Professionalizing ad sales yields revenue gains for news startups

I wrote a study of best practices for advertising sales at news startups for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY. Here is a post I wrote summarizing key findings, originally published by Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg.

A new report I wrote for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY underscores the value of professionalizing ad sales operations at news startups. The report details a number of practices that news startups have either developed or adopted from traditional media. In this post, I highlight three:

1. Professional sales staff

Hiring a sales rep or bringing on a partner to focus on revenue may prove critical to many operations. It is challenging – good sales people are in high demand and compensating them adequately is a stretch for small sites. But the inability to recruit and retain a good sales person may doom a site.

Ask David Boraks, who closed his two local news sites in North Carolina earlier this year.

“Finding a full-time sales person earlier would have made a difference,” Boraks said. “We tried. We couldn’t find the right person who could work for us for what we could pay They were six-figure persons. The other (sales) jobs around here are that. We can’t afford that.”

By contrast, multiple sites in the study, including Riverhead Local on Long Island, N.Y., and Noozhawk in Santa Barbara, Calif., reported revenue increases when they took steps to improve their sales operations.

2. Realistic rate structure

A rate structure has to reflect revenue requirements of the site and it should be consistent

Kim Clark, vice president for revenue development and partner at Noozhawk said a structure (outlined in a rate card) gives the sales rep has something to share with potential advertisers and set the value of the site. Without a rate structure, “everything is up for negotiation,” Clark said, which is time consuming and makes it harder to track and hit revenue targets.

Clark said the rates have to reflect revenue needs of the site. “You have to stick with an average rate that’s going to get you into the black. Sure, it’s great if you’re making a lot of sales. But at end of the day what does your profit margin look like?”

3. Avoid CPM pricing

Successful sites have developed a following that enables them to charge premium rates. Most favor multi-month contracts. That time frame means the ads have time to work in raising advertiser visibility in the community and it means sites are not constantly reselling inventory. 

Long-term contracts assure that “you’re not always reinventing the wheel” in reselling ad inventory, Clark said. “They are advertising long enough to see if it’s effective.”

Noozhawk, charges $1,450 a month for prominent display in high-traffic sections of the site and $165 to $600 a week for run of site advertising, depending on prominence and size. Third Door Media, with its audience of 1.4 million unique monthly visitors, charges $4,000 per week for daily advertising across its network, which includes multiple sites and newsletters. Search Engine Land also offers CPM pricing at rates ranging from $25 to $60 depending on size and placement.

By contrast, sites that rely mostly on CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions) or network rates, struggle.

Budget Savvy Bride, for example, averages $3 per CPM against an audience of 82,000 unique visitors. She Finds, a fashion site, has seen its rate through the Glam network fall as low as $2 against 1.5 million uniques..

News startup survey: Revenue growth, capacity challenges

I continue to update my database of promising local news startups, Michele’s List, with support from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY. The center posted results of my 2015 survey of publishers and I wrote this post, originally published by Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg.

In the chaotic world of online news startups, I think it makes sense to take a long view. Whenever someone asks whether a big breakthrough is coming, I scratch my head. That’s because progress at this time is so incremental – a game of inches, feet, maybe yards but rarely miles – a marathon with no finish line in sight.

I think it is productive to figure out what is working at specific sites, examine why it is working and try to figure out whether it can be replicated in other markets.

That’s part of the philosophy behind Michele’s List, my database of “born on the web” local news sites and behind the publisher surveys I conduct periodically. Today, Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, my collaborator in this effort, publishes the results of our 2015 survey, the fifth I have conducted since I launched the database as a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow in 2010.

Summary of results here.

Progress: More than two-thirds of the publishers report that they increased their revenue in 2014 over 2013. Nearly half said they turned a profit last year. That’s encouraging evidence that a greater focus on revenue across the field is paying off.

Challenges: Most of the sites are quite small, with revenues of $50,000 or less, and they are highly dependent on a single source of revenue – traditional display advertising.  Each is a vulnerabilty. Together they create questions about whether a site has the capacity to develop enough of a business to get past $50,000 so a single founder isn’t trying to do everything.

To be sure, some of the sites in this cohort, are relatively new. Just as newspaper layoffs spurred dozens of launches by refugee journalists in 2009-2010, the disintegration of Patch prompted many if its refugees to start sites in their base communities in 2014. The survey also showed younger sites tended to have less revenue.

Others, however, may be stuck in neutral and some will likely shut down when their owners are forced to get a day job or develop other priorities.

That said, there is a cohort of sites that are growing revenue above $100,000 annually and well beyond. Looking at their trajectories and the market factors that have fueled their growth is worthy of additional study.

Previous surveys..

