Robert G. Picard
It is obvious that both the offline and online news providers are in the midst of substantial transformation and that the traditional means of funding operations are no longer as viable as in the past. This is disturbing to the industry because it has enjoyed several decades of unusual financially wealth and few in the organizations know how to find and generate new sources of revenue.
The financial uncertainty facing the industry is not unusual, however. We tend to forget that news has historically been unable to pay for itself and was subsidized by other activities. In the past newspapers and other news organizations engaged in a far larger range of commercial activities than then they do today and publishers had to be highly entrepreneurial and seek income from a wide variety of sources in order to survive.
The initial gathering and distribution of news was paid for by emperors, monarchs, and other rulers who needed information for state purposes. Later, wealthy international merchants hired correspondents to gather and relay news that might affect their businesses. When news became a commercial product, newspaper publishers subsidized the operations with profits from printing books, magazines, pamphlets, and advertising sheets, income for editors from shipping and postal employment, profits from operating book shops and travel agencies, and subsidies from communities and political and social organizations.
Today, however, news organizations are struggling to maintain themselves and develop digital operations by primarily focusing on the two revenue streams they have known in recent decades: subscriptions and advertising. Many people are being disappointed because those are failing to provide sufficient financial resources to sustain their operations.
The need to seek income from multiple sources is clear, but runs somewhat counter to the values of twentieth-century professional journalism, which denigrates commercial activity and thus engenders organizational resistance to new business initiatives. Continuing staff reductions and other budgetary cutbacks are eroding some internal opposition, but are rightfully leading to questions about how far one goes down the commercial road before news gives up its independence.
In both the online and offline news worlds, a wide variety of revenue generating activities are appearing-some based on traditional subscriber/single copy sales and advertising sales-but many others moving into new areas of monetization.
Many news organizations are increasing the range of advertising services provided to sell and create ads for their own media products, but also to provide clients services that can be used in competing products as well. New types of advertising offerings are being created to link across platforms, sponsorships of online and mobile news headlines are developing, video advertising is being offered online, and special “deals of the day” advertising spots are being offered.
Some organizations are increasing their product lines producing paid premium products and niche content for professional groups and persons with special interests; some are providing business service listings for a fee; others are creating a variety of non-news products; still others are operating additional business units creating paid events, running cafés, book and magazine shops, and providing training and education activities.
Sales of other products and services are being increasingly embraced through e-commerce (linking published reviews films, performances, and recordings to sites where customers can buy tickets, DVDs, CDs, etc.), creating and selling lists and databases of local businesses and consumers, producing special reports and books, selling photographs and photography services, and even selling items such as computers and appliances.
A growing number of news organizations are seekings subsidies though reader memberships and donations and grants from community and national foundations. These are healthy developments because they increase the opportunities to create revenue that can fund news activities. Obviously, the abilities and willingness of different news enterprises to engage in the range activities vary widely, but the fact that they are appearing show that news organizations are beginning to adjust to the new environment and becoming more entrepreneurial than they have been for many decades.
What is needed now is not knee-jerk opposition to these efforts from news personnel, but thoughtful development of realistic principles and processes to minimize any negative effects of these new initiatives on news content so that trust and credibility are not diminished.