There’s a reader revenue revolution happening. Will legacy news miss it — again?

RJI has asked Jim Brady, a digital news thought leader and keen observer of trends and opportunities in the news industry, to share his thoughts once a month on key developments that are shaping and will continue to shape discussions about the future of journalism.

When it comes to legacy news media and any new digital innovation, you can usually count on two things: The innovation will begin too late, and even when it does, it’s often a half-measure that doesn’t make up lost time.

We were slow to embrace digital and, when we finally did, we built electronic versions of our legacy products. We failed to embrace the mobile revolution before responding by creating mini versions of our desktop sites. We were slow to recognize that digital was a two-way medium prior to launching interactive features we barely monitored. The end result has been a maddening 25-year string of missed opportunities and mounting financial woe.

Despite all those blunders, there’s yet another opportunity now, and it’s a big one: the rise of reader revenue.

This provides one of the best chances we’ll have to erase some of our past mistakes, but only if we remember this crucial point: We cannot change who we get our money from without significantly changing the product we offer them. Otherwise, the reader revenue revolution will become yet another missed opportunity killed by half-measures.

The reader revenue opportunity unites the business and editorial sides around a common goal: serving the consumer.

The relationship needs work. Because, let’s be honest, while digital advertising was a healthy business for a while, it wreaked havoc in legacy news media organizations. Traffic volume was prioritized over quality. A page view from down the block was no different than one 5,000 miles away. There was no technical limitation on how many ads we could run. As a result, the goals of the newsroom and the goals of the business side were opposed, leading to a tidal wave of unusable web sites, thanks to the whack-a-mole pop-up ads, auto-play videos, unnecessary pagination and other audience-killing “innovations.”

But when you focus on earning money from your readers, both the editorial and business sides can put the consumer at the center of their solar systems. If you add 100 new subscribers or members on a single day, it’s both great for the business and almost impossible to achieve without providing editorial value. It’s not a stretch to say that, for most news organizations, this has never been the case in the digital world.

Also, unlike a lot of other digital media fads, this is not one that requires much technological investment. The most meaningful technology we need to make reader revenue work is free (albeit complex): the human brain.

While I believe that membership programs are a better long-term option than paywalls, there’s a transition that needs to happen before most paywalled sites can convince consumers to pay. That’s because many newsrooms – mostly local newspapers – need time to rebuild the relationship with their consumers, who have been dealing with thinner papers, a decline in journalism quality and barely-usable web sites for years, all while subscription rates have escalated and paywalls have been erected. So, for now, paywalls may be the only option for them. I believe that needs to change to a public-radio like donation model, and that starts by creating products that not only provide value to consumers but also invite them into our world and treat them as what they are: partners. (I know of what I speak, as I recently sold two of the sites I operated to public radio: Billy Penn to WHYY and Denverite to Colorado Public Radio).

Here are specific changes I believe news organizations need to adopt to succeed in this new world:

Have a point of view

No, this doesn’t mean having a political point of view (though that works for some). It means letting your readers know what you stand for and exemplifying it day after day. At Billy Penn, for example, our point of view was: “Philadelphia is a wonderful, crazy and flawed city, and we want to work with all of you to make it better.” Our story selection, our voice and our events all flowed from that point of view. And the most important part is that it puts the public front and center. “We report on important things that happen in our community” isn’t really a point of view; it’s a description of what you do. A point of view needs to include an explicit reference to the audience. If it doesn’t, it needs an edit.

Develop a voice

Again, this doesn’t mean partisan ranting. Having a voice merely means occasionally ditching the traditional institutional voice and talking to people like they’re, well, people. That can mean trying to answer questions they didn’t even know they had, like The Incline did here, here and here. It can mean making a joke about something uncontroversial, like Billy Penn did here, here and here. It can mean addressing the reader casually in a headline, like Denverite did here, here and here. Talking to consumers like they talk to their friends isn’t something to be afraid of; it’s a necessary part of our evolution.

Rethink your content mix

To serve the audience, we need to better anticipate what they need. When a highway is going to be closed for construction, we need to help them avoid the mess, not just detail the work. When a huge event is coming to town, we need to cover its impact on the community, not just the event itself. When a storm is coming, we need to tell them where to get sandbags, not just cover the storm. And, using tools like Hearken, we need to ask readers what they want to know, and not merely depend on our instincts.

Listen — and respond

If you’re an editor, I have two questions for you: 1) Is there anything on your home page right now that explicitly asks readers to provide something to you, i.e. a question, a vote, a photo, etc., and 2) If so, is anyone in your newsroom doing anything with that information? If the answer to both is yes, great. If not, you’re missing an easy opportunity to build loyalty and trust. Too many sites ask for information from consumers and do nothing with it, which is actually worse than not asking.

Get out of your office

At Spirited Media, we found one of the most fertile paths to convincing someone to be a member was event attendance. It’s a shorter path for a consumer to give when they’ve actually met the people they’re supporting. We can’t ask people to give because of how important we are or how long we’ve been around. Most people don’t care about that. They don’t just want to support something; they want to be part of something. Events are a great way to knock down the wall between a news organization and the public it ostensibly serves. Yes, I know journalists may not be the most social of beings, but tough times require adaptation.

Serve your audience first — not your newsroom

When adopting new strategies, it’s crucial to remember that the consumer is paramount. If a new strategy will serve readers well, it’s likely the right strategy, regardless of what your newsroom thinks about it. Curation is a perfect example. Most reporters and editors are not fans of linking out to other sites, especially if those sites are competitors. You know what? Who cares? If a reputable news organization in your town is reporting something you don’t have, you’re doing the reader a disservice by not letting them know.

Be human

Because we’ve written with an institutional voice for so long, and largely stayed cloistered in our newsrooms, we’re not known entities in our communities the way we ought to be. It’s crucial we remind consumers that we live in the same communities they do. We go to the same supermarkets, our kids go to the same schools, and we sit in the same terrible traffic jams they do. “Write like you live here” is a crucial mantra, and we must be better at it.

We cannot underestimate how seismic a shift the move to reader revenue could be. But the digital history of legacy media is littered with “coulds.” Can we do better than half-measures this time around?


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