The topline: Four insights that will guide conversations between content and revenue leaders to help them collaborate on sustainable revenue growth strategies.
Throughout my career, I’ve had this immense privilege and opportunity to consult for and collaborate with numerous news media organizations. Among the most recent and rewarding aspects of my work has been the opportunity to coach, a role that has allowed me to contribute to various initiatives and granted me profound insights into the essence of news media.
Coaching and consulting with burgeoning media leaders have opened my eyes to the intricate dance between revenue strategies and editorial excellence. Unfortunately, it is often awkward. But it doesn’t need to be. In fact, from what I’ve seen in successful media organizations, both sides showcase their individual skills when they perform in a smooth and elegantly choreographed routine that they perform together.
Through my work as a coach, and the conversations I have had with brilliant leaders on both sides of the business, I have identified four distinct insights that may help steer future conversations around how content and revenue leaders collaborate and strategize on sustainable revenue growth. These insights illuminate areas where our traditional practices and a legacy perspective might still create a barrier to progressive momentum.
Though I admit that it’s not as widespread a problem as it once was, the relationship between revenue and editorial can have contentious undertones. The good news is that collaboration has become more commonplace, particularly when all parties embrace and acknowledge our industry’s challenges, share a common organizational mission, and understand each other’s perspective.
Tighten your internal ties
Before delving in, I want to emphasize my understanding of, and respect for, the delicate balance between journalistic integrity, advertising, and revenue. I’ve built a career steeped in strong newsroom relationships, bridging the gap between editorial and advertising without encountering stark divides. However, I’ve always noticed a subtle barrier that, with experience and perspective, may unlock significant revenue opportunities. Rather than erode boundaries, I propose fostering stronger internal relationships.
For example, forming a revenue and content growth task force can lead to healthy collaboration on new formats, series, or projects involving editorial, advertising, and marketing teams. This approach provides editorial leaders with a comprehensive perspective on contemporary revenue development strategies and imparts a strong understanding of journalism practices for revenue personnel.
Cross-departmental collaboration promotes a shared purpose and mutual respect. Sales personnel gain pride in achieving revenue goals, all while learning to better appreciate editorial’s role and objectives. All leaders begin to understand the teamwork required for resource acquisition. Collaboration fosters empathy and understanding and promotes the overarching goal of effectively serving the community. When the entire team brings their skills to bear on revenue ideas, everyone wins.
An opportunity for creative business solutions
Balancing content and revenue generation poses challenges for leaders across various domains, particularly impacting news media startups that have largely been shaped by editorial approaches. While logic, fact-finding, research, and creativity are shared between revenue and editorial leaders, transitioning from an editorial to a revenue focus requires a significant mental adjustment. The unwavering dedication of editorial leaders to top-notch journalism often clashes with the different mindsets essential for effective revenue generation. Even when editors are committed to revenue development, navigating the intricacies of revenue may feel less natural.
In my coaching experience with smaller news organizations, the critical need to balance between revenue and content discussions became starkly apparent. However, it’s important to note that, especially at the start, not all news organizations have personnel dedicated to revenue development.
If the business side of the organization has not been fully developed at startup, consider contracting or hiring revenue or sales development support. Interestingly, supporting the development of the business side in this way can provide a constructive framework for collaboration. You can emphasize the importance of bridging the gap between editorial and revenue development. Rather than focus on the creation of traditional silos, teams can be built that work together on a common goal from the outset. This adaptability is increasingly vital to speak with a unified voice and navigate industry challenges seamlessly, accommodating both editorial and revenue progression.
Unpack the guilt and cynicism around revenue
Discussing the intersection of journalism and revenue unearthed a range of emotions among the editorial leaders I coached. What really stood out was editorial feeling some guilt around revenue, or sense of revenue representing a necessary evil.
To combat these feelings, emphasize the role of revenue in sustaining a media organization’s mission and the value of fostering community partnerships. It helps to acknowledge the historical context (cases in which the line between quality content and the demands of advertisers were blurred), but it is ok to reject this as a blanket concept.
