What to cut when ad revenue doesn't cover your expenses?

The toughest question facing news editors today is: What will you cut when your advertising revenue (or other income) isn’t providing enough money to cover your newsroom’s expenses?

Obviously, we’re all looking for new sources of revenue so that we don’t have to make a brutal decision like this. But in a competitive publishing market, many legacy news organizations simply are too big for what their market share now supports. What goes, then?

Over the past year, I’d heard several news editors point toward positions such as movie critics, arguing that some beats can be covered by user-generated content (such as reader-submitted movie reviews, in this case). While I’m a huge fan of reader participation on news websites, I’d like to suggest that this approach – swapping UGC coverage for staff reports – reflects the same wrong thinking that got so many newspapers into their current mess.

Let’s stick with the movie critic example, since I’ve heard it offered at three industry gatherings over the past year. The hypothetical goes… since a movie is the same in Tampa as Tacoma, why do you need a movie critic in every town? The old-school way to go cheap here would be to buy a syndicated film column. But now, publishers can go ever cheaper: install a relatively simple reader rating plug-in to their content management systems and let their local readers generate movie reviews.

Easy call, right?

Maybe not, otherwise I wouldn’t have a column here.

I’ve written before that consumer advice isn’t the same as criticism. The purpose of a critic is to place a new work within the context of previous works, as well as to find its context within its community. It’s to build, with an expert’s eye, a bridge between the reader and a creative work, one that the reader might not have seen by his or herself.

That some newspaper criticism fails to reach this level shouldn’t blind publishers to criticism’s potential. By showing readers fresh ways to look at and think about content, critics can help encourage readers to talk more about the movies, books, plays and music in their lives. It’s the critic who seeds and grows such user-generated content.

Any staff writer can do the same on his or her beat, as well, provided that he or she writes with an expert’s knowledge and an honest desire to make information more accessible for his or her readers.

Communities need leadership. I’ve been publishing UGC-driven websites since 1998, and every one needed staff writers to model and encourage reader comments. On those occasions when I cut back on staff content, the reader comments suffered, becoming less insightful, less engaging, and ultimately, more likely to degenerate into flame war.

Often, some readers step up and become community leaders (and even get hired as staff writers). But I’ve not yet found a model where UGC sustains an engaging and insightful website from the start, without a publisher starting the conversation with thoughtful content or comment.

So what can a cash-strapped publisher cut? Don’t base the decision on what is, or is not, produced in your community (such as movies). Base your decision on what interests that community – and on what topics your staff can cover with an expert’s authority. Don’t think about using online tools and techniques to replicate your existing staff structure or feature line-up. Blow up the publication and reorganize around what the community needs and wants – and that you can deliver.

If people in your community care more to talk about hiking than film, dump the movie critic and keep the outdoor columnist, instead. But don’t rely on UGC to handle the movie reviews. Dump the movie section entirely.

If you want to provide an alternative for those few readers who still care about movies, link out to a healthy online film criticism community instead. Even if your community includes many passionate film fans, if someone else has them covered with a strong online community, let publisher have that slice of the market and spend your money on some beat that isn’t as well covered. As media critic Jeff Jarvis has said, “do want you do best, and link to the rest.”

The news website of the future doesn’t use UGC and reader interactivity to keep providing coverage on hundreds of topics to everyone in the community. It focuses on the areas of expertise that it can afford to cover, then provides breadth by linking to other experts’ coverage, too. UGC isn’t the right tool to add breadth to a website; its better use is to provide depth to existing coverage on the site.

UGC doesn’t replace a staff voice. It amplifies voices into community conversations. As the math geek in me would like to take the opportunity to point out, anything multiplied by zero is still… zero.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    Help employees grow their personal brands and turn them loose as independent contractors.