2010: The Year of the Sustainability Push
With our worldwide fame as a startup, I’ve been asked nothing more often than whether or not we were sustainable.
For a while this question frustrated me. Did they expect me to say “no?” It wasn’t surprising that most of these type of questions came from academics. It seemed as though sustainability to them was guarantees, like professor tenure, that our employees would have jobs well into the future. When I asked them what sustainable was, they couldn’t answer.
But now I think I’m coming close to understanding what sustainability is for us. It is diversity. Since 2005, Buzz has emphasized the need to diversify our revenue sources.
I look at it as a diversity of both types of revenue sources and specific sources within those types. You have to have as many as possible. Eventually, sustainability might mean that no matter what happens, if we lose one or two major sources, we can absorb the pain. That, then, would be sustainability.
Someday, soon, we could identify what the proper percentage allocation should be. But for now we have no time. We know we need to pursue diversity and that’s enough. We need to continue to try things, find the ones that work and invest more time in them, drop the old ones and move on to others.
Here are some of the things we’re working on as we pursue sustainability in 2010.
(The order of the below does not indicate priority or emphasis)
As we talked about before, we have begun a new phase of our ever more valuable partnership with NBC 7/39.
This has finally gotten off the ground. In the last three weeks, we’ve produced with NBC three editions of “San Diego Explained.”
These air on NBC at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays. And then they are on our site and NBC’s. We’ll be setting up better pages for them on our site. The first one, in case you missed it, is posted here about the Chargers Stadium issue. The second one is here, about the strong-mayor system of government. The third one will be airing Tuesday evening. It might be the best one yet.
As you know these are a three-part triumph: They help us explain complex topics thereby driving up residents’ knowledge about them at the same time they drive up demand for more information on these issues. It’s great for our marketing and exposure. And they are paying us to do them.
We’re getting it down to a science and getting it to the point where they are very easy to do. As Buzz rightly determined months ago, we have now built up a sort of storage of “intellectual equity” that we can now package, sell and distribute in various ways.
Along with the explainers, Andy and are started a video version with NBC (Fridays, 6 p.m.) of a new blog we’re launching on the site this week: The San Diego Fact Check. As we say on the TV spot: We do the research and decide if statements made in public are true, false or worse.
The fact check blog has attracted a $25,000 annual sponsorship from Donovan’s Steak House and the San Diego County Taxpayers’ Association. In discussing the partnership, I told Donovan’s Dan Shea that though they, like all readers, could suggest facts to explore, the two groups wouldn’t get a say in which facts we pursue or how we decide on them. He said that was fine “Just get them RIGHT!”
That is a beautiful part of what we do: We’re performing a service that sponsors are more and more going to want to be associated with providing. That’s how NBC is selling their effort with us. Not as a traditional advertising calculation.
Again, we’re pursuing our mission, holding leaders in politics, education, economics and other sectors accountable while helping to market and package our service and getting paid for it.
Neither Facebook, nor Google nor most successful hosts of online advertising depend on humans to actually sell that advertising. Accordingly, we have shifted our strategy for ads. Until now, we’ve lamented our lack of resources to invest in salespeople and tried to come up with creative ways to make up for that.
Since most if not all of our advertising and display sponsorships come from people who approach us, we decided to make this a much easier and user friendly system. Now, we have partnered with a company who works with news companies everywhere (http://www.wav2.com/) to build an interface where people can go through most of the process of putting an ad on our site without having to deal with a person. That way we can focus our limited resources on bigger sponsors and on client customer service.
We’re very excited about this and should have it ready to launch and talk about at our Feb. 3 open house.
We’ve also begun the task of copying the upstarts at the Texas Tribune and creating a corporate membership program. This will allow us to offer a package of benefits from event sponsorships to display advertising to individuals and groups that pay a set fee.
Syndication and Content Licensing
Obviously the biggest news in this effort is the NBC paying partnership. It deserves mentioning that had we had, say, an extra million dollars, we might have made the mistake of investing that in, say, video producing technology and staff at a very high cost and without knowing much about what we’re doing.
