Communities are key in building websites' advertiser support

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.

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. Well said.. I would say that if you have good community then advertisers will lurk around your site !

    Ria @ Submit Articles

  2. Some claim that recent on-going changes in the web environment may cause online communities to become a thing of the past.

    I feel however that people will always seek a place where they could meet people to whom they can relate.

    Jim from the Bingo community

  3. Perry Gaskill says:


    Mark Cuban has his detractors, but generally seems to raise the discourse to a more interesting level. And it’s wonder why there aren’t more similar trial-and-error ideas coming from the journalistic community itself.

    My take on your post is that it covers only one of three types of advertising available to online publishers:

    1) Image ads – This is really what you’re talking about when a local bank puts a mini-billboard on a Little League field wall. There is no demonstrable immediate ROI but it builds the bank’s brand. Journalistic websites don’t have a problem providing this kind of advertising, but it’s a highly competitive market because almost anyone can do it. Just turn ink into pixels.

    2) Action ads – These are the time sensitive ones such as “Two Dinners for the Price of One!” at a local restaurant, or “50 Percent Off This Week Only!” at the local shoe store. Although the Web has the ability to provide such ads, you don’t see them used all that often even though they can demonstrate ROI.

    3) Marketing Services – This is a huge un-tapped area. A simple example is that in a recent discussion about online advertising, a commenter mentioned that MLS was basically cleaning everyone’s clock in the Real Estate sector. My thought at the time was that although MLS provides a decent database at a broad national level, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to build a better more detailed database of listings for a local market. It seems to me to be two things hampering hampering the move into marketing services. The first is that ad sales people don’t really know enough about the marketing of the business sectors they’re dealing with. The other is that there’s a reluctance on the part of publishers to move into areas beyond the tried-and-true.

    Yet another factor that comes into play with all this is the idea that there was a time once when the destiny of a local newspaper was, for better or worse, tied closely to the destiny of the community it served. One can argue that corporate media buyouts have done a lot to trash reader loyalty. Coupled with this has been a shift in the business community to a more big-box or franchise-centric model which means ad buys are less and less at the discretion of business people who understand their own local markets.

    Just my two cents,


  4. says:

    I’m sharing this entire conversation with the local nonprofit Community Foundation I’m working with to start a virtual hometown newspaper. We already see the potential in reaching out to community leaders who also own businesses in our South Florida community. One challenge is how to communicate the ideas and potential of such an online project when we don’t have the site up yet, but need the capital investment and biz community enthusiasm now. Any ideas for me? Thanks so much for this helpful exchange!

  5. Just a quick note to emphasize how much I agree with you on this one. I recently stumbled over an article on the web suggesting the imposition of an “internet license fee” to raise money to fund quality journalism. This troubled me greatly. In an effort to offer a realistic alternative to this seriously bad idea, I resorted to posting some links leading readers to the wisdom of OJR and the Knight Digital Media Center. You’ll find them at this URL:

    Reg Crowder
    Financial & Investment Writer