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Diversifying revenue: A primer

The digitization of media has fundamentally altered the economic underpinnings that once sustained print and broadcast journalism.

Where local news organizations were once the only shows in town for readers seeking news, advertisers seeking consumers and individuals looking to place classified ads, the rise of social media, online marketplaces and other digital content platforms gives them infinite other options for those services. To ensure financial viability, news organizations must thus look beyond subscriptions, advertising and classifieds for additional sources of revenue. The alternative to growing revenue — cutting costs — is a short-term solution with diminishing returns. 

New consumer revenue sources might include memberships, micropayments, events, product sales, and niche or standalone content. On the advertising side, news organizations have looked to affiliate links, sponsored content and other types of third-party ads. Philanthropic donations, syndication, and content or technology licensing can also generate new revenue. In all cases, publishers must consider the uniquely local problems that communities and businesses face, and work to solve them in a way that creates lasting value for consumers. Simply pursuing digital reach or scale will not generate enough revenue to sustain news businesses long term.  

Finding and implementing these new opportunities requires strong collaboration between the editorial and business sides of the news organization, which can prove challenging in environments where a firewall separates the two. Some journalists fear that partnering across the news/business-side divide can compromise their editorial independence. The opposite is actually true, however: Collaborating across departments can enhance both the organizations’ bottom line and its journalistic mission, if done in a thoughtful and transparent way. The key is maintaining and communicating clear boundaries, both internally and externally. Publishers must also be prepared to invest significant time and resources into revenue innovations.

In South Carolina, for instance, The Post and Courier ran a donation campaign that raised more than $1 million for a statewide investigative journalism fund. In Keene, N.H., a series of creative sweepstakes and contests helped The Keene Sentinel generate thousands of dollars in new revenue during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Raleigh News & Observer, in North Carolina, pursued 30 grants totalling more than $443,000 in a single 11-month period. Those funds paid for training and expansive projects the paper could not have otherwise afforded. 

“Nearly every newsroom’s future is likely to include outside funding efforts,” wrote Jane Elizabeth, then the managing editor of The News & Observer, in 2020. “It’s best to start learning and doing now — even in a small way.”