But not having that and not doing that meant we sought out partners. And now the partners are actually paying us and doing video we could have never imagined being able to produce yet it’s completely consistent with our mission.
This is helping me develop a new theory about operations like ours: Out of poverty may come a business model. We have been forced to realize we may not always be the best distributors of our public service content.
Last October Yahoo! Approached with a proposal that eventually fell apart but portended things to come. This month we have a call scheduled with the New York Times, which is paying a nonprofit in Chicago to help it with a localized version of that paper. Something along these lines is bound to come up this year and we’re getting prepared. I will surely get the board involved in helping us analyze our leverage and any potential deals as they come up.
We’re also still plugging away on the launch of the Voice News Service for local and national publishers. As photos have been particularly attractive to people both as individuals and redistributors, we’re developing an online licensing system that will allow users to easily buy and print the images.
In the last couple of months, we’ve sold photos but it’s a time consuming process. This will help tremendously and allow us to market it very easily. Buy this photo. Yet more timeless intellectual equity we can start packaging and distributing better.
We’ve produced a fantastic PDF to distribute to all who might be interested in purchasing content.
Last week, I was invited to participate in the Knight Foundation’s Journalism Advisory Committee discussions as the foundation prepares to decide what to invest in in the future. The whole team there is exceedingly proud and interested in what we’re doing here and future funding – to help support the syndication effort, the and other initiatives that can be used as examples for other communities is as likely as ever.
At that meeting, I met a board member of the John D. and Catherin T. MacArthur Foundation, which has funded various parts of public media for quite some time. She repeatedly encouraged me that they’d be able to work out a grant and to stay in touch.
In the works are two major grants: One from the Open Society Institute and one from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Locally, Andrew has begun working to collect insights and observations on how to re-enter the science beat with new vigor and a determination to learn from our experience so far. Depending on what he learns, the Benbough Foundation is likely to help us fund it again. Peter Ellsworth, Benbough’s ED, has been very enthusiastic about our successes and told me last month he’s very interested in renewing his support.
Panta Rhea has again invited us to apply for funding for the New Year. While Buzz first introduced us to Panta Rhea and made it possible, the foundation now sees our coverage of water issues and other topics us as a national example it is proud to continue supporting.
We continue to attract new donors. At the end of 2008, we had 777 donors and we ended 2009 with 1,029. A whole new class of donors above $1,000 has assembled and I’ve been working hard to cultivate them and create a sense of community we never had in years before I took over this aspect.
Camille Gustafson came up with a fantastic idea to incentivize new donors at this level and reward long-standing ones. Since donors of this size are likely to support other nonprofit organizations in town, we are now offering major donors advertising spots on the site they can give to the nonprofit of their choice. Already, there has been a remarkable response to this very logical offer. It will help fill our site with good messages and provide our donors with a benefit much more valuable than a coffee mug or anything like that.
You will start to see those messages soon. If you’d like to take advantage of this program as well, talk to Camille.
Bob Kelly at San Diego Foundation will be working with me in coming months to indentify and jointly recruit new donors. Kelly’s very proud to have us so close and to support us there and he has, obviously, a lot of experience in this area.
With Bill Stensrud’s fantastic pledge to help us kick off a $100,000 fundraising effort to launch a new arts coverage initiative, I’ve begun to informally talk with partners. The San Diego Foundation is interested in matching part of the effort. We have a long way to go to get this going but when January is behind me, I’ll be able to turn to this effort and put together what we think will be the best leveraged and most innovative way to cover arts anyone’s done on a local level.
As it concerns sustainability, we consider the arts initiative a major factor in this 2010 push. Nothing has proven as successful as increasing coverage in increasing our exposure and engagement with the community. This will be a huge step toward engaging a community that knows what it’s like to support organizations it cherishes. It will want to promote events on our site. It will want to help us thrive if we provide a true service.
It is something we will want to do well and if we do, by this time next year, we’ll have gone a long way toward a new, and even more diverse source of support.
Outreach and Membership
In the past two months, I’ve given too many presentations and speeches to count. From legacy organizations of active seniors, to high school kids and college classes, our staff has been telling our story recently.
