Recently in Online Journalism Review, Dave Chase (owner and publisher of Sun Valley Online) offered a considerable amount of specific advice on running the revenue (advertising) side of an online-only news operation — with an eye toward what might help the Seattle Post-Intelligencer succeed in this field.
Even if your feet are firmly planted on the editorial side of the traditional newsroom/advertising firewall, this is context that everyone in the news business should know. Updated journalistic skills and newsroom tools (especially your content management system) might better support online ad sales…
“The painful truth is that 99% of the local Internet plays have proven how NOT to develop a sustainable model. Some newspapers have claimed their online properties are profitable but this is a suspect claim since they weren’t burdened with the costs borne by the print product. In other words, most local online plays are subsidized by an offline counterpart which the P-I no longer has.”
He went on to list the top 10 business mistakes that newspapers must avoid as they go online-only. Among these tips are:
- Don’t neglect research. “Many local sites assume that since they’ve been in the business for a long time that they don’t need to conduct any research with their customers and non-customers. When we did research, we learned things that changed how we positioned our site to our advertisers as well as it informed our editorial direction.”
- Don’t try to be all things to all advertisers. “While most of us in the local publishing business think our site is available to everyone, the P-I should avoid the one-size-fits-all mentality. It’s a mistake to have your sales team start calling on as many advertisers as possible without regard to vertical market, psychographic attributes, etc.”
- Expensive shoes not required. “There’s a myth that since advertising is a ‘relationship’ business it’s necessary to hire expensive shoe-leather salespeople as that’s the way it’s always been done. …Unfortunately, they forget the fact that they are trying to extend beyond the normal 10 percent penetration of local businesses that newspapers have and that this means less revenue per account. That demands a lower cost model. Just because you are hiring an experienced media sales person with lots of field experience doesn’t mean that they’ll know how to create a low cost customer acquisition team/model. This is a radically different skill set.”
Defining the value of an online news outlet, using that to attract a strong community, clarifying the value of the various facets of that community, and relating it all back to advertisers in their own terms, are core business considerations that affect editorial operations. In particular, breaking the one-size-fits-all news approach is probably key.
I’d add to Chase’s points that this is where having a sophisticated, flexible, adaptable content management system becomes key.
Having a CMS that can easily treat stories not as solid blocks of narrative, but rather as configurable structures of information modules (where each story building block is described not just in terms of its content but in terms of its relevance to various audience segments) can support smarter ad placement and eventually allow for customized news presentation. The data from such a system also arms ad sales staff with a more persuasive pitch.
A modular approach to building stories would require a somewhat different set of reporting and editorial processes — especially tagging the information as it is filed and edited. Most journalists are not used to creating structured information, and most journalism schools teach little or nothing about this topic beyond the inverted pyramid concept. Yet if journalism is moving online and hopes to continue to attract advertisers effectively, journalists and editors probably should learn how to structure the content they create in a way that supports the way the online advertising business works today.
(NOTE: I originally published this story in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)