There were a lot of great sessions at this year’s ONA conference, but the most relevant for many existing news organizations may have been that on journalism entrepreneurship, or “Turning Bits into Bucks,” as it was titled.
The session featuring Michelle McLellan of the Reynolds Journlism Institute, Mike Orren, founder of Pegasus News, and Rafat Ali, founder of paidcontent.com, hit a lot of issues that journalists thinking about setting out on their own would hit, but it also had a lot of implications and useful information for all journalism-driven organizations who are trying to make a buck.
Lesson 1: Content is king, but if you can’t sell it, you have a problem. This isn’t to say that organizations should only create content they could sell (although some top brass might think that way). It’s that regardless of what your content is, you need to have some strategy for generating income. Too many news organizations are flailing around on this level, with an ad market where CPMs have crashed and no other real strategy for sales.
Lesson 2: Diversify your revenue streams. One of the facts that raised an eyebrow for me was from Rafat Ali who noted that paidcontent was generating HALF of its income with its events business. Other sites back that up – Xconomy has a similar model, where their tech content creates a crowd, which delivers them a ready-made audience for quality events. Of course, the challenge is to figure out what your niche is if you want to hold an event — but there are verticals that make sense where most general news organizations are already producing content. Could you generate revenue with something related to your business coverage? Your arts reporting? Sports?
If not events, are there other ways you can provide targeted content that is valuable for users and appealing to advertisers? Mike Orren noted that newsletters have proven to be a good revenue-enhancer for his site. And then there is e-commerce, giving your site visitors ways to directly connect with advertisers for useful products and services. Groupon-type services that even pre-date Groupon have long been good cash generators for sites that were smart enough to get on board, although the market for straight discount coupons is starting to be saturated.
Lesson 3: Mobile. If your strategy doesn’t include it, stop now and go add it. And make it good, platform-specific and build it with the user in mind. (I might write abut the fascinating mobile session I attended later.)
Lesson 4: Re-read the first part of lesson 1. Content is king. You can have great content and not have a successful business because you can’t/don’t sell it. You can have a site with great content that you can sell and succeed with. What’s really hard is to sell bad content. There is so much content out there that yours needs to have something that gives it value, or else it’s simply more noise.
And no one – advertisers or visitors – wants that.