Newsrooms struggle with priorities on path to “digital leads” footing

Part of a series on newsroom transformation to serve digital news consumers, originally published by Knight Digital Media Center @ USC Annenberg.

DigitalLeadsCoverFiguring out what to stop doing in order to serve new priorities was a significant  challenge as newsrooms move to “digital leads” footing, where they produce content and engagement on phones, tablets and the web and then repurpose digital content for the newspaper at the end of the day.

The pull of tradition – those routine stories, that focus on the next day’s print newspaper, the idea of being all things to all people – can undermine the transition from print focus to digital.

One strong trait of the culture in many newsrooms is “perfectionistic” – the fear of making a mistake. This serves journalism well. But organizationally, it can translate into fear of missing anything or of leaving anything out. That’s highly non-strategic.

We saw this play out repeatedly in KDMC’s work with 13 newsrooms that are now part of the Journal Media Group (formerly E.W. Scripps). As part of the company’s Four Platform Newsroom initiative, we facilitated a process that enabled newsroom teams to determine priorities for digital work after they connected with news consumers and figured out what topics and delivery methods were valuable to those consumers. (More about our work in “Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation.”)

Determining those priorities, however, was just the start.

“The biggest hiccup was getting staff to identify what work they could stop doing and in getting them to agree to stop doing work of low priority. They were willing to take on the new tasks but also wanted to keep doing old tasks that no longer made sense to do,” Mark Tomasik, editor at Treasure Coast Newspapers and, said.

The newsroom in Treasure Coast developed a practice of measuring time-consuming work against three priorities: franchise topics, breaking news and investigative reporting. “Resource-intensive efforts that do not fit at least one of those categories are not a priority,” Tomasik said.

Adam Neal, an editor who lead the staff team that developed franchise topic plans and other digital strategies, said initially it took constant discussion in the newsroom to help people understand and follow the new approach. (Neal has since become Managing Editor.)

Building on Treasure Coast’s approach, KDMC recommended that each editor work with staff and the publisher to develop a short list of priority “filters” to use to test which stories were worth a high level of resources. The idea was to separate high-priority coverage from lower priority items. That way, the lower priority items would be competing against each other but not sapping resources needed for higher priority items.

Developing the list through discussion with the staff was designed to increase understanding and the likelihood that the filters would be used. Having publisher buy-in would be essential if the filters were going to be meaningful.

In Redding, the staff came up with a list of 26 possible priorities. They asked each member of the company’s management team, including the publisher, to rank their priorities and came up with a list of the top 10. Then they got feedback from 19 people who represented a cross section of the community and came up with the final list of five:

  1. It’s urgent/breaking or affects public safety
  2. It’s franchise topic coverage
  3. It’s hasboth high impact and high interest in the community
  4. It’s investigative journalism
  5. It supports our business goals (including growing subscriptions and activations and rewarding “membership”)

While Treasure Coast used its filters to hone daily priorities, Lyons, the editor in Redding, said his leadership team has since used the filters at quarterly strategic planning meetings.

“The work of filters is upstream. We have had three significant planning meetings since we arrived at those filters. For each, we started by reminding everybody what our filters are.”

Can other newsrooms adopt this approach? I think so – with careful discussion at the outset of what the priorities are, why they matter to digital news consumers, and how they will be used by everyone in consistent fashion.

This post is adapted from Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation.


Leadership and culture: Linchpins of digital transformation in the newsroom

Personas: Connecting with digital news consumers

Owning the local news franchise

“Digital leads” newsrooms push print to the back of the line


Two pioneering online community news entrepreneurs move on

This post originally was published at Knight Digital Media Center @ USC Annenberg.

Two prominent online news entrepreneurs are moving on.

David Boraks, who operated two local news sites north of Charlotte, N.C., ceased publication June 1. Susan Mernit, who heads Oakland Local in California’s Bay Area, is looking for someone to take over the site or it will cease publication June 15.

Both decisions underscore the commitment it takes to operate a local news start up as well as the challenges publishers face in many markets. Both operations have long been both highly entrepreneurial and highly vulnerable on the revenue side.

Boraks said he concluded he needed to expand his operation to cover two additional towns and the entire Lake Norman area to build a sustainable business. He and longtime business manager, Lyndsay Kibiloski, also concluded that they had neither the time or the energy to do that.

Mernit, meanwhile, co-founded and is CEO of Hack the Hood, a highly successful program that teaches young people tech and marketing skills . Mernit says working both jobs in unsustainable and she wants to focus full-time on Hack the Hood

Market challenges

Boraks founded in 2006 and launched in a nearby town in 2011.  He reported revenue in the range of $101,000-250,000 in 2014.