Encourage editorial leaders to recognize sponsors and readers as integral to the community and the organization, deserving of respect and appreciation. The authenticity of relationships with sponsors and subscribers is crucial. If this connection is inauthentic or superficial, it may compromise trust and hinder revenue, growth, brand awareness, and stunt progress.
Revenue is… donations, subscribers, advertisers and more
I’ve observed a growing interest in donation-based reader revenue models, within non-profits and some for-profit organizations. However, there are potential limitations in these models’ longevity, growth, and expansion. While I recognize the strategic value of reader-support, particularly for non-profits, the term “one-time donation” inherently implies a finite nature. This can suggest hesitancy or lack of confidence in the long-term sustainability of the mission.
In fact, recurring or regular donation cycles are critical to support the ongoing health of a media endeavor. For these appeals, it is essential to reiterate and communicate the news organization’s benefits and impact and emphasize its significance for the audience within the community.
Encourage and invite audience support, not just for sustainable journalism as an abstraction, but as an investment in the local news organization in order to benefit the entire community. This shift relies on building the belief in reciprocity, where the news organization consistently communicates its impact, showcasing changed lives and areas for improvement. Aligning values, mission, and community outlook facilitates a more feasible and strategic transition to ongoing support, over one-time donations.
Explore sponsored content versus traditional display
In almost every organization I’ve had the privilege of coaching or consulting with, the initial conversation often concerns the need to understand better or develop media kits and rate cards. What remained consistent, particularly in working with editorial leaders, was a belief that the rate card and media kit were essential for revenue generation. This is true – to an extent.
However, it was intriguing that a majority of editorial leaders either held a slight contempt or outright rejected many traditional display advertising norms associated with standard news websites. I understood concerns about balancing reader experience and advertising. However, the challenge wasn’t developing tools; it was a lack of confidence in securing enough sponsorship opportunities compared to competitors due to reluctance toward traditional display advertising.
In some cases, where organizations already had a media kit or rate card, I observed that much of the information focused solely on the publication itself. While this approach is common and traditional, a more nuanced strategy is more effective in communicating how a media organization can collaborate with advertisers for success. Yes, it is important to describe the mission of a publication, its demographics, and importance to the community. But what will stand out to advertisers is that the entire organization is comfortable with, and will collaborate on, branded or sponsored content campaigns.
This approach highlights editorial leaders’ skill in identifying and seizing opportunities, especially concerning the balance between engaging readers and attracting revenue. Sponsored or branded content opportunities illuminate a path forward in which editorial works with sponsors that align with the news organization’s mission and can serve as valuable resources for the audience. Leveraging content for sponsored opportunities can be positioned as offering a guiding resource for the audience. And anything that truly serves the audience is key to resilience, retention, and sustainable revenue growth— which often differs from traditional display advertising.
Build sustainable media revenue through collaboration
While revenue and editorial teams have distinct focuses, collaboration can unlock new opportunities and positive change. Recognize the challenges and thought processes of these differing roles while also focusing on their shared narrative and objectives.
News leaders contribute to a greater mission within our communities. But we face significant hurdles in building revenue solutions that will sustain these valuable resources. As I work with news startups, as well as established media organizations, it is clear that there are sparks ready to ignite. And it is good to know that I’m not alone in this journey, ready and excited for what lies ahead.
About the author
Richard E. Brown is a recipient of the News Media Alliance Rising Star award. He previously served as the director of renewals and digital sales strategy at LPi and held the position of director of digital operations and sales at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Recently, he was the head of digital subscriber churn for Gannett | USA Today Network and is currently the senior director of retention for The Daily Beast. Additionally, Brown is a member of the board of directors for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation, a monthly columnist for Editor & Publisher magazine, a contributing writer for Digital Content Next, a revenue sustainability coach for Local Independent Online News (LION Publishing), and the owner of RE Media Holdings, LLC.