How Training Has Helped Some Community Publishers Thrive

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fingersWhen Block by Block‘s first Community News Summit wrapped up in 2010, participating publishers told organizes that what they needed most was hands-on training — not in how to do better journalism but to succeed in business. Out of that feedback were born two training initiatives — the Summer Camp, funded by the Patterson Foundation, and the Community Journalism Executive Training, funded by the Knight Foundation and administered by the Investigative News Network. Rusty Coats, principal (with his wife Janet) in the Coats2Coats media consultancy, was the head coach for both, while Janet focused on fund raising for the training.

Here, Coats tells how the training gave a number of publishers the know-how to get their sites into positive revenue territory in 2013.

What did the publishers [whom you taught] need most?
It varied, of course, but a common denominator was the need for — and path toward — diversifying revenue streams. Whether they were for-profit or non-profit, many publishers had one or two revenue streams, and some were precariously dependent on a single revenue stream. Many needed business fundamental training, such as smart budgeting, effective sales calls and sales renewal practices, processes for contractors vs. employees, small-business or non-profit legal issues, competitively pricing their inventory, how to build membership and others. By surveying participants before the events, we could then tailor the curriculum to common needs. But diversifying (and growing) revenue were always top of the list.

What did you really focus on in fundamentals?
By taking publishers through the 100-day plan, we helped publishers focus on four key areas, ranging from diversifying revenue to staff needs to technology. The plans break big goals (“Increase revenue by $150,000 by December) into step-by-step increments. We use the SMART approach — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely — and then worked with participants to set deadlines and checkpoints. Follow-up coaching through calls and, in some cases, site visits reinforced the accountability, and gave us the opportunity to share successes and best practices as participants had victories along the way.

Getting money from local businesses is a street fight. The options and alternatives seem to grow exponentially every day, and many businesses live in a fog of not knowing what to do.

Do you think it made a difference? How?
It absolutely made a difference for publishers who applied what they learned. Some participants still send me their follow-up 100-day plans, showing that they’ve incorporated this into their DNA. Some publishers use presentations from the sessions to on-board new hires, sharing what they learned and also reacquainting themselves with the plans. Personally, it’s made a difference for me; it’s very fulfilling to see so many people eager to serve their communities through journalism and being able to help them see a path toward sustainability. These publishers really are inspiring.

We’re told that small businesses are putting only a small fraction of their message money in display ads — that much more goes into what they can control. Is this actually happening at the hyperlocal level of the market, and, if so, how does your training counteract it?
First, we acknowledge that any business needs to have multiple revenue streams, and that being totally reliant on one — whether it’s display ads or a particular foundation/funder — is perilous. So we ask publishers to build out a revenue wheel that aligns with their mission: display advertising/underwriting, events, syndication, donations, membership, etc. For some publishers, becoming a service provider for advertisers works well; these publishers know a lot about digital publishing and social media, and can help local businesses accomplish their goals specifically (1:1) or through educational events (1:many). We also help publishers evaluate revenue opportunities that have an actual profit margin (or, for nonprofits, return on investment) so that they’re not pursuing business that actually costs them money.

Rusty Coats
Rusty Coats

Some sites — the Patch network pre-eminently — are moving toward an editorial model that includes more metro-centric news. What do you think about this as a strategy to broaden reach and get more mileage out of content with a cluster of community sites?
‘Cluster sites’ sounds very similar to our strategy when I ran Tampa Bay Online and all the print weeklies at the Tampa Tribune more than a decade ago — and the strategy of dozens of newspaper companies for decades. Surround your hub newspaper with community weeklies to offer lower-cost, geographically targeted advertising in suburb/exurb communities. It’s a great idea if there’s a barrier to entry — such as printing and delivering a newspaper — because it rebuffs competitors. For a digital strategy, it’s smart on the expense and content distribution side, but the sales side — actual shoe leather, cold calling, meeting with advertisers, closing and renewing sales — may drown it. And the only thing you have to rebuff competitors is less industrial: brand awareness, loyalty, advertiser effectiveness, etc.

If a strong majority of Americans believe in and want local news — Pew says its 72% — why aren’t community sites doing better in total revenue? Does it come down to too many publishers not knowing how to succeed in the local digital market?
”Believing in” and “wanting” don’t always equate to “paying for,” unfortunately. And monetizing local media always has been hard — just ask Patch, Citysearch and Sidewalk. As your readers know very well, getting money from local businesses is a street fight. The options and alternatives seem to grow exponentially every day, and many businesses live in a fog of not knowing what to do. Should I tweet? Get more likes on Facebook? Where am I on mobile? Is Angie’s List worth it? That’s why I applaud these community news entrepreneurs and what they’re trying to accomplish. They are mission-driven and determined to build sustainable businesses by serving their communities. It’s not a path to great wealth. Let’s face it: No one ever thought “Hey, the best way for me to make a billion dollars is to cover local news.”

Many newspapers have closed and the survivors have cut their local news budgets deeply. What opportunities does this create for new sites, mainly entrepreneurial “pure plays”?
Geographically, there are hotbeds — New York, New Jersey, Seattle, Chicago – for entrepreneur sites, and there are some in the remote West. The South remains untapped for entrepreneurs and under-served for residents/businesses. Like all media businesses, though, the success of these sites will depend on how well they serve a particular need, whether it’s niche interest or community. The trick is finding the key that fits the lock, and the market determines that.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched this month.