Distributed Audiences

We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.
— Albert Einstein

At the end of Chapter 2, we introduced the Basic Strategy Decision Tree and asked you to decide whether your business model will be anchored in one of these two strategies:

  • Publication, if you have determined that you want people to come directly to you for news and you will be building a direct relationship with consumers.
  • Reporting service, if your goal is to do expert, often specialized reporting and then provide your reporting to other publications or broadcasters that already have built an audience.

News nonprofits often end up doing a mix of both strategies, so this section on redistribution or syndication is relevant even if you have your own platform (website, newsletter, podcast, etc.)

In Chapter 1, you asked your community what they needed from you and how they wanted to get it, and in the previous sections of Chapters 2 and 3, you formulated your mission and targeted an audience, deciding whom you are serving. Your thinking about your potential audience may have been expansive: Everybody needs your news. But as a startup, you need to be tactical about building your audience. Unless you have an enormous bankroll and dozens of staffers, the more specific you are in your targeting, the faster you will be successful and the more successful you will be.

Determining your distribution strategy is the next logical step, because it will affect the crucial decisions you make in Chapter 4 regarding how you will earn revenue. As noted before, a direct local audience increases your potential for major reader revenue, but if you mostly distribute your news through other media, readers may not recognize your brand and you’ll need other sources such as major donors and event sponsors.

Free distribution: Almost all nonprofits give away content or syndicate it at fairly low cost for one reason or another. How you do so should be based on the decision you have made whether or not to anchor your business model on building your own direct audience. In the publication model, the free distribution is a form of marketing, and your end goal is to get those readers back as a direct audience. In the reporting service model, you give away content to increase your journalistic impact, which is tied to your grants and major donor funding.

Putting content out on social media is a classic example of free distribution for the marketing effect: You want people to discover your brand, find your website, become regular visitors, convert to subscribers, attend your events, or become member.

Paid distribution: Some nonprofits focus on paid syndication. Journalists who are well-known statewide can market their brand, and those who are expert in a subject area can fill coverage gaps for established publications. This business model is often called redistribution because the originator of the content puts in onto a website or into a newsletter, but the primary distribution method is through others. We also have called it a studio model, because it’s like the movie business where film creators rely on distributors and theater companies to put their product in front of viewers.

Mixed models: A reporting service that relies on paid syndication might offer free content as a loss-leader to get distributors used to carrying it and to prove its value to readers. A publication might use free distribution for coverage of a topic for which it has a patron or grant funding that wants a wider audience. Or free publication might result from a partnership or collaboration. Many nonprofits provide content in exchange for something of value besides cash.

Five things to ask for:

  • A free advertisement during your fundraising season
  • Invitations to events at which you can network with potential advertisers, donors or patrons
  • Your branding and a link to your website appearing with your content
  • Help with the coverage, such as bartering your reporting for their photos or multimedia
  • Analytics — data on who is reading your content is valuable and worth arguing for. You need it to understand the value of your content and communicate it to funders.