Sustainable Journalism

printing press

One issue dear to every editor’s heart–or close to the bone–is how to survive when journalism is going through a tectonic shift, the nature of which is far from clear.

The shift from print to online is obvious, but the business plan behind it isn’t. From the publisher’s standpoint when you trade print ads for web ads, you’re trading dollars for dimes. This is important to print journalists, since they’re the ones getting laid off when magazine ad revenues plummet—yours truly being among them.

Advertisers are happy that online ads are much cheaper than print ones, since they aren’t encumbered with printing and distribution costs. Unlike print ads–which, despite occasional links to special landing pages, are essentially a broadcast medium–you can measure how effective your online ad campaign is by measuring the number of impressions and the click-through rate (CTR).

If you offer premium content like interesting white papers, you can get readers to register their contact information, which generates leads for advertisers. Knowing that someone is really interested in your white paper on A/D converters is a lot more valuable than the fact that they subscribe to a magazine where they may or may not see your ad, and they may not care in any case. Advertising is all about sales, and online ads provide a feedback loop for leads that print ads lack. Advertisers can carefully tailor their ads to a wide range of long-tail, well targeted web sites like Low-Power Design and quickly change their message or offerings to optimize the results.

The downside of online ads is that they’re a dime a dozen, and everyone suffers to some extent from “banner burnout.” The result is you need a really catchy ad in a well-targeted outlet to rise above the noise level. The explosion of web ads has also resulted in a race to the bottom on ad pricing, making it nearly impossible for publishers to survive on online ad revenues alone. That business model may work for small publishers, but it won’t support a corporate overhead. Some combination of revenue streams is necessary in order to pay journalists a living wage.

The Texas Tribune

texas flag

The New York Times recently ran an article on the Texas Tribune, a new 12-person Web-based newsroom had its debut as a nonprofit covering state government. The Tribune is a nonprofit attempt to use a mix of donations, sponsorships, premium content and revenue from conferences to come up with a sustainable model for journalism that neither depends on nor requires a print product.

The Tribune is a niche site with a very narrow focus—Texas government, including education, financing, lobbying, immigration, bureaucratic priorities and the machinations of the various legislators. So far the Tribune has raised $3.7 million from individuals, venture capitalists and non-profit foundations. The Tribune has a wide range of blogs and an impressive array of databases. But as the Times notes, “What really sets the Tribune apart is not a workable design and good intentions, but its effort to build a durable model for journalism in the future.”

The decision to go non-profit was radical—and practical. According to John Thornton, an Austin venture capitalist and former McKinsey consultant who has invested $1 million in The Tribune,

“I was initially looking to profit on the misery in the industry, but it was clear after even a little investigation that there was not the kind of venture returns that you would need. I began to see journalism as a public good, like national defense or clean air.”

The theory, according to the Times, is that a group of well-compensated editors and writers will create valuable reporting shared by citizens and other news media outlets, a kind of digital version of public radio.

Non-Profit—Are You Serious?!

phone bank

Will the “whining for dollars” approach of NPR work for a niche web site? How do you work a phone bank when your bank balance tanks? I could see a campaign for contributions using PayPal with a little thermometer in a sidebar showing progress to date. That would be more entertaining than the Google ads that appear in the other sidebar.

You could also throw a black tie—or, this being Texas, black Stetson—fund raiser, that if sufficiently over the top could make it to the A-List and become a must-attend annual event. This is a little hard to imagine for tech web sites, but with a little imagination and a well targeted mailing list, it could be successful from both a financial and PR standpoint. Isn’t that what the annual EDN and EETimes awards dinners are, anyway?

Going non-profit—intentionally, not because you can’t make a profit—could work perfectly well if you can find someone with patient money willing to invest in your venture. Good luck with that. Demand for money will always outstrip supply, and VCs are notoriously skeptical of funding web startups since the VC-funded Internet bubble burst. Foundations are even more conservative. In short, unless you’ve got great connections and a great story, it ain’t gonna happen.

Premium Content

moneybag_250x320Charging for premium content is a possible revenue stream. The Wall Street Journal was the first to make this work, though it’s hard to pull it off. The New York Times tried charging extra to read their opinion page columnists but later gave it up. You need a world-class newsroom that generates a steady stream of exclusives for people to part with money when there are so many excellent, free news sources. Small tech sites aren’t in that category. Even the large sites have to give it away, though some insist that you register so they can build their mailing lists, which they in turn rent out. Their premium content isn’t quite free, since the price you pay is more spam in your inbox.

You can make a good case for free premium content, but since it’s free the business case is hardly obvious. Tech sites frequently offer interesting white papers that you can download once you register. You can be sure that your email address makes it back to the vendor who supplied the white paper. If you were interested in a white paper on data conversion, the vendor will send you information on their latest A/D or D/A converters. Since you’ve demonstrated your interest in the subject, these emails are well targeted, they’re not spam. I’ve clicked through on many of them to see what’s on offer. Tech sites usually charge vendors to post white papers, though they may offer free posting as an incentive to sign on as a sponsor.


handingmoney_250x145Corporate sponsorships provide a middle path between starving to death on ad revenues and finding that elusive Yeti known as the foundation that will free you from the tyranny of the marketplace. Corporate sponsors provide the ‘patient money’ that gives start-up tech sites the room to breath and develop their nascent business plans.

The journalistic landscape is changing in unpredictable ways, and there quite a number of good tech editors who are trying to find a sustainable way forward. Forward-looking corporate sponsors are placing bets on some of them, hoping that they succeed. If they do, it was a bet well placed, and a risk worth taking in any case. If the sites succeed in creating a real community, sponsors will necessarily have a high profile in that community due to their identification with the site. Whether the site succeeds or not, for a small investment sponsors gets both good will and good exposure either way.

