For Block by Block publishers, central question remains achieving sustainability

Posted on September 26, 2011 by Janet Coats

When the Block by Block community news publishers gather in Chicago later this week, I expect one question to hang over most of the discussions, just as it did last year:

Can anyone really make a living at this?

Just by looking around the room, we’ll be able to see that the answer to that question is yes. There are sites that are operating in the black and providing a living for their publishers. Howard Owens at The Batavian is the dean of that class, and he’s been unfailingly generous in sharing what he knows about running a community site as a business. There also are sites that are close to profitability and show every sign that they will move into the black.

But there remains a sense of instability about the financial future. This is hardly unique to the Block by Block publishers. Walk into a gathering of traditional news publishers, and while the scale will be different, the broad question of sustainability will still be on the table.

But those differences of scale are important ones. Traditional media still retains access to capital, even though it is harder to get than it once was. Most – although not all – traditional publishers are still making profit margins that would be the envy of any small business person.

And traditional publishers can take a day off without worrying that doing so will cause deep harm to their business.

As I’ve listened and learned from community news publishers in the last 18 months, I’ve started to frame the issue of sustainability differently in my own head. It is not so much about whether you choose a for-profit or a non-profit business model. It is only to a certain extent a question of developing the skills and knowledge to attract funding – whether as a great ad salesman or a fabulous grant writer.

It is largely a question of capacity, and this is a question that has far more in common with small business people than with what we know about the journalism business.

While Block by Block is a popular event with publishers, we’ve heard both years that it is a sacrifice for many publishers to attend. We provide travel scholarships to lessen the financial burden, but it is really the time away from their sites that weighs most on publishers.

There just isn’t enough capacity – whether it is in creating content or selling ads – to give a publisher any breathing room. That lack of breathing room makes it hard to look around corners, to figure out where you should be positioning your site to attract both users and funds. And it leads to burnout – financially, physically and emotionally.

A number of profitable publishers have told me that they can see potential for growing their business – but they don’t have enough capacity right now to take advantage of those opportunities. They are successful on one level, they can see the next level in front of them, but they don’t have the means to get there.

So there is this “stuck’’ feeling, a sense that the model itself may be self-limiting just shy of sustainability. I’m thinking a lot about whether that is true and how to increase capacity for community publishers so they can get the most out of the opportunities their local markets provide.

As The Patterson Foundation looks at how we can best enable community publishers as a way of enabling healthy information communities, we’re preoccupied with this idea of capacity. One frame we’re considering, courtesy of Technology Lens Manager Rusty Coats, is thinking about exit strategies.

That’s not because we want everyone to get out of the space. It is because, as Rusty writes here, “everything is on its way to something else.’’ The key is thinking at the beginning about where you want to end up, and using that vision to chart your path and design your capacity for doing work and making money.

This week, I’ll be looking for those exits as I listen to Block by Block publishers, and thinking about what that means for The Patterson Foundation as we look for ways to help build capacity for the entire ecosystem.

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