We Aren’t Still Looking for a Silver Bullet, Are We?

An analogy I’ve been using lately.

Journalists are awash at sea. Floating around us are various logs. We are reaching out to them in hopes they’ll sustain our weight and keep us afloat.

But it is a mistake to think any single log can keep us afloat. Try it and you’ll end up like Leonardo DiCaprio at the end of Titanic.


What news organizations need is a piece of sturdy rope to tie several logs together in an effort to make a raft. Think Tom Hanks in Cast Away


Too often I think journalists or news organizations are looking for a silver bullet revenue stream.

  • Oh – if only we can charge for content behind a paywall (a bad idea as it cuts off other revenue streams).
  • Oh – if only we can get the Sandler family (or equivalent) to give 2 million a year to several organizations around the country.
  • Oh – if only advertising online would start to cover our traditional costs. (Advertising online will never meet the old print numbers)
  • Oh – if only we can get 100,000 people to donate $10 each. (Hey, I can pick on my model too!)

I’m sure for many this isn’t news, but it needs to be said regardless. Let’s have a reality check.

It aint gonna happen.

Normally I leave the naysaying to Alan Mutter who does it better than anyone (just playing with ya Alan, but you know it’s true).

But if we are to be realistic none of these will work in quantities large enough to sustain the way journalism was done 20 years ago. At least not according to any of the numbers that have been reported to me.

Much like Enron stock: If it looks to good to be true, it probably is.

So What Do We Do?

Each of those revenue streams are logs. Some are sturdier than others. We need to figure out how to tie them all together.

This is why paywalls are such a contested debate. If you erect a paywall, you can say goodbye to a healthy advertising revenue stream.

Semi-solution: You create a premium paywall. Or like RawStory.com have a premium membership that removes advertising. Most of your content will be free surrounded by annoying adverts and some will be premium.

These are the conversations and concessions that the news industry needs to have. What reveneue streams can we combine with a few others so that if they get bashed during a recession it holds up.

Spot.Us or small donations is a revenue stream. I have been focusing very narrowly on this one log. That is not because I view it as a silver bullet, but because it is a log many news organizations will need to rely on for anywhere from 5-25 percent of their revenue. My goal with Spot.Us is to build the tools and system so that news organizations can rely on Spot.Us as a sturdy log whenever they need to collect small donations. But I will NEVER claim that Spot.Us can sustain an entire news organization. Nