With the people, not just of the people

“Go to most local news websites and you’ll be assaulted by disruptive ads, auto-play video, slideshows, and pagination. Who do you think those sites have been designed for — advertisers or readers?”

If the past few months have shown anything, it’s that relying on advertising as a primary business model is, at best, risky, and, at worst, suicidal. The scraps left over after Facebook and Google have consumed almost all U.S. ad revenue are not meaty enough to nourish the thousands of hungry media sites aggressively circling them.

To counter that, more and more companies are moving toward a rebalancing of revenue between advertisers and readers. Whether it’s via membership models, hard paywalls, metered paywalls, ticket sales, or some other method, it’s clear that the revenue burden is shifting toward consumers.

But changing where we’re getting money from can’t happen in a vacuum. We also need to rethink the relationship we have with paying readers. It’s not enough for us to say, “What we do is important, and you to help fund it.” We need to listen to and engage with those who we’re asking to support us. Put another way: We can’t just be of the people; we need to be with them.

Spirited Media is launching a membership program in February, and we’re spending a lot of time making sure the benefits that come with membership assure that we’ll be intensely connected to those who sign up. Because, to me, the success of any media membership program won’t be measured by how many people sign up, but by what percentage we retain over time. And my main concern is that many news organizations will launch paywalls or membership programs, but won’t also take the time to rethink the relationship with those they’re asking to pay. One of the arguments I’ve gotten in response is: “Hey, we’ve always gotten money from readers via subscriptions, so what’s the difference?”

But let’s be honest: For almost all newspapers, subscriptions were a tiny revenue stream, and the attention given to readers was commensurate. Or, put another way, there’s a reason you could put a few quarters in honor boxes and take all the newspapers in them. Go to most local news websites and you’ll be assaulted by disruptive ads, auto-play video, slideshows, and pagination. Who do you think those sites have been designed for — advertisers or readers?

This is why I’m worried that media organizations will only get part of the reader puzzle right. I worry that many organizations will take readers’ money and just say, “Trust us.” That may be enough for The New York Times or The Washington Post, but it’s not going to be enough for the vast majority of media organizations. And local is where this will likely be the biggest challenge because, in my view, the monopoly years of local newspapers reduced the frequency and quality of the contact between news organizations and their consumers. When new sections were launched, it was usually because there were huge ad dollars attached. Direct interaction with the average reader was limited to the occasional phone call, email, or social media response. As a result, consumers — while surely being informed by local news organizations — no longer felt like they “knew” them. That has to change.

In the new world, consumers who pay will expect their voice to be heard. And, those of us in media sure as hell better listen. And, no, this doesn’t mean taking reporting assignments from readers, though we should surely listen to them for good story ideas. And, no, it doesn’t mean changing anything we cover because it may upset paying customers. But it does mean that inviting readers in to provide feedback, to share ideas and to meet journalists can’t just be an occasional PR stunt. It has to be a central tenet of how we operate. And it means sending our journalists into rooms full of readers at events, and making sure they engage when presented with respectful feedback on their work.

At Spirited Media’s sites, we’ve built intensely loyal audiences through an events-focused model and a responsive social media voice, but we know we need to take that game up a level if we expect our consumers to take on more of our financial burden. That means higher-impact events where we can connect our members to newsmakers they may not normally interact with or get them into cool places they can’t normally get into. It means talking directly to readers even more than we do now, which may come in the form of a members-only Slack channel where we post stories first, talk about what we’re covering, or answer questions from readers.

It’s not a new thought that we need to turn journalism into more of a conversation. But I’d argue we’ve talked a better game than we’ve played. And now that we’re moving toward a world where readers are going to pay more and more of the bills, we better deliver on the promise, and now.

Jim Brady is CEO of Spirited Media and public editor of ESPN.

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