The publications operated with a couple of critical challenges:

  • Operating in a highly competitive market where potential advertisers have lots of options, including print publications and Facebook ads, most of them offering less expensive options than he could.
  • Inability to recruit a full-time ad sales rep until 2014. The site struggled financially as part-timers proved ineffective.

“We couldn’t find the right person who could work for us for what we could pay They were six-figure persons. The other jobs around here are that. We can’t afford that,” Boraks said in an interview. A full-time sales rep did significantly increase revenue in 2014, but sales and reader donations slumped during the past winter.

In a farewell post, Boraks noted that traffic to the sites was at an all-time high with more than 100,000 monthly unique visitors, making it the largest publication north of Charlotte.

“We are very proud of what we built. We proved there is an audience for news on the web,” Boraks said. “But we did not get all the way to sustaining it.”

Boraks plans to continue to work as an announcer on a local radio station and look for his next opportunity.

New venture

Oakland Local, meanwhile, has also taken a hit on revenue, as co-founder and editor Susan Mernit has made Hack the Hood her primary focus. The project trains young people to do tech and social media, and they in turn help local businesses improve their web presence. In just a couple of years, it has grown to a $1.2 million operation.

“I’m proud, six years is a big accomplishment,” Mernit said in an interview.

Oakland Local, launched in 2009, is seeking new management and recently posted a request for proposals to take over the site. Oakland Local operates as a nonprofit. But it has been entrepreneurial in seeking non-philanthropic revenue, including advertising, in an economically challenged market.

Mernit said she hopes individuals or an organization that can focus on revenue development as well as editorial will come forward soon. The site will continue to publish until June 15. The RFP says applicants must commit to raise $75,000-$150,000 to operate the site.

Which narrative?

Some will add these developments to a narrative of failure. (Here’s one example from a blogger I respect, and my response questioning his numbers.)

I spend a lot of time looking at news start ups to see if they should be added to my database of promising sites, Michele’s List. I interview them about their business practices and I survey them about their revenue.

I see a narrative of experimentation, innovation, and, yes, disappointment. I see progress on many fronts, stagnation on others. I see a narrative of learning, and this was in evidence this weekend as I followed #lion15, the Twitter feed of a meeting of online publishers in Philadelphia, sharing best practices with their peers.

Boraks and Mernit have been an important part of this narrative. They blazed trails in a dynamic, challenging field. They launched in the great unknown of independent, “born on the web” local news sites. They demonstrated to more reluctant journalist founders that adopting business practices can produce financial results even though a stable revenue model was elusive their highly challenging local markets. They consistently shared what they were learning with other publishers. They deserve our thanks as they move on..

Local news start ups report revenue growth

My new annual survey of online local news sites offers room for optimism: More than 60 percent of the publishers responding said they increased their revenues in 2013 over 2012. Still, it’s a hard slog: Only one third reported turning a profit and nearly half reported $50,000 or less in annual revenue. I conducted the survey via my database of local news start ups at

Read more of my post at Knight Digital Media Center..

Finding a Foothold, new Knight Foundation report on nonprofit news ventures

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Knight Foundation this week published an in-depth look at 18 nonprofit news organizations. It’s a follow up to a report Knight produced two years ago and both focus on sustainability. I helped research and write both reports.

The report provides encouraging news – more organizations are growing and diversifying their revenue sources, moving away from heavy reliance on foundations. Still, the challenges are many: Understanding and engaging their audiences and figuring out how to monetize them is critical to success.

Here are key links:

The report: Finding a Foothold

My blog posts

Nonprofit news: Audience research, engagement strategies drive revenue momentum

Membership increases revenue, community at nonprofit Voice of San Diego


Michele’s List 2013 survey of online news start ups

This week, I published results of a survey earlier this year of publishers of 53 online news startups. Thanks to all who participated. I am definitely seeing progress and it’s important to look beyond the averages to best practices of publishers, especially on the revenue side. In addition to posting survey highlights, I wrote a post that features interviews with three publishers who are seeing significant revenue gains.
I conducted the survey on Michele’s List, a database of online local news sites.


Block by Block: Community News Summit 2012

I am again the lead organizer for Block by Block, which gets under way Thursday in Chicago at Loyola University. I’m very proud of the sessions we have organized and grateful to our presenters, organizers and sponsors.

Block by Block is the annual gathering of independent online community news publishers. It will be conclude Saturday.

Reynolds Journalism Institute will live stream all general sessions here and will live stream two sessions during each breakout on Live Stream Channel 1 andLive Stream Channel 2.

You can also follow on Twitter: #bxb12 and view posts from the sessions at

Here’s the full agenda.


Update on my work

An earlier version of this site inexplicably disappeared from the Internet recently. The able folks at Techliminal rebuilt most of it, but not all the content could be restored.

Here are a few links to things I’ve been working on during this content gap: