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Aug. 13, 2019, 9:55 a.m.
Business Models

Who works best in a revenue development role? Here’s what these local news organizations have found

It’s “hard to ask for money if you don’t believe in what it’s being spent on.”

Folks, it happened: The key to sustainable local news has been discovered. And it involves making money.

Spoiler alert: It’s all about making money, and that takes having people whose job descriptions are specifically devoted to that task — along with tying the money-generating to the journalistic mission. And okay, maybe they haven’t found the key: “No organization we spoke to claimed to have found the solution to revenue generation, but each had useful lessons for other civic news organizations at different levels of maturity.”

That’s from new research conducted by the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy effort to take the successful Chalkbeat and Texas Tribune models and help strong community-driven news organizations spring up in more places across the U.S. This morning the AJP released its research on the business-side roles of civic news organizations, its term for “local news organization distinguished by its public service mission and commitment to meeting the information needs of the community…supported by a mix of commercial media tactics and sophisticated charitable fundraising.”

(The AJP is funded with an initial $42 million from the Knight Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Facebook Journalism Project, the Emerson Collective, and more. Its first recipients are set to be chosen by the end of this year.)

“What’s happened with a lot of these local [civic news organizations] — and rightfully so — is that they’ve been really focused on building out editorial functions,” the AJP’s director of portfolio development Anna Nirmala said last month. “But oftentimes, these news organizations aren’t started by people that have business or entrepreneurship backgrounds, so that’s been lacking in this space.”

Think of these people as the ones who are going to understand the mission that the news organization is driven by and be really, really good at communicating that to others — who then give them much money. Local news outlets especially who have emerged in the past decade or so have largely over-invested in editorial operations rather than people with strategies to make the money to keep them employed, so this is an attempt to course-correct by looking deeply into how these successful business-side operators function. (Remember, it’s not just good journalism that sells subscriptions anymore — it’s a continual reminder of the cause and content that are worth their money.)

But back to the solution: “The key for a successful revenue generation role is to find people with a fundraising and business development skillset and a mission-driven mindset,” researcher Eric Garcia McKinley wrote. “Notably, previous experience in media does not appear to be a necessary ingredient for success…For every individual and organization, mutual understanding and frequent communication between business and editorial departments is an ingredient to fundraising success.”

Raising money with few strings attached means explaining the mission (and the potential of the money’s impact) convincingly and concisely. The best people for the role, Garcia McKinley found, help others understand where the funds will go from start to finish and beyond. He describes this ability as “mission-driven entrepreneurship,” or the “pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled” — and yes, that’s a Harvard Business School term, he says.

Most existing revenue-related roles are tied to specific revenue streams: grants from foundations (all outlets surveyed for this had at least one part-time person focused on this), major gifts, advertising and underwriting, sponsorship, events, and audience development.

The AJP interviewed 16 civic news organizations and six specific revenue-focused staffers in putting this business-side scan together: Mariko Chang of Honolulu Civil Beat, Tanner Curl of MinnPost, Amanda Wilson of The Marshall Project, Dylan Woodrow of VTDigger, Katy Silva of Rivard Report, and Bill Emkow of Bridge Magazine. Garcia McKinley also compiled an assortment of organizational charts and job descriptions from these very organizations for these sorts of roles. Here are some highlights:

Communicate between the newsroom and the revenue team, especially when it comes to the mission of your model.

[Mariko] Chang states that effective communication right from the
beginning was critical in preventing potential issues from arising. As [Honolulu] Civil Beat was transitioning business models and building out a new revenue team, it held weekly meetings that included the entire staff (these meetings are now bi-weekly). These meetings ensured that the editorial side of the organization knew what revenue was doing, and vice versa. It is necessary to carry over this communication into daily workflow. For example, the Civil Beat revenue team runs its messaging by editorial staff so they become familiar with the vocabulary. They also regularly communicate to editorial staff what members are saying about Civil Beat as a way to create cohesion around the efforts of producing public service journalism and soliciting membership to support it.”

[After joining the Rivard Report in an advertising role and getting promoted, Katy] Silva’s marketing role demands a lot of collaboration with other members of Rivard Report’s revenue team. She works with the events coordinator as a marketer, and she also works with the membership coordinator to develop effective campaigns. At Rivard Report, both the events and membership coordinators have an audience engagement component to their jobs, and Silva, likewise, sees her collaboration with them as ways to use marketing to grow the audience.

But also make sure the revenue team understands the separation.

[VTDigger’s director of underwriting Dylan] Woodrow has had to learn about the interaction between the business and news side of journalism. He recalls a learning experience from not long after he started, when he told a reporter to let him know when he’s running a story on a particular topic because he had an underwriter interested in placing ads. The “no” response he received was his first lesson in the firewall between the business team and editorial team.

This division was not intuitive for Woodrow, but it was learnable. It did not take much for him to understand that there was a necessary separation that did not mean breaking off communication. He enjoys working next to reporters, and like many of the other individuals profiled here from exemplary Civic News Organizations, Woodrow states that simply knowing what the newsroom is doing helps him in his work seeking out potential underwriters.

Find the right person with the right interests, not just the right skillsets.

Tanner Curl began working at MinnPost in August of 2017. He was hired as Director of Development, a role he still holds, and it was his first job in media. Prior to being hired at MinnPost, Curl worked at an arts nonprofit, the Loft Literary Center. … For instance, Curl says that when the New York Times established its digital paywall, it raised a lot of questions for him — will it work, and how will they convince people to pay for a digital product? Curl had multiple years of nonprofit fundraising experience when he was hired, which clearly was an asset. But it was also important that he had a deep interest in the news, and his curiosity about the business of journalism feeds the creative and strategic thinking he says is essential for a role like Director of Development… It’s “hard to ask for money if you don’t believe in what it’s being spent on.”

Consider who should be the financial face of the organization.

[Director of development Amanda] Wilson’s support includes detailed research of current and prospective donors, projecting the capacity for donors to increase giving amounts, and communicating this relevant information to [Marshall Project president Carroll] Bogert. This work helps Bogert to know donors and what motivates them, as well as helps her craft a financial ask. According to Wilson, Bogert spends much more time getting to know people than actually asking for money.

The Marshall Project’s fundraising is built on sturdy relationships, and Wilson and Bogert spend a lot of time reaching out to donors and prospective donors to understand where The Marshall Project’s funding needs overlap with the goals of the donor. “Finding this intersection,” Wilson states, is “where the magic happens.”

Determine if audience development plays a role in this goal.

[Bridge Magazine membership director Amber] DeLind works mostly at the point where audience members convert from loyal readers to supporting members. She describes her role as “taking what could be simple transactional relationship and converting it to a reader community.” This is in addition to many of the responsibilities mentioned in other case studies, such as engaging with members and the public at large, serving as liaison between the newsroom and the public, and in general communicating what it means to be a nonprofit news organization and why Bridge needs members support.

To see the full job descriptions, org charts, and more, here’s the full report.

Illustration of money and time juggler by Adam Koon used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 13, 2019, 9:55 a.m.
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