Blog Index

2012: The year of the prosperous publisher

Journalism Accelerator

Year of the sustainable publisher dragon

...the Year of the Dragon is one of high risks and high returns — a year during which the financial crisis will finally see some light... (self-proclaimed Chinese astrologer Joseph) Chung explains that this is a “Water Dragon Year,” which means a higher flow of communication between people.
(Image by Jim Nix of Nomadic Pursuits on Flickr.)

2012 is the Year of the Dragon, if you go by the Chinese calendar. What will define this year for news publishers? In January we pointed you to some thoughtful – and entertaining – predictions for 2012. But prognostications can only take us so far. Hearing directly from publishing pioneers which trails need blazing, and which may be better off less traveled, is where our work begins this year. To fine tune the JA focus for 2012 we spent January identifying how to support the most critical needs publishers face now, in a way unique to the JA service model.

To do this, we turned to a group of talented people with a wide range of experience in news and information. All of them are familiar with the JA’s conversation and information exchange products, having joined our early pilot project, participated in a more recent forum or generously granted us an informational interview (or two) over the past year.

This time, we asked them to identify what they see as the most urgent challenges in publishing right now, and the greatest opportunities to support publishers’ work. Suggestions and ideas the group raised will guide our priorities for 2012, with fresh insight to help shape our upcoming forum on business models for publishers. That kicks off later this month on February 28 and 29. Many thanks to The Seattle Times’ David Boardman, Anne Galloway, editor of, CEO of the Investigative News Network Kevin Davis, BXB founder Michele McLellan, policy expert Steve Waldman, business coach Joe Michaud, and RJI Fellow/ The Patterson Foundation’s New Media Initiative Manager Janet Coats.

The overarching challenge was obvious: News providers large and small need more money coming in to keep great product coming out. It’s not that people don’t want news. It’s that the old way of paying for it has ended, and a new way has yet to emerge. Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman illustrated the crux of the problem: a gap between demand and payment. “Even as we grew online traffic dramatically, online revenue fell sharply,” he said.

This is a mountain of a problem that no one can scale without many small steps. Part of blazing the trail is mapping out which steps need come first to support bigger or steeper steps to follow. Fortunately, this thoughtful group sees obstacles as opportunities – challenges to overcome and rise, bit by bit, toward financially sustainable journalism.

Obstacles to revenue growth, and corresponding opportunities for action, fell broadly into three categories: cultural, practical and research-based.

Culture: What is in your DNA?

“I think in any community, the advertising revenue is there for those sites,” said Michele McLellan of Block by Block, which supports small local publishers. “But journalists were not put on the planet to sell advertising.” Business coach Joe Michaud agreed. After several years advising journalists to combine reporting and ad sales, he’s concluded that’s probably not the best route.

A successful local sales person has a specific skill set and a way of looking at the world and thinking 24/7 that is different than the way a journalist thinks. And the journalist, to be successful, has to think a certain way 24/7 as well. I don’t think it’s possible, based on what we’re seeing, to just flip hats.”

Many thanks to:

David Boardman
Executive Editor
The Seattle Times

Janet Coats
New Media Initiative Manager
The Patterson

Kevin Davis
Executive Editor & CEO
Investigative News Network

Anne Galloway
Founder & Editor
Vermont Digger

Michele McLellan
Founder, Block by Block

Joe Michaud
Founder, Local Interactive Strategies

Steven Waldman
Author, 2011 FCC Report: Information Needs of Communities

The opportunity: Find ways to enable strong partnerships between journalists and sales reps, besides getting married.

Other cultural issues hindering revenue growth include:

  • Thinking digital first – particularly for sales teams at legacy media.
  • Charging for content. Bigger, legacy outfits may see this as a necessary option to explore, while smaller startups don’t have the clout to charge, or the inclination to challenge Internet principles of open – free – access to information.
  • Creating a return on investment for in-depth, investigative reporting that didn’t pay for itself under the old media model. Kevin Davis of the Investigative News Network notes that members are trying many different models, depending on the publication’s particular content focus, reporting approach and regional character.
  • Making the case for the public to pay in a new way.’s Anne Galloway is trying a public broadcasting type appeal to boost reader donations. Ad (or sponsorship) revenue is limited for her publication because it is a non-profit. The Seattle Times’ David Boardman says moving the public toward paying for content is an evolution. “It’s happening, there’s lots of evidence to support that,” he says. “But it will take time.”

Our mix of publishers suggested that one crucial way to scale these cultural obstacles would be to find examples of successful startup publishers and distill the elements that created that success in a way others can reproduce. Additional ideas included bringing publishers of different practices together when they have tangible, specific shared concerns, and drawing on the experience of other industries which have been grappling with the challenge of selling digital content for years. Kevin Davis worked in the music industry before leading INN. He says the journalism field sometimes gets too isolationist. “We see this issue as specific to what we’re facing,” he said. “It’s larger. It’s generational and cultural. I think we can learn from each other’s mistakes.”

Practical: How do you do that?

How do you find a good web host? Or hire a good sales person? Or write a good employee handbook? Or work with a board? Like many publishers, Anne Galloway’s to-do list is also a list of skills to learn. She says sometimes she gets outside guidance, but often she and her colleagues are “going it alone.”

From a large publisher’s perspective, it’s also not always easy to learn new tricks. For example, David Boardman told us that putting on events seem to offer a steady stream of revenue, but even legacy media don’t have a list of clear, proven best practices to do this. He also noted that while content collaboration can clearly happen, setting up real business networks among publishers is challenging. From different content management systems, to different relationships with advertisers, it’s “really, really complicated,” he said.

Without duplicating resources already available, there seems to be an opportunity to help publishers increase revenue by:

  • Sharing best practices for different types of publishers
  • Vetting tools [in application that work]
  • Aggregating sources of practical, how-to information

Research: What are other publishers trying?

Everyone is experimenting. What are we, as a field, learning? Often, different things. For example, this question emerged in conversation: Is it possible for more engagement and more collaboration to translate to more revenue? David Boardman cited evidence to the contrary, based on early indicators he sees at The Seattle Times and new media outlets he advises. Kevin Davis of INN pointed to different possibilities depending on the publishing model.

There appears to be a deep need and desire for a clearinghouse or repository to track experiments in media, focused in particular on financial results.

Unless successful, repeatable financial models emerge, Anne Galloway worries there is a steep cliff ahead. She doesn’t intend to plummet over; like many publishers, she’s working proactively to diversify’s financial support. The February 2012 JA forum will build on the experience and respond to the needs of publishers like Anne, offering an exchange of practical ideas, a chance to compare notes with others, and a safe space to talk through cultural obstacles to publishing success. It is step one in making 2012 the year to help publishers grow revenue – the single most urgent need our publisher group identified to close the gap in the year ahead.

Published under a creative commons BY-NC-SA license.