Build your ties to the community to build your news site's revenue

There are two types of advertisers in the world (in my experience, at least):

  • Those who track every placement, counting the clicks and conversions, to determine how much new revenue each placement generated, minus the cost of creating and running the ads.
  • Those who buy an ad because they like the publication, and want to support what it does for the community.

    As a publisher, I thank all my advertisers and appreciate their support. But, man, oh man, I do love the second type.

    For them, the decision to support a publication isn’t simply an economic transaction – it’s an act of passion. And passion is contagious. Someone likes what I’m doing so much that she’s putting money down to support it, with no thought to whether she gets it back? Hey, if someone believes in me like that, I want to work even harder to justify that faith.

    Those are the advertisers who buy banners on Little League and schoolyard fences. You’ll find them in the back of community theater programs. For them, buying an ad is not simply like buying raw materials or supplies – an initial investment that enables greater return down the road. Sure, they’re hoping for that, but for them, buying an ad also makes a statement – that they are a proud member of the community and spending their money to support other community institutions, as a result.

    Now, to attract these community-minded advertisers, you can’t think like the first type of advertisers yourself. If you’re not contributing to the community, why should they contribute to you? If you see your relationships with advertisers as strictly dollars-and-cents, why shouldn’t they feel the same way about you?

    You can’t make an appeal to the second type of advertisers part of a start-up business plan. Those relationship build more organically, and only after a publication has established itself as a valued part of their mutual community. (I’d also argue that you can’t attract the first type of advertiser until you’ve established a viable audience, either. Which is why news websites need either enough cash in the bank to fund them until they build an audience, or need to operate as bare-bones, bootstrap operations until then.)

    How do you appeal to these advertisers? For the first type, you need detailed audience data, including audience size, demographics and behavior. For the second, you need to demonstrate your service to the community: unique coverage that keeps the community well-informed, a respected forum for individual voices, advocacy for the public interest.

    It also helps, in reaching out to the second type of advertiser, to show your personal community ties. It’s much easier for the owner of a family-owned, local paper, born and raised in the community, to show those ties than for a publisher or ad rep for a corporate-owned paper, who just moved into town from out-of-state.

    It’s also easier to make these sales when you’re adding, not cutting, coverage and features of service to the community. Community-minded business owners will pitch in to help a neighbor in need. But they expect their investment in you to go to protect services, not profit margins. If you’re cutting coverage of schools, churches or other community institutions, you’d better be in the red or at break-even, with the fat cut elsewhere, before going hat-in-hand to local advertisers of the second type for additional help.

    As a website publisher, I want to get together with other website publishers to make a case to this type of advertiser that some news websites are worthy of this type of community support. As corporate-owned newspapers cut back their coverage of local and topical communities, some online site are stepping forward.

    Next Wednesday, my colleague Sasha Anawalt will write on OJR about the National Summit on Arts Journalism that she is helping host at USC one week from today. Anawalt put together this summit in part to uncover new models for arts journalism, as traditional news organizations reduce or eliminate their coverage of the arts.

    I’ve shared with Anawalt my belief that arts organizations can help sustain coverage of their programming by redirecting advertising dollars from publications that are reducing coverage and losing readers to those which are expanding coverage and attracting more readers as a result. It’s emotionally difficult for me, as a former newspaper employee, to make a case to advertisers to cut back their spending on newspaper advertising. But newspapers that withdraw from a community are no longer as deserving of that community’s support as publications which are increasing their engagement with it. My loyalty lies with journalists, not necessarily newspaper companies.

    Like many OJR readers, I’ve also been following the recent attempts by the newspaper industry to reach out to Washington, both to appeal for anti-trust exemptions to allow for price-fixing of online news, as well as for tax breaks for the news industry.

    If revenue from the first type of advertisers no longer provides enough income to fund the ambitious reporting that great newsrooms can do, why not reach to local communities instead of to Washington? Why not turn first to those you serve most closely, to build upon the relationships you’ve established with them, to help preserve and sustain those community ties into the future?

    Then it stuck me: Maybe that’s exactly what some folks at the big newspaper chains are doing. They’re going to their community: Washington. As multi-billion-dollar conglomerates, they have far more in common these days with the other big corporations that address their business challenges by lobbying Senators and Representatives than they have with smaller, more community-focused local businesses. (You know, the type that they bought to amass their chains.)

    Building a community can help build a business. And if some news companies feel more comfortable building their business on K Street than on their publications’ Main Streets, I think that ultimately explains more about the predicament they’re in than anything that’s happening online.

  • About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


    1. A a result, they fail to realize that making connections between those who have experience in the field and aspiring young journalists isn’t just important – it’s vital, and one of the primary goals of a j-school education should be preparing students for and then fostering those connections. When I talk to students, I emphasize that the most important benefit of my j-school education was a connection that led to my first internship. That led to a second internship, then a third and eventually a part-time job covering sports for the college town’s daily. It didn’t happen because I had good grades. It happened because a publisher had a connection to my university.