Becoming a sponsor for the ‘free’ or cheap advertising makes no sense. Start-ups can’t be expected to deliver the same number of eyeballs as their larger competitors, and once the bean counting starts, they lose. OTOH the click-through rate (CTR) of well-targeted sites carrying well-targeted advertising can and should be much higher than for larger, horizontal publications. So cost-effective advertising on niche sites can work well, but it’s not a compelling reason to be a sponsor. Wanting to help tech journalism find its way forward is.


tradeshow_250x205Years ago when I was managing editor at EDN Asia Reed Business International, which owned EDN, bought a leather show in Hong Kong, a move I found to be bizarre. It was explained to me that the money wasn’t in magazines, it was in shows, and Reed had no intention of bringing over any more magazines. Shortly thereafter they bought a local jewelry show.

That was back in the early ‘90s when there was still good money to be made in trade magazines. Trade shows since then have become a shakier proposition. First Comdex imploded, to everyone’s shock. The world’s largest computer show—poof! Penton’s long-running Portable by Design shows also disappeared. CES has gotten outrageously expensive, relegating all but the big dogs to demos in hotel suites. DAC went through a scare last year, though this year it looks more like a survivor. IDF is hanging in there has expanded to Asia. The ESC franchise keeps growing, thanks in large part to their Asian shows. Vendors are more and more either pulling out of the big shows or cutting back on their presence. Vendor-specific shows are now all the rage, with TI, Freescale, Mentor Graphics and a host of others running a string of road shows.

Shows are a great way for vendors to communicate with customers and to get feedback from the field. But for large shows the ROI is the pits, which is why tabletop shows are becoming so popular. When I was at Cypress we analyzed our return in terms of live sales leads on our investment in large trade shows, magazine advertising and online advertising. Online ads came in first and trade shows came in dead last—and by a wide margin. Trade show organizers love them because they make a lot of money. For vendors it’s not such an easy call.

Techinsights has an interesting spin on all of this with their virtual trade shows, which include keynotes, a ‘show floor’ with interactive vendor booths, multiple webcast panels, chat rooms, a resource room and more. [Full disclosure: I’m co-chairing one of these in January with my predecessor in interest at Portable Design, Rich Nass.] I have no idea what participation on one of these things costs, but by its nature it has to be a lot less money and hassle than erecting and manning a booth at a show in a distant venue.

Virtual trade shows will eat away at the low end of the trade show market, just as table top shows have taken a bite out of the big shows. Clever as they are, it’s still not the same as meeting someone in person at a trade show and sharing a beer with them when the show floor closes.

If a vendor’s main aim is to sell products, putting ads on targeted niche sites costs a lot less per lead than money spent on a trade show. Support your local tech journalists!

What Does It All Mean?

questionmark_250x250Going back to the Texas Tribune example for a minute, diversified revenue streams are what small sites need to survive. The Tribune people have some big money behind them that won’t be available to lone tech journalists. But a combination of web ads, sponsorships and even events is. The most doable events would be small tabletop shows and conferences in a hotel venue. Partner with other independent journalists to put on the show, gaining credibility and sharing the cost.

If you can build up your site enough and show a consistent profit, one of the larger pubs may offer to either partner with you or buy you out. Or you can tell them to buzz off and continue to have fun. Either way quality tech journalism will live on and continue to find its way forward.

About John Donovan

Writer, editor, Dad
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2 Responses to Sustainable Journalism

  1. John Reardon says:


    I always enjoy your take on the market, but you continue to confuse the art of marketing with that of sales. This coupled with a changing economy leaves you with a false conclusion.

    The reasons that print is able to charge dollars when when web achieves only dimes is for the simple reason it is better at marketing. Don’t confuse the slow economy’s effect on print to a shift towards the web.

    In the past year we have heard more and more Web sites focused on lead generation. And although they are more efficient at recording leads, they haven’t been all that great at the delivery.

    RTC does events, does print and does web. The revenue and the best reflection of a companies spending goes in the same order – events, print and web. This reflects the spending habits of most “marketing” people as indicated by Folio magazine.

    So in conclusion, don’t confuse lead generation with marketing, don’t confuse the recording of leads as delivering value, and don’t discount your clients spending habits as irrelevant – as your client’s are willing to spend 10 times as much on print as they are on the web. (according to Adscope).

    John Reardon
    The RTC Group

  2. John,

    You always make a cogent argument, but once again we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    I really don’t see the evidence that print is better at marketing than the web. You can reach far more potential customers inexpensively online than you could possibly afford to in print. And I don’t think the economy is driving the clear move from print to web, though we’ll find out who’s right when the economy eventually recovers. Just as I don’t expect consumers to resume their spendthrift ways, I don’t expect vendors to resume throwing big bucks at print ads when they can get a lot better–and measurable–ROI online.

    Online ad spend is huge and growing dramatically. This isn’t the flavor of the month, it’s the flavor of the decade. If you assume a zero sum game for ad spend, online ad growth is coming at the expense of print ads. The current rationing of money between shows, print and online is a legacy that’s changing, though not as quickly for the big dogs, who aren’t often at the leading edge. You see a reaction, I see a trend.

    What you’re doing is exactly what I recommend–diversify your revenue streams by offering a variety of complementary products: shows, print and online. The trick is maintaining your margins as the marketing mix changes. Everyone from Rupert Murdoch to a legion of web startups is trying to rethink their approach in a changing publishing environment. Natural selection is in full swing.

    We definitely live in interesting times.

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