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Cash from every corner: Three kooky ways Vancouver’s Tyee pays for top-shelf regional journalism

If “diversified revenue” is journalism’s newest cliché, I dare you to dig up a better anecdote than The Tyee, an oddly named gem in Vancouver, B.C.

The seven-year-old online newsmagazine, which pounds out left-leaning daily content with a Slate-y verve, has six full-time employees, 20 regular freelancers, a Gawkeresque rainbow of branded sections, and the kookiest revenue cluster I’ve ever seen.

I met Tyee editor and co-founder David Beers earlier this year at a Seattle journalism conference where he said he’d come to promote The Tyee as a model of sustainable, award-winning web-based reporting.

You might squirm at some of their funding — read on! — but Beers and his team are clearly on to something. According to Beers, their operation’s annual revenue of about $500,000 to $600,000 includes $450,000 from ongoing sale of equity, $75,000 from advertising, $50,000 from grants, $25,000 from reader donations, and (my favorite) a few thousand bucks from renting out newsroom desks to people they don’t know.

(We’ve been hoping to get exact figures, but go figure: Tyee business editor Michelle Hoar has been too swamped with work around their latest venture, a nonprofit arm called the Tyee Solutions Society, to pull totals together.)

Here are three revenue tricks Beers, Hoar and their team are hoping other innovators will steal:

Topical pledge drives. “Give us money because we rock” may work well for NPR affiliates, but Beers has avoided making such a generalized pitch to readers. “I didn’t believe that The Tyee had reached that level of belovedness,” he said.

His solution, last summer: Give donors a choice of which issues the Tyee should be covering during Canada’s 2009 election season. Beers’ team prepared a multiple-choice list of hot topics, and any money donated toward each one would be guaranteed to go toward that type of spending.

“We call it ‘crowdsourcing our editorial board,’” Beers said.

Everybody knows that major donors and foundations like to attach strings to their grants. Turns out small donors like it, too. The Tyee’s election-season pitch brought in $25,000 in 10 days.

Interest-group ownership. The Tyee bills itself as journalism first, politics second — you won’t see “progressive” or “left” anywhere in its branding — but more than half its money comes from unions.

Specifically, the cash comes from Working Enterprises, a family of companies affiliated with the British Columbia Federation of Labor that also includes insurance, travel and financial services firms that cater to Canadian union members. In exchange for an annual subsidy of $300,000, Working Enterprises owns two-thirds of The Tyee’s theoretically for-profit operation. (Investor Eric Peterson owns the other third, for annual payments of $150,000.)

Beers’s advice to journalism entrepreneurs: Find an interest group that has a bone to pick with the mainstream media, and sell them on the sort of reporting you want to do. If they’re smart, they’ll realize it doesn’t cost much to add a friendly voice to the media din — and that they’ll only add to your credibility if they stay out of editorial decisions.

Beers, 52, a former Vancouver Sun reporter, said he’s never had ethical qualms. Even when his writers cover unions, which they sometimes do. “We draw the lines clearly, in a friendly, cheerful way, and move on,” he said.

Renting out desks in the newsroom. Every journalist knows the joys of working in a newsroom — the bustle, the grousing, the periodic adrenaline. Turns out, some non-journalists sorta get off on that, too.

Because The Tyee’s office above Vancouver’s Chinatown was a little bigger than they need, they’ve made three desks available for $250 a month each. Wireless Internet, kitchen, and utilities are included. Think of it as coworking in a newsroom.

Beers sees potential for selling access to newsroom synergies. “Journalists can be pretty valuable to some people — there’s a certain rigor and skepticism about what we do,” Beers said. “We have our ear to the ground, so we can say, ‘Oh yeah, somebody’s already working on that.’”

As for Mitchell Anderson, one of the Tyee’s desk tenants, he just thinks working in the newsroom is a blast.

“The rent is relatively cheap and it’s a nice location, but the main thing I get out of that is a peer group,” said Anderson, general manager of a local beachcombers’ co-op and an “occasional” freelance writer. “I really enjoy chatting with bright people about interesting things.”

                                   
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  • http://thetyee.ca/ David Beers

    Thanks for this write-up Michael, but why the descriptor ‘kooky’? You highlighted three sources of revenue as ‘kooky’. ‘Topical pledge drives’. Do not the big media firms relentlessly survey and focus group their readers, and aren’t web sites operators told to assiduously monitor their traffic? This just makes the relationship more transparent and democratic. ‘Interest group ownership’. More ‘kooky’ than media baron ownernship? You do know that Holland’s second largest paper’s largest shareholders are unions, right? And finally the ‘kooky’ idea of renting out extra space to likeminded people. Look at any traditional media firms’ lists of assests and real estate will be prominent. Three desks. There’s our real estate holdings, helping to subsidize our journalism! See, we’re not kooky. We’re old fashioned, traditional, solidly inside the box. Cheers.