There was quite a reaction to my previous column, suggesting editors learn more about, and cooperate with, the business sides of their organizations.
This time, I’d like to talk to people on the business side about how they can cooperate with the editorial side to work effectively to keep a news organization solid while also increasing revenues and ensuring the organization’s survival.
First, though, let me respond a bit to the critics. A lot of the comments, on Facebook, Google+, blogs and elsewhere indicated people had read the provocative headline, “Tear Down the Wall Between Business and Editorial,” perhaps a subhed or two, but not the piece in full, or even half. Some were nasty, political or ad hominem attacks (one called me Mr. “Bank Oil,” the kind of play on my name I hadn’t heard since elementary school), others were amusing, and a fair number were supportive and thoughtful.
One careful and considered rebuttal came from the liberal Common Dreams site, which called me “oblivious to the dangers of basing your business model on giving the sponsors what they want.”
I’m not. But I have seen multiple news sites struggle to survive, including ones where I’ve had to cut staff.
Common Dreams asks for donations, and I hope they get enough to support their operation. Most news organizations, though, cannot survive on charity. Many are in deep trouble and have gone out of business or are struggling to survive.
News media executives and entrepreneurs — including one who praised the previous column — have told me how pained they were at their inability to financially sustain sites they considered superior editorially.
Overcoming Skepticism from Editors
“With many news publishers, the online brands haven’t had the revenue to support the reporting and editorial operations, let alone the rest of the staff and infrastructure that’s needed for a modern news organization,” Tim Ruder, chief revenue officer of ad optimization company Perfect Market, told me last week.
Ruder has often faced skepticism and even the ire of editors at major news companies when offering his company’s technology, which optimizes page layout and links to get more readers in and serve them higher-value ads. The editors, understandably, don’t want their pages changed in any way.
But, Ruder continued, “If these type of revenue opportunities can support the newsroom without compromising reporting, that’s not to be ignored.”
The news is not all glum, either. I have seen entrepreneurs make a business out of news while cultivating their ability to do great work.
Part of the reason is their keen focus on what matters most. Which leads me back to the point of this column: How the business side can intelligently do its work to sustain and enhance the organization over time.
1. Remember, It’s the News Business
Your product is news. News is nothing without credibility — and that credibility can be damaged by the wrong kind of ads or sponsorship. I spent a lot of my time at ABC News explaining to the sales side why we couldn’t do one thing or another while trying to suss out the advertisers’ goals to reach them within the bounds of editorial tenets.
After all, the credibility and association with your site is a good part of the reason advertisers want to be on it. Without that credibility, they’ll lose the venue to get the word out about their products.
If something you’re proposing calls the reliability of the organization — its credibility or trustworthiness — into question, that damage is very hard to recover from.
2. Know and Advocate For the “Product”
I’ve worked with salespeople who seem to see a news page as an array of ads, with the text and pictures simply filling up the space in between.
Even if you think of the business as only a business, not a special public trust, you have to respect the product and not bastardize it in the name of making quick money. Part of your job should be to help sustain the business over the long-term.
You can’t really sell the news unless you have a powerful, abiding respect for what it is and can do, the ways it serves, informs, motivates and even impassions a community. You’ll be much better able to intelligently sell the advertiser on that community if you understand what motivates the people in that community, in addition to their demographic profile.
3. Get At The Client’s Real Goals
Sponsors will sometimes try to push the envelope, or get something they’ve envisioned that’s not on your site. They’ll ask if they can put this extra doodad here, get that ad size or flashy thing there.
When it’s not possible, any intelligent sponsor or media buyer should be able to tell you something of what the goals are. Maybe you can offer that special something in another way, or achieve their aim with an offering you already have in your arsenal.
Sponsors who are considering your organization are doing so not only because you offer them exposure to a certain user base or group, but also because of the environment they get to be in.
It can be a bit of work, especially when you’re dealing with media buyers who are trying to fit you into a spreadsheet model as part of a larger buy. But I’ve found that more often than not, there’s a way to help them understand, then reach an accommodation.
4. Understand the Line, Then Help Hold It
It’s very tempting when there’s money on the table to say “yes,” then run to try to get the request fulfilled. Cultivate and listen to the voice in the back of your head that will tell you when something goes a little, or a lot, too far.
A sponsor may request something you are pretty sure won’t fly. First you have to understand why. It’s not enough just to know the rules. You have to grasp the reason you can’t do something a sponsor is asking.
I give a flat “no” when asked if sponsorship would guarantee news coverage of a given client and am ready with very clear reasons for giving that answer. I also then work to get at the client’s underlying goals to find a way to reach them within the strictures. (See the previous point.)
To salespeople, editors can seem like “no” machines. If an editor objects to something you’re proposing to offer, he or she may seem obstructionist, but there may be a legitimate reason.
Just as I called on editors to work with the sales side, the sales side has to understand the editorial imperatives and try to work within them. It helps, too, if the business side works with the editorial side to devise the strictures.
5. Work With the Editors, and Let Them Help You
Having a strong relationship with editors can beget other benefits. Mike Orren, founder of Pegasus News, a site that serves the Dallas-Fort Worth area, put the newsroom and sales teams in the same room.
“Our ex-newspaper restaurant critic was yelling across the room saying there was a review coming, and the sales team might want to pitch them,” he said, noting that the critic didn’t say whether the review was good or bad. Either way, the sponsor might want to be there — if the article is negative, the sponsor may want the opportunity to counter that perception. But “never was she [the critic] going to let somebody tell her how to review a restaurant,” Orren said.
The sales team also helped the editorial side. “Sales would tip the editorial team that someone wasn’t paying bills and maybe were going to go out of business,” Orren told me at the Street Fight Summit earlier this fall. “We got more scoops out of our sales team than probably anywhere else.”
6. Don’t Underestimate How Hard It Is To …
- Get a story. The text and video you see that magically appears day after day takes a lot of time and effort to gather, edit and produce — especially in a reliable and trustworthy way. A lot of reporters work all hours and sacrifice health, sleep and social life to get a story. Understand and respect that dedication. It can be a lot harder than it looks.
- Get people to look at it. A lot of the work of getting people to discover a story once it’s been produced falls on the editorial team, especially in the digital realm. That, too, takes time, effort and understanding of the community.
7. Now, More than Ever
For a few decades, news in America had a heyday of nearly unsurpassed profitability brought about by advantages such as high barriers to entry, limited distribution channels, and advertisers with few other ways to reach consumers. Salespeople could literally sit and wait for the phone to ring.
“It’s like printing money!” one publisher gleefully exclaimed to me, holding up a classified page on which every column inch represented more dollars.
Those reliable and hefty profits supported all kinds of editorial efforts that, unfortunately, can no longer be sustained in the same way.
As the industry restructures, I have suggested editors learn how the business works and how far they can go to help it without compromising the operation. Sales needs to understand that “money talks” but the people making “the product” are ultimately responsible for whether it’s worthwhile for those who consume it.
I want to see news organizations survive and do great work, and I believe that today, the only way to ensure that is to take a more holistic approach to the business of news.
An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.