It is our very firm belief that we have to continue to grow our engaged readership total. While page views are important, and we’ve experimented with some ways of gauging our loyal readers, no better determiner for this number of people seems to exist than the total of members (1,029). If we’re like other nonprofit news systems, that number represents anywhere from 5-12% of our loyal reader total.
We now have more than 800 registered users, who have entered their contact information since Dec. 2 on the site to be able to comment, etc.
I believe that within five years VOSD will have to be an organization with 10,000 donating members in order to have the kind of broad based support to determine its own destiny, handle crisis and leadership changes, adapt to ever more disruptive technologies and just continue to respond to a very diverse community effectively.
That means years and years of outreach and engagement. We’re working on it.
Along NBC effort, the radio shows and appearances on KOGO and KPBS, the advertising efforts on facebook (1,945 fans) and twitter along with online advertising, we believe that public events and outreach will be a key part of how we get much closer to our long-term goals in 2010.
I have spoken in some of the poorest neighborhoods and also with some of our wealthiest donors. What I have discovered in this effort is both disturbing and very promising: People – including some of our most engaged readers – don’t know some basic things about what we do, why we do it, how to find news best online, how to get your news out and just what’s happening in the world. Again, this has been relatively consistent from older white readers to young black high-school students.
But we’re making progress, slowly but surely. I and our staff have been mentoring Lincoln High School students for a little while now. They have not had a school paper for years and they decided to launch a new online news source. Now, with our inspiration, they’ve decided to name it Voices of Lincoln (Voice, singular, is owned by a radio station in Lincoln Nebraska). It is launching at the end of the month and they plan to very publicly thank us for the support.
That has been a very rewarding experience.
It is that kind of earned, substantive marketing combined with the new year of the annual essay contest (for which we found a generous sponsor – Karen and Bob Bowden) that will help us become a known and trusted institution in the community.
We will work hard to make membership in our community more valuable than just a bumper sticker or series of letters. We hope to provide member benefits in the way of seminars and forums. 2010 will be the year of clarifying, quantifying and cultivating our membership community. And there’s no better way to do that then to increase the number of people who depend on our site, come to it every day, subscribe to our morning report, or are fans on facebook or followers on twitter.
We have begun a series of workshops to help people learn how they can write for our site. It is combined with a discussion about the trends in media. The first day was attended by about 20 people, most of whom I didn’t know. Considering that they are our most loyal readers, it was amazing how little they themselves new about new media.
We believe that if they get as involved writing as we think they might, we’ll have the infrastructure in place to help them accomplish their goals.
We continue to work to improve the users’ experience on the site and handle our new initiatives. It is an ever-pressing task that we have made more and more progress on since the Dec. 2 launch of the new site. But there’s still a long way to go to create a simple, regularly updated and easy to navigate system for users of our website.
2010 the Unknown
Obviously, if 2010 is anything like past years, we have no idea what will happen this year and in 2011, we’ll have no idea how we could have ever gotten to that point any other way.
I look forward to working with you and helping build this community and our institution,
Voiceofsandiego.org’s Updated Direction/Vision: A Discussion
On the phone, or when introducing ourselves to people, we have often had difficulty telling them what VOSD is. We have been uncomfortable calling it a website. The word, “website” makes you think of a sort of marketing page full of contact information for a larger entity. Or it makes it sound like an amateur effort.
VOSD is obviously much more than that.
Yet, it’s not a “newspaper.” There are too many things wrong with that word.
Calling it an “online news source” doesn’t fit when we consider that some of our content may be distributed someday by other means.
So what are we? Where are we going? I think our lack of ability to define it easily, has actually been a blessing.
It is my belief that a type of public service institution, like an academy, localized, supported by a wide array of revenue sources will rise to occupy a place in the knowledge ecology of metropolitan areas. And I believe we are on a path to becoming something like that.
This public service (is “academy” the right word? “News service” maybe?) will be greater in influence than the typical think tank or museum or arts organization. Yet it would be much smaller than a university. It would have, though, as great if not greater an influence on public information and discussion than the newspaper. Its nonprofit mission would allow it to remain undistracted and deliver vital public accountability, news and investigative reporting exclusively.
