Professionals outline revenue possibilities for digital media outlets at ISOJ 2022

For the past decades, news organizations have been facing many challenges to rethink their business models and diversify revenue sources and opportunities to fund digital initiatives around the world. Entrepreneurship, product design, platforms, data analytics are now common words in the vocabulary of journalists and news executives, but the million-dollar question relies on: What’s the secret behind independent and financially sustainable newsrooms?

To discuss this topic and present successful case studies about revenue opportunities in journalism, ISOJ 2022 invited April Brumley Hingle, chief revenue officer of The Texas Tribune, and Janine Warner, co-founder of SembraMedia and an ICFJ Knight Fellow, to discuss “Subscriptions, events and multiple products: Strategies to diversify revenue streams of news organizations”. This amazing conversation was mediated by Felicitas Carrique, executive director of News Product Alliance, on April 1 at the AT&T Conference Center of the University of Texas at Austin.

One of the key elements for news innovation is the development of new products, and Carrique highlighted the importance to include news product thinkers on the team, professionals with the ability to strategically align business, audience, design, and technology. A product could be a podcast, a newsletter, events, a CMS platform.

Janine Warner, left, co-founder of SembraMedia and an ICFJ Knight Fellow, and April Brumley Hingle, chief revenue officer of The Texas Tribune, participate in a panel April 1 at ISOJ 2022. (Patricia Lim/Knight Center)

“Basically, anything we do — a service, a platform to distribute content — is a product and we must be mindful of how the audience will use it and interact with it. What are the resources we have to take with it, from idea to reality, through technology, and of course the business model?” Carrique asked.

The Texas Tribune is recognized by the Pew Research Center as the largest newsroom covering a state capital and as the leader in public service journalism in the United States. It also has never experienced a lay-off or a cut employees’ compensations. What is the secret recipe? Funding from high network individuals, foundations, members, and corporations, said Hingle, chief revenue officer of The Texas Tribune.

“Since 2019, we have raised over $102 million to support an ambitious newsroom. From Day 1, we believe in the diversification of revenue streams for long term sustainability,” Hingle said.

As a revenue source, events are the biggest point of differentiation for The Texas Tribune in Hingle’s opinion. They have always been part of the business plan and they present about 50 events per year. For 2022, the events’ revenue goal is $2 million.

“These are all editorial events, open to the public, unscripted, free to attend, and donors and sponsors don’t play any role on the topic, presenters, etc.,” Hingle said.

Instead of talking about logos, Hingle explained they have been focusing on custom elements that make a brand come alive, creating different approaches for each sponsor to enhance engagement and get the best desired takeaways.

The Texas Tribune also runs RevLab, a nonprofit organization that helps newsrooms around the world develop products and diversify their revenue sources.

“If you are excited about revenue ideas and don’t really know where to start, come to the RevLab,” Hingle suggested. “We are in our third year of operation, and we worked with over 200 newsrooms from across the globe.”

SembraMedia and partnerships

With the mission to help independent digital media develop sustainable business models, SembraMedia is a nonprofit organization that provides consulting, technical training, market intelligence and networking opportunities for Spanish-language journalists and social entrepreneurs in Latin America, the United States and Spain.

“If you publish in Spanish, original content, and offer some social value to your community, we want to help you run a more successful business, so you can do more and better journalism, greater and independent, and defend yourself better, which is such a challenge for so many of the journalists that we work with,” explained Warner, co-founder of SembraMedia.

There is no simple solution to develop a sustainable news organization, but Warner believes five takeaways could help entrepreneurs find their path for a more profitable business: audience, accounting, innovation and technology, revenue development, and foundational challenges.

“When you help this media develop the right kind of product revenue for the right stage of development they are in, you get a much better return, and you can actually raise the numbers quite a bit,” Warner said.

Advocating for strategic partnerships to increase revenue and drive audience, Warner argues that instead of thinking about competitors, entrepreneurs should look to other news organizations as potential allies.

“One thing I always say about partnerships is start small first. Partnerships work when both parties bring something valuable to the table.”

Another key element for Warner is to encourage journalists to test things before they dive into a revenue-generating project while also convincing themselves they need to make money, which is not an evil thing nor a corrupting force.

“Sometimes people give up too fast,” Warner cautioned. “Sometimes people don’t test enough.”

Silvia DalBen Furtado is PhD student at the School of Journalism and Media of the University of Texas at Austin, where she researches the use of AI and machine learning algorithms in investigative reporting.