Michele McLellan started out with a list — “Michele’s List,” which counted online news sites that had “journalistic DNA.” As a fellow at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, she focused on these sites — how many of them were there, and how many of them would survive?
Today at CJET (Community Journalism Executive Training) in Santa Barbara, she presented her new research to independent online news publishers who were taking part in business training aimed at creating sustainable journalism organizations.
“I think I’m going to be a little ‘tough love’ with you guys,” she said. “The love piece is that you folks are just doing amazing work and the passion and energy you put into your work is something I’m in awe of. The tough part is: More. Faster. You just gotta do more faster. If you’re in your comfort zone, you’re not in the right place.”
“The bad news is that I don’t have the recipe for the secret sauce. But we have discovered some of the ingredients.” Michele is part of a study funded by the Knight Foundation, studying 18 nonprofit news sites on what they’re doing right. McLellan added data on an additional 50 sites she has been gathering information on.
“What are the organizations that are making the most progress doing? Which of those are things you might want to try? I’m not talking about ‘if you do a lot of events you’ll be as rich as Texas Tribune’, but the practices that underlie that,” and help individual news startups that are growing how to identify ways to grow.
“The sector is growing and revenue is growing, but there’s less dependence on foundation. Two years ago, 2/3rds of the money came from foundations, and now it’s half,” says McLellan. But the sector is still very fragile, and leaders are driving the averages; a few very successful standouts drag up the overall gains in revenue.
There are a few lessons we can take from high performers, says McLellan. The number one common factor among the successful sites is simple: they treat it like a business. “You’ve gotta achieve some discipline, even if you’re really small, and even if you’re only one person. You have to achieve balance in how you allocate your resources — if all of it’s going into editorial, you can change.”
It’s critical for organizations to maintain a surplus, McLellan says: “If you have that, when the really cool project comes along, you can go for it.” Customer relationships are really important too, she says. “I know a lot of you don’t want to hear about ProPublica, because they have a lot of money, they’re the unicorn. But if you talk with Dick Tofel who runs ProPublica, he’ll tell you ‘I’m running a small business. I have 50 employees.”
Apart from treating news startups like a business, McLellan says organizations must rein in editorial costs. Typical organizations spend 2/3rds of their budget on editorial. “That’s unlikely to be sustainable,” she says. “Content strategy means setting priorities.”
Ruffin Prevost of Yellowstone Gate talks about setting those priorities. “It’s easy when you cover a geography the size of Delaware and Connecticut combined to pull back from a few things. Once I realized that no one really cared if I covered everything everybody else covered, it allowed me to focus on the content that worked.”
“What if we did one less story in a day,” says Michele. “What would it hurt?” The resources spent on those could be reallocated to activities that make the business more sustainable. It takes a shift in mindset, one that moves people from thinking of themselves only as journalists, and instead think of themselves as community publishers. Teresa at MyEdmondsNews.com said, “I used to pay so much attention to the content, and to the writing, and to all the things that I love, but eventually I realized that I had to keep sustainability at the top of my mind, and that changed how I approached everything I do.”
Foundation funding isn’t the answer, says McLellan. “Nobody I talk to at a foundation says that [grants] are a long-term source of revenue.” Sites like MinnPost are down to 20% of revenue from grants, says McLellan. Investigative sites that don’t feature daily content and instead publish investigative packages every month or six weeks have bigger challenges, says McLellan.
Nonprofit sites also fail to do something simple: ask people for money. Sites like Texas Tribune, during their coverage of the Wendy Davis filibuster, consistently asked people following their coverage online and via Twitter, to make a donation.
Many independent news site publishers write off examples that come from organizations like Texas Tribune and ProPublica, since it seems as if they have so much money that what works for them won’t work for a smaller organization. But McLellan says publishers do this at their peril. The basics of what Texas Tribune is doing — namely, really owning that they need to really own the idea that they have to find new ways to connect to revenue — is something that’s true for an organization of any size.”
Audience surveys are “a no-brainer,” says McLellan. “It’s not expensive to field a reader survey — you can spend a lot of money on it, but you don’t have to.” Both Texas Tribune and MinnPost can document and tell a good story about the demographics of their audience, and that works with advertisers and underwriters.
Rusty Coats, who worked at a media research company says that survey results that project information out to an entire market are usually just speculation, but an onsite survey of any kind gives you insight into your audience that you won’t get if you don’t ask.
Lastly, says McLellan, “have an engagement strategy. Don’t be like the classic newspaper person who just assumes the news lands on the doorstop and that’s it. Your audience is an asset, one that you have to build, whether that’s a newsletter, events, membership, or online interaction.”