Its wide array of revenue sources will make it sustainable.
It would be supported, primarily, by local donors who pay for the privilege be part of an ever more prestigious organization that, like a university, becomes part of the fabric of the city. They will be attracted to participate through events, member “congresses” and they will enjoy the benefits of being part of an ever-more dynamic and interesting club.
The academy would be attractive to corporations as well as they would want to be associated with such an important local institution. They will want to sponsor these events and be known as supporters of the service. They aren’t advertisers, but true sponsors.
In addition, as a nonprofit, it will not be in its interest to horde information and create a restricted access portal. No, instead it will be interested in widely disseminating its knowledge and allowing for profit and non profit organizations to pay to package it in a variety of ways. Others might also pay for consultations or commission analyses and ratings.
There’s other potential revenue sources: Who knows, maybe students will apply and actually pay to be a part of it, to learn amidst its researchers. Perhaps the academy becomes a regular and attractive place for a post-graduate to make a stop before pursuing his or her studies further at a traditional university.
Finally, major local and national philanthropists and foundations will regularly recognize the contribution of this effort to the causes they find important. They will want to continue supporting its efforts and commission news efforts of their own.
There are many routes to this — a nonprofit website like voiceofsandiego.org could grow into it. A public broadcasting affiliate could evolve into it. A newspaper could convert to a nonprofit and pursue the same status.
Too often, we’ve grappled with the question of the future of the news in terms of the distribution method. This has forced us into false dichotomies: Newspapers vs online outlets; for-profit vs. nonprofit; broadcast vs. print.
Yet news is a form of knowledge. It is the first draft of history and investigative news is the regular explanation to the population of why things are the way they are now. It is an exercise in popular intellectualism.
Our society has long found ways to support other forms of the production of knowledge. Philanthropists, joined by paying students, corporations and government all combine to support universities. This same formula has supported public broadcasting news sources. Patrons, members, foundations and corporations support theater groups, dance companies, and other artists.
This is not an incredibly detailed vision. It’s nearly impossible to identify what exactly the budget will be, how many employees or what areas of the city and its public affairs we focus on.
But it helps us answer so many questions:
Under this model, the loyalty of readers and credibility is paramount. It can only be achieved by being of service at all times; reliable and serious. Doesn’t mean we don’t have fun at times, but it means that we don’t ever devolve into the temptation to cover something only for the ephemeral bursts of traffic that might come.
When faced with the question of whether to do quality investigative reporting or easier and potentially more popular pop culture phenomena, we will always defer to quality. Because quality will generate loyalty. And loyalty among readers and members is what will sustain us and help us grow.
Another consistent dilemma, one we literally confront every single day and have since the very beginning, is the one between prioritizing investments in content and research as opposed to technological improvement and innovation. This model ensures that we will always defer to content and research and understand (and remind ourselves) that others will take care of technology and we will learn how to either sell them content, buy their technology or incorporate their free efforts into our own distribution system. We are not a technology company. We will be a public service responsive and aware of technology.
This also points us to immediate and very clear goals:
I. To develop and grow a passionately loyal readership — people who feel not only like they want to witness what we do but participate in it.
II. To turn that audience into members with even more privilege and status.
III. To develop corporate sponsors — groups who want to be associated with this service.
IV. To learn how to distribute our content and research, syndicate it and make it available.
V. To, above all, make an impact with content. Consistently prove value to the community. This generates credibility and will increase support.
Lastly, this also helps us understand who are competition is. We’ve often been described as competitors to the Union-Tribune or SDNN. We’ve correctly resisted this. As far as I can tell, nobody is trying to achieve what we’ve laid out above. But even if someone did head down this path (perhaps KPBS or UCSD) it will be easy to recognize the synergy and form a partnership.
This is really nothing new. Most of this aligns almost perfectly with what we’ve always been pursuing. But I think it helps us understand where this path leads us and I am very excited about what kind of service we become as we venture further down it.