If a website’s editorial mission focuses on building community, as I’ve argued, so should its advertising sales strategy focus on community as well. Don’t fall into the trap of selling potential advertisers nothing more than numbers; don’t neglect to sell them on the opportunity to support the community that you are building.
I got to talking about the subject recently with my colleague Sasha Anawalt, who runs several arts journalism programs for USC Annenberg. She was talking about the frustration that many arts organizations feel when watching the the reporters and critics who have covered them lose their jobs. These theaters, dance companies and orchestras fear that without news coverage in their communities, their audience – and potential audience – will hear less about local artists, which could lead to less interest and less support for their organizations.
It’s not just arts organizations that share this fear. In a blog post last year, tech blogger Mark Cuban, who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, argued why he believes that pro sports needs newspapers to prosper.
Bottom line is that despite the huge volume of sports coverage [online], the local coverage of teams for the most part sucks. There is little depth and certainly not the consistent coverage of a newspaper with a team beatwriter or 2. Thats a bad scenario for sports leagues. Teams in every league need as much local coverage as we can get. The more stories that are written by sportswriters and columnists, the more opportunities for fans to connect and stay connected to our teams.
The more time I spend on the “other” side of the journalism business, dealing with advertising, technology and business relationships, the more I become convinced that a good deal of what was passed off as editorial ethics over the past many years was less concerned with ensuring accurate coverage than discouraging and discrediting reporters starting their own news publications.
Sure, there are ham-handed sources and advertisers out there who’d rather just buy positive coverage. But many folks “on the other side” honestly recognize the value of what journalists do to build and sustain the communities that, ultimately, are their markets. There ought to be no shame in working with these people and these institutions to find ways for them to support our work. Enlisting their support isn’t “selling out,” it’s keeping journalism in their communities.
We’re at a point now in this industry where reporters can’t wait for someone else to start these conversations. Better we initiate them than run the risk of communities whithering as their sources of information founder and die.
Mark Cuban needs people covering the Mavs, to keep them part of the local conversation, just as the local orchestra needs someone reporting on live acoustic music. Smart managers also know that shills won’t build communities over the long run. Ads and “advertorial” can help drive attention from the community to the sponsor, but they don’t help expand and sustain the community itself.
As Cuban wrote, “I would far rather subsidize in depth coverage of the Mavs, even without any editorial control then spend more money on advertising.”
Of course, advertising can be one way that institutions provide financial support to editorial operations. My wife has contracted with a handful of advertisers who have told her that they don’t care about advertising stats – how many readers see or click on their ads – they simply want to support her efforts to build and sustain a community of violinists and violin fans online. Because they need that community to exist, in order to support their businesses.
The Web makes tracking readers who click ads easy. That then tempts many publishers and advertisers to reduce ad sales to simple math. But the economic value of creating an engaged community for a business to sell to isn’t so easily tracked.
Journalists who wish to stay in business in the brutal market of online publishing need to look beyond CPMs. Find would-be advertisers who are willing to invest in your community-building efforts, even if they do not yield immediate clicks and conversions. Take a look at the outfield wall at a local Little League game, or in the back of the program at a local theater production, and you’ll find plenty of local businesses whose owners and managers care as much about supporting community institutions as making an immediate sale. Talk with them. Show them what you are doing, the community you are building and what its survival and growth means for them.
Maybe, like Cuban, some potential supporters don’t want to bother with getting the ads. Perhaps they could fund fellowships that pay for additional reporters or pay instead for ads that promote other local causes.
Talk with every potential source of future support for your publication. Sell them on what you are doing and then talk about ways that they can support you. From these conversation, those of us who remain in the news business will evolve a new set of standards and practices for the news business, one that doesn’t simply protect last century’s model but that helps ensure that professional journalism will endure throughout this century.