Side Businesses, Communities and Missions
Poynter’s Bill Mitchell has a must-read on side-bet businesses that could help news organizations through their current woes.
For those who think this is something new, Mitchell passes along Michael Schudson’s observation that American newspapers got their start as advertisements for printers who made their money printing other things — as well as by offering postal services and serving as general stores. And he notes that today, the Washington Post gets the majority of its revenue from Kaplan, its education business.
Of course, few news organization are likely bets for launching test-prep behemoth, but smaller papers have done well with smaller ventures: The Pocono Record’s editor tells Mitchell that the paper does a nice side business selling reprints of photos taken at sporting events and festivals by the paper’s photographers. (Because the photo galleries are posted online, they also give the Record a nice traffic bump.) An Alaska TV station runs airplane flights and fishing trips. And lots of specialty news organizations offer special reports or host meetings.
Mitchell offers three considerations for news organizations considering such side-bet ventures. At the top of his list: “consistency with the organization’s values.”
Agreed — to which I’d add a wrinkle. To me, the core values of every news organization should include serving as a key member of a community and as a collection point/repository for information about that community. (Though not necessarily the sole such repository or the core of that community.) I think news organizations have accelerated their decline by losing sight of this mission, through cutbacks that have damaged their institutional memory and fetishizing empty traffic numbers that accompanied oft-meaningless “reach.” Some side-bet businesses of the sort discussed by Mitchell would simultaneously bring in more money and reinvigorate news organizations’ role in their communities.
The Pocono Record’s photo galleries bring in money, but I’d argue they’re also a community resource, a digital expansion of “refrigerator journalism” as discussed by Roy Peter Clark in the comments on this post. And I’d say the same thing about other side-bet businesses that connect readers with local businesses, particularly if they’re constructed to make the news organization a valuable middleman.
My folks have a summer house in Maine, and one of their local papers there is the Lincoln County News. Like the Record, the News posts photo galleries from local events and sells reprints. It also has Web forms for submitting events, birth announcements and news of engagements and weddings. For those who think small local papers are just shovelware, there are a lot of great, community-friendly features here. What else could the News do? A next step might be to tie together wedding announcements with local caterers, wedding planners, and the like, link birth announcements with florists, and so on. Tie the food/dining section in with reader reviews and location-based services. Instead of just linking to restaurants’ Web sites, offer to build or improve restaurant Web sites — or any potential advertiser, for that matter. Then the paper gets a cut of referrals. (You’d have to be careful, of course: Restaurant reviews, for example, couldn’t be dictated by business relationships. But bright lines have always had to be drawn, and small towns have always been webs of personal and business connections.)
For a local news organization that built itself out in this way, the business of news might seem secondary on the balance sheet: The organization would be a Web consultancy, photo service, community bulletin board and partner with many local businesses that also had some journalists on staff, raising the question of which business is the side bet. But from one point of view — a critical one for paying the bills — news has always been secondary, the stuff around the ads meant to connect businesses with local customers. All of these connections would support the news organization’s mission of participating in and supporting a community — just as those long-ago print shops provided valuable services to local businesses and individuals, sold useful items, served as a gathering place and even printed some news.