Amid all the diplomatic word wrangling in a memo about more layoffs at the Indianapolis Star this summer, the feeling of real frustration broke through — echoing the voices overheard at each bar-room gathering to mourn laid off journalists: “Hire some people who can sell advertising on the fucking internet,” the Indianapolis Newspaper Guild wrote.
Even the NYT’s sales department took a public hit recently, when Nate Silver talked about his decision to move FiveThirtyEight, telling Deadspin:
“[The NYT gets] so many eyeballs and so much high quality traffic — the demographics are really good, people with a lot of disposable income — that it should be a goldmine for advertisers. If you’re having trouble, I don’t think you should blame the environmental conditions so much as maybe your sales staff isn’t that good.”
I know it’s not easy being in the sales seats right now.
You’re facing unprecedented pressure and a whirlwind of changing expectations. Your compensation is largely incentive-based, which means you’re hustling for every dollar you need to support yourself and your family. Goals keep shifting. You’re going to webinar after webinar, taking crash courses in new products you’re expected to upsell to clients — even if you are skeptical of the value (and most likely rightly so). They add to a slate of more than a dozen products you already have to understand and pitch to some of the hardest sells in the industry: small, local businesses. And, in a world where results are now expected to be precisely measured, you’re still selling fuzzy math.
What newsroom leaders across the board need to accept? The status quo is not working for anybody employed by a news operation right now.
We can’t retrain and outsource our way to profitability. If news shops are to survive on a for-profit model, it’s time to consider much more disruptive — much more creative and much more sophisticated — options to the business model.
Set aside everything you know about the old model. For now, wipe display advertising — online or offline — off the whiteboard. If you had to build from scratch, what would you sell?
There is a strong case, made over and over by smart people in this industry (who, unfortunately, are not at the table where these decisions get made) that we are not in the eyeball business any more. We are in the data business.
It’s time to adopt the philosophy that “it is better to have 100 people love you than 1,000,000 people like you.” Or, perhaps, the goal might be to have 100 groups each made up of 1,000 people who love us, for different reasons.
If we’re going to build a truly sustainable business model for news, we need to consider all the data we collect about our local marketplaces and how those data sets may be of value not just to a general audience, but to niche audiences. We need to think, too, beyond just raw data that can be generated. What context can we add? How we can we build on each dataset to add to its value in a way that can’t be easily replicated? How is that work a natural byproduct of news gathering?
Fundamentally, this doesn’t take us far out of our comfort zone. Our relationships and institutional knowledge of our backyard are the strongest competitive advantages we have at this moment in time. The big startup companies seeing opportunities in “Local” have cracked only the surface of what’s possible.
* Imagine a product populated by public record sources that allows you to share recommendations for contractors with your neighbors on one platform and see, in one glance, whether that contractor is properly licensed, how many years he’s been in business and whether any lawsuits have been filed against him?
What kind of market data might be collected behind-the-scenes as we watch this word of mouth spread? How valuable might that be to a few niche audiences?
* What about being able to flip through hundreds of photos of remodels of the inside of homes built in your same time period and style in the same city, and having immediate access to the names of the contractors and designers who worked on the projects?
What kind of market data might be collected there? How can that be sold to certain audiences?
* What about a better way to sell your used couch or bookshelf? We’ve all but given up on classifieds, yet the Craigslist experience for items that sell only locally is no longer novel or necessarily preferred. It’s just the best option out there. What if we re-engineered the classified listing platform to let you shop by neighborhood — with independently defined neighborhood definitions and reputable shoppers?
What if we added a pricing tool that lets you see how much other, similarly listed items sold for in your market? Could that be enhanced with how-to articles on dating and pricing local collectibles? What about a feature to help coordinate local neighborhood garage sales in a user-friendly, mobile way? (I know: many current white-label, third-party solutions say they do this. They don’t.)
How might that be packaged and sold? Would individual users sign up? Is that a tool community organizations might find worthwhile?
I could go on … if you audit the special sections and printed guides and databases we’re already creating, pivoting them into powerful services of real value for local audiences is not a far stretch.
And not only do we have a competitive advantage in this area, we also have a tremendous resource: our scrappiness. We don’t shy from the big, the impossible. We know how to do the job right: how to get the best information from the best sources and how best to share that with targeted audiences in the most authentic and ethical way. All of that puts us in a different weight level than those nipping at (er, taking big chunk out of) our margins.
But how do we get there?
We have to find ways to collect and package this information, working the process into efficient workflows.
To do that, we need all new plumbing. Our infrastructure — our content management systems, our accounting software and collections tools, our payment gateways — everything needs to be scrapped. We need to stop trying to Duct tape it all together and swallow the losses on contracts we signed years ago because the opportunity costs of not doing this right are too high. We need to start over. Build what we actually need.
And before we can do that, we have to ask this question: Who should we hire to design these new workflows, to build these new products to sell? Who would you hire to analyze the data and pitch it to those who would buy it?
The answers may require a gut punch. Losing the Graham family at the helm of the Washington Post is the closing of an immensely admirable chapter in journalism history. But their exit is a classy move: they asked themselves if they, and their public company’s leadership, were the right ones for the job ahead.
When it comes to managing the business of our shop, we need to ask: are the right people in place, both in management and on the front lines?
Are they optimistic, passionate about solving the problems we face? Willing to (and able to afford to) take risks?
Do they have the skill sets needed to pivot into a tech company that can create and parse and present sophisticated data sets to different audiences and identify the value in doing so? Will they have the resources — and the time — they need to make it work?
If the answers are “no” or “unlikely,” or if there are no answers to those questions and there are no other ideas, then those of us in the newsroom need to do some soul-searching.
We’ve had the luxury for a long time of not having to think about how we get paid, how we get to focus on only doing the great work that we do. But continued layoffs and buyouts and constant uncertainty about whether those jobs will continue to exist aren’t a way to live.
If our work is serving now only to keep the company floating as it harvests its assets, if it is not promising us our own future or the community the best work we can give, is it time for us to take our own risks? Is it time to strike out on our own and create the business that should be?