News, advertising, subsidies and revenue streams: Disentangling products and profits

Yet again, I started to write a comment and then decided that it was a blog post rather than a comment. I was responding to a post that Jeff Israely, a former Europe correspondent for Time magazine and founder of Worldcrunch, has written for Nieman Lab. I love Worldcrunch, and when I was thinking of doing my own news startup, we had a chat or two. I completely understand the point that Jeff is making in his post, and this isn’t a criticism of what he wrote, but a conversation that we need to have amongst journalists trying to get our heads around the business of what we do. 

Journalism! We don’t need no stinking subsidies!

Ok, so that’s a tongue-in-cheek summary of Jeff Israely’s post for Nieman Lab, Don’t you call me subsidised — people are paying for news. Jeff, please take that in the good-natured way in which it is intended. 

I agree people are paying for news, and I understand how the idea of subsidy grates as a journalist. It’s offensive to think we’re taking handouts. However, in business terms, a cross-subsidy isn’t a handout but a revenue stream, often but not always, closely aligned with the core business, that generates net profits to support the entire enterprise. It happens in a lot of businesses. I can see the problem that Jeff has with the term subsidy, but I think it’s helpful to think of this in a different way. Does Gilette subsidise its shaving business  by selling the blades? No, but it’s become the way that it keeps the entire business profitable.

The journalism business debate is littered with unhelpful terms, and we’re not using the business term subsidy accurately. It bleeds out the business nuance of what’s really going on. Journalism is the business of news, but that business is supported not by a number of subsidies but rather by a number of revenue streams, some more lucrative than others. So, let’s stop using the term subsidy, or at least stop using in inaccurately. Let’s think about revenue streams, with the idea that a revenue stream may not necessarily be a profit centre. (I know that’s stating the bleeding obvious, but I often think that Econ 101 should be compulsory for journalists.) Reframing the discussion in terms of revenue streams rather than subsidies is a lot more productive. That’s why I like Jim Brady’s formulation that the business model problem for journalism isn’t going to be solved by a silver bullet but rather shrapnel, a bundle of revenue streams that support the mission. 

Jeff mentioned Google. Is it in the search engine business? Sure, that’s one of its products, but its business, it’s main source of revenue, is advertising, with 96 percent of its revenues coming from ads. Just like the news business, Google wouldn’t be able to dominate online advertising the way it does if it didn’t provide the search product. Google saw off other search engines – Hotbot, Altavista, etc – because it did a better job of delivering results, but it has excelled as a business because it has developed (well acquired really) an incredibly lucrative revenue stream tightly integrated to its core business of search. It has attracted a huge user base, one that dwarfs that of most news sites, so while CPMs have plummeted, it still is able to be profitable.

That’s why the MailOnline is pitching itself as competing not as other news sites but against internet giants. It’s in the volume business, and it wants what Google has. Smart, I say begrudgingly. We need a world where the Mail’s brand of journalism and its fellow travellers aren’t the only ones with good business models. Yes, I’m looking at you, when I say that. 

Back to news and in particular print media, we used to have a Google-sized fat revenue stream that more than paid for news and information that we journalists provided, and it happened to be advertising. The US newspaper business was especially dependent on advertising to pay the bills. Newspapers in other countries had a much larger percentage of  a lot more on news stand sales or subscriptions. In the US, the big problem for print media is the collapse of advertising for print newspapers, especially newspapers. Alan Mutter makes a lot of really terrifying graphs that put this collapse in the stark terms. From 2005 to 2012, first half newspaper ad sales dropped between 23 percent to 86 percent, depending on the type of advertising. Advertising used to be 80 percent of revenue for most US newspapers, what Ken Doctor called the 80/20 rule of newspaper revenue. Newspapers, like a lot of other post-industrial businesses, are just struggling through a transition where their primary source of revenue has been disrupted. 

To tie this up, I would say that hopefully with a wider range of revenue streams, we’ll end up with a more resilient journalism eco-system, one that isn’t so reliant on a single point  revenue failure, advertising. The over-reliance on advertising was especially problematic because it so cyclical. Newspapers have always taken a big hit during recessions because ad budgets are often the first to get slashed. 

Ok, this is a relatively dispassionate, rational look at the news business. Why does this entire discussion pose a problem for journalists?  The economic decline of the print business, with thousands of jobs lost, already has us feeling very vulnerable. The collapse of the business that supported journalism in many developed countries feels like a critique of the value of journalism. Why won’t people pay us for the valuable service we provide? It feels painful even writing that, and I don’t mean to dismiss or diminish the cultural upheaval we’re going through. It feels like an attack on the value of journalism, and we have to recognise the emotional side of this to work through it. But again, we’re letting the imprecision of our language get in the way.

I keep going back to some advice that was given to my college classmate, Theo Francis, when he was working for a news startup. A business-minded uncle said:

You know you’re creating value. But can you capture it?

For those of us who believe in the social value, and the economic value of journalism, what we need to rethink is how we capture economic value to support the work we do. We need to think of revenue streams to support the mission. I believe in journalism, and to quote Kunda Dixit at MDIF’s Media Forum last (MDIF being my day job):

To be truly independent, media needs to be financially viable. 

