October 4, 2017

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.

Andaiye Taylor's start in publishing began with an important question: "How do you make money online as a business?" 

Taylor worked in digital advertising, buying display advertising and managing search advertising, before going back to school to get her master's at Columbia University's journalism school. She launched Brick City Live to serve Newark, New Jersey, in 2013. 

Andaiye told me about two ways the site is working to make money – a loyalty program and live ticketing platform.

Brick City Bucks, the site's loyalty program, has had three iterations. First, as a physical card that gave people discounts to eight businesses. Those businesses didn't pay to be part of the program as part of a trial. Five hundred people signed up for the card. But when it was time to convert the businesses into paying for it, none of them wanted to.

Next, they got a grant to create an app. 

"The app was just gorgeous," she said. "We paid in the low five digits for that. It was amazing, you could be walking past a place and it had this geolocation technology and would buzz you and say 'there's a deal inside.' It was incredible. And then we went into the businesses and tried to explain it and they didn't even have time for it. It was almost too much for them. "

Finally, they found the right mix of useful, simple and profitable with something built into their current app with digital coupons and push notifications. 

"We're really selling it to the businesses as a technology, not as advertising," she said. "We're saying, you have all this business that is coming to your location and you have no way to easily message them, get them back and encourage repeat visits. We've actually positioned Bucks as a way to enhance lifetime value for their own customers, and the people who've already downloaded our app and are on it are the cherry on top."

Brick City Live Tickets is a kind of local Eventbrite with the added bonus of offering people a way to reach local audiences and keep a little more of the ticket earnings themselves. It's been a success, Andaiye said, because after building it, it pretty much runs itself. 

What's cool about both is how Andaiye and her team have taken knowledge of the business side and not just applied it, but tested and adapted it until the right things clicked.

Andaiye and I spoke about where journalists need to start once they're ready to understand what's happening with our business.

Our talk was edited for length and clarity.

Kristen: I'm curious, from your perspective, which is pretty all-encompassing of both sides of what we do, what do journalists need to learn about the business of journalism?

Andaiye: "Everything" is not a helpful answer.

If you think about all of the work that it takes to create a piece of journalism, start thinking about those in terms of cost. At least that's how I thought about it.

When I started Brick City, I started with just myself, which is kind of awkward when you start talking about trying to get advertisers and doing the stories. That was something I had to be really thoughtful about managing. Thankfully we weren't doing hard-hitting exposes, but I knew that was something I should watch for.

I saw my time as a very limited resource, and it was. I had all these aspirations for features stories that I wanted to do … and I very quickly came up against time constraints. I knew I wanted to publish daily, and I knew I had to publish daily if I was going to build an audience and for the audience to have a certain expectation that we were going to publish so they'd keep visiting, and to have some value to an advertiser, eventually. 

I knew that if I was going to publish daily, I literally did not have the time to do all the reporting et cetera to be publishing a feature story every day. I started to think about my reporting efforts as a resource. If you have a ledger for the business, the time it takes to report and write and do all the things necessary to publish a story, that's going to be deducted from the ledger. It's a cost.

When you do this at a hyperlocal level, it's really, really easy to see how those are costs.

My baseline is what we publish has to be good and it has to be helpful to the community. We also need to report it in a way that's sustainable. When I go out on a reporting trip, if it takes half an hour to get there to cover a parade or a conference, I need to grab three quick profiles, then I have four stories out of that one trip.

That kind of thinking is still squarely in the editorial/journalism/reporting realm. I think if journalists start there, start thinking about their own efforts as costs, it's a way to start thinking about business that's very native to what they do as journalists. 

The number that helped me: I thought about what Brick City Live would be if I had every resource that I wanted, and then I calculated what those annual operating costs would look like. That was a very revelatory exercise for me, just knowing how much everything costs or would cost.

Just having a sense of what everything costs would be helpful, and then understanding the various business lines of their publication and just the basic economics of how they work. How much does a banner ad cost? What's involved in getting a business to become a customer? If your publication has an event strategy, what are the basic economics of how that works?

Where's the money coming from?

Kristen: The thing that sometimes makes me scratch my head with this stuff is that journalists ask questions on very complicated topics all the time. This is one of them that is worth understanding if you're going to stay in the business. It sounds like one of the things you're recommending is that people do a bit of reporting to understand how things work.

Andaiye: Precisely. 

Thank you, Andaiye, for taking the time to talk with us!

Next week, we're wrapping up our conversation on learning the business side. I'm excited to have two people taking over from our usual round-up. 

In the meantime, are you going to ONA? Please come say hi! I'll be talking local news a lot. Also, if you're ready for some good biz-side heavy-reading, here you go. And check out this upcoming Webinar from Poynter's NewsU on taking a new approach to analytics

Take it easy, it's another tough week. See you soon. 

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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