Survey of community news innovators points to need for sales, marketing focus

Posted on April 12, 2011 by Janet Coats

One of our efforts at the New Media Journalism Initiative is to help community news publishers to share their knowledge with each other, as a way of helping gain momentum for innovation.

When the community publishers first met last September at the Block by Block Community News Summit, they said one of their needs was to better understand each other. We're trying to help them do just that.

We're working with Michele McLellan to help develop tools for the Block by Block publishers. Michele studied the community news ecosystem as a 2009-10 fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. We provided support for Michele to organize the first Block by Block Community News Summit, and we've been working with her during the last several months to conduct a survey of the publishers to better understand how they are approaching their work.

Today, Michele is discussing some of what we've found in the survey. What follows is a post she wrote about the survey results; it also appears at at Knight Digital Media Center, where Michele writes about leadership issues:

Online community news publishers are devoting most of their resources to creating content at the expense of developing revenue streams that will make their sites sustainable.

That’s a key preliminary takeaway from a survey I am conducting of community publishers on behalf of Block by Block and The Patterson Foundation.

On average, the 50 publishers who have responded so far said they were devoting almost 70 percent of their paid staff and unpaid contributor time to creating content for the site. By contrast, they reported only 15 percent went to sales and marketing. The balance went to tech and other support.

The Batavian in upstate New York devotes about 25 percent of staff time to sales and marketing . The community site has become profitable three years in and publisher Howard Owens recently hired two part-timers, one of whom will help with sales. But Owens says he’d like to put more emphasis on revenue growth.

“I think the ideal ratio (counting resources not just as my time but also what revenue can buy in personnel time), 35 percent content, 50 percent revenue, 15 percent tech and development,” Owens said in an e-mail. “I think any of us who are not giving 50 percent to revenue are making a mistake (me included). There’s a lot of money to be made out there and it takes money to sustain a business.”

Rusty Coats, an online consultant working with The Patterson Foundation, says larger organizations might put one-third each of resources into content creation, sales and marketing, and tech and other support. Publishers of smaller sites who use inexpensive tools like WordPress may need to spend far less in the tech/support category, Coats says. But he believes resource allocation to content and revenue should be roughly equal. So 45/45/10 might be one model.

The imbalance revealed in the survey may in part reflect that most of the sites responding are relatively young, less than three years old, and sites must devote significant attention to content and user engagement from the outset.

Tracy Record, editor of the West Seattle Blog, says she devotes nearly all of her time to developing content with a little marketing thrown in and her husband focuses on selling advertising with a little content thrown in. The site also pays reporters.

“I would LOVE to have more sales help but content is priority,” Record said. “If we don't have the content, we have nothing to sell! Would you tell a factory they have to make 50 percent less merchandise so they can get those workers out selling? Supply's going to run short and business is going to run dry pretty fast.”

The site survey, which is continuing, is part of a larger effort supported by The Patterson Foundation to support online community news publishers with training and other resources that will help them become sustainable. I also am rebuilding Michele’s List of promising news sites as a searchable database with emphasis on small, entrepreneurial community news sites. If you are publishing or know of a site that should be included in the survey, please make a nomination here.

With support from The Patterson Foundation, the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the Knight News Innovation Laboratory, Jay Rosen and I will host Block by Block: Community News Summit 2011, Oct. 12-14 at Northwestern University. If you would like to know when registration opens, e-mail me at michele.mclellan at Priority goes to online publishers and we will again offer travel scholarships.

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