We’re already creating value, and now, we’ve got some heavy lifting to do in terms of figuring out how to capture value in the digital age. 

Ending the self-fulfilling prophecy that digital content doesn’t make money

If you walk into a newspaper newsroom, you will hear something said over and over: “You can’t make money online”. It’s closely followed by grumbles of how much the company spends on digital. These are held up as some incontrovertible truth, like carrots help you see better.

Just as ‘carrots help you see better’ was propaganda spread by the British Air Ministry to conceal the military secret of radar, the ‘truth’ that there is no money to be made online is nonsense. It’s unquestioned propaganda in newspaper newsrooms where there is an unnecessary, senseless and ultimately self-destructive battle to keep the newspaper focused on paper, a battle driven by advocates of the primacy of print.

I’m not calling for the presses to be shut off. Rather, I’m calling for innovation in both print and digital. This battle to preserve the past is preventing companies from creating print and digital products that serve 21st Century audiences. Companies that are clear-headed and audience-driven are developing multi-platform strategies that are reversing decades long decline in profits and print circulation while increasing the share of revenue from digital. Those newspapers who remain focused on print are missing that opportunity.

It’s true that print makes the bulk of newspaper revenue, usually around 80%. But in focussing on outdated print strategies newspapers are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: By not investing in digital, they ensure that digital revenues remain small in comparison to print.

In the US, Outsell found that in the news segment, largely made up of newspapers, only 11% of their revenues were from digital. In comparison, B2B publishers made 36% of their revenues from digital. Outsell analyst Ken Doctor said, “Simply put, the news industry has so far failed to make the digital transition.”

Although 11% of revenue doesn’t seem a good return, they have to be viewed in context. Print revenues are declining as a decades-long circulation drops no longer make print advertising as attractive. Digital revenues have been increasing, sometimes even through the recession, but it is usually from a very low base.

Commercial departments will also often tell you that it’s just not possible to make money online. In many instances, news organisations have built up huge audiences online but have failed to translate that audience into revenue. They will even refuse to investigate the opportunities afforded by digital on the basis that it would require them to do something different.

Commercial departments who say it’s not possible to make money online need to shoulder their responsibility for their failure to help newspapers make the transition to digital. If the current commercial strategy isn’t working – and old print ad sales strategies are not working very well online – why not try a new one? As the adage goes, if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.

There is hope, though. Folio has two great profiles of two publishers re-inventing themselves: The Christian Science Monitor and The Atlantic. Both profiles dive deep into details of the two different publications.

After rising losses, The Christian Science Monitor shifted from a daily newspaper to a web-first strategy with a weekly news magazine. One thing that stands out in the profile of the Monitor is how much audience research they have conducted and continue to conduct with more than 3,500 readers. They found out why people had stopped taking the newspaper: Cost, lack of time and a shift to getting headlines online. I really liked the way that publisher Jonathan Wells summed up how they re-thought their value proposition:

We had to think long and hard about it. Our approach is a composite of the learning economy—we’re serving people without a lot of time, who are trying to understand complex issues quickly, and contribute to a solution. As one guy here says, our mission is ‘Help me get smarter, faster.’

One thing that jumped out at me was how willing they were to be nimble and to rethink not only how they worked digitally but also their print strategy. As they said, they were able to convert 93% of their print readers from the daily to weekly, and they’ve increased subscriptions by 63% since the shift. Increasing circulation going from 2009 to 2010 is something that most publishers would have killed for. They are not pursuing newsstand sales. They are focused on attracting the “right customers through controlled, targeted growth,” according to senior marketing director Susan Hackney.

They have also increased their page views by 49%, and they are looking to develop a line of digital products. This is all really smart, strategic and refreshing in an industry that seems to be mostly focused on squeezing the last bits of profit out of declining business models. That’s just a taster of an excellent article.

Folio also did an excellent profile of The Atlantic, which is managing to reverse a revenue decline that began in the 1960s. I often say that news organisations need to disrupt their business before someone else does. Atlantic Media president Justin Smith did just that, pushing for a digital-first strategy. From the Folio article:

(Smith) stressed that print is not dead, but taking this approach allowed the company to unlock its grip on traditional revenue sources. Importantly, the Web site’s overhaul was set up as an insurgency on the print brand. “If our mission was to kill the magazine, what would we do?” said Smith, who added that a digital competitor was going to do that anyway, so they did it themselves.

They are projecting that digital will account for 39% of their revenue in 2010. They not only shifted to digital first, but they also took a novel marketing approach, setting up their own marketing services division in an effort to differentiate themselves from ad networks. I’ll leave you to read the rest of the article, and I’ll give you one last reason to read the rest. After decades of decline, they looking at a profitable fourth quarter of 2010 and a multi-million profit in 2011.

To reposition themselves, these publications are looking for innovation from both print and digital but with a digital first strategy. The Monitor is using audience research to deliver products more relevant to their audiences, and they are thinking clearly about where they need to go and how nimble they need to be to achieve success.

We can rebuild businesses to support quality journalism, and here are two examples that show a few options for the way forward.