic issues between editorial and advertising and there are issues communicating with local advertisers about new, unusual products. 

BUT IT’S SO IMPORTANT. If Becky and I weren’t hands-on in the revenue piece of this project, we would have made $0 to date. We are finding and drawing the bright lines between editorial and advertisers and trying to push everyone to be innovative not just on the product/content side but on the advertising side, too. It’s really hard at this 150-year-old newspaper, and I suspect that’s true all over the country.

I think this lifestyle/hyperlocal space is the perfect place to stretch over the advertising line and make products and connections that will help the entire news operation in the future.

Matt: I think (Berkeleyside's Lance) Knobel gets it mostly right that the thing that matters is readership. But I'd argue that in order to first attract and later retain readership (which ultimately is how you make money), you have to always be creating something valuable. Journalism in and of itself is not valuable. The service journalism provides is. Two startup-y mantras that I think about as I build WTFJHT: 

1) Make something people want.
2) Create more value than you capture.
 
They go hand-in-hand and, really, the only way of ever getting to making something people want is to talk to your readers and understand what they want/need. Once you're sufficiently creating something valuable, you can capture some percent of that as revenue.
 
Instead of looking at analytics and trying to infer what people want – ask them. Instead of spending a lot of time building some product or putting together some package – ask if this is of interest. You can't do this 100% of the time, because – one more startup quote – "people don't know what they want until you show it to them." But you can do it ~20% of the time to great effect saving time and money. 
 
Real life examples: 
  • I wanted to do a weekly news in review newsletter. I asked my community. They didn't want it. Time/money saved.
  • I wanted to give people the ability to write their own news summaries and share with others. I asked my community. They didn't want it.
  • I wanted to open the aperture of my coverage and go a little more general news. I asked. Didn't want it. Learned to stay focused.
  • I needed a copyeditor. I asked my community if anybody wanted to help out. ~300 people said yes. Now I have a loose-knit team of copyeditors that pitch in when they can/want to. 
tl;dr journalists need to know that if what they do/produce/write/create isn't creating value, it doesn't make dollars, which doesn't make sense.
 
 
Thank you, Matt and Irene, for showing how journalists can think through this stuff!
 
Next week, we're starting a new conversation, and I'm using the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative essentials as a guide. Reminder: That project funds my coverage of local news. They also have a new site out that details the steps newsrooms involved in that project are taking toward transformation. I've seen many of these seven essentials play out in different ways in the newsrooms I've visited. So we're going to dig into the ideas around them one by one. 
 
And we're starting with something a lot of you are probably asking yourselves: How are we supposed to be always on with less and less of everything we need, including journalists? 
 
In the meantime, HackPack is running a survey for freelancers. IREX is looking for broadcast journalists for an exchange trip to Ukraine and Georgia. API has started a series on how ethnic and mainstream outlets can work together. And you have a little more than a week to sign up for the Poynter-ASNE Essential Skills for New Managers seminar. 
 
See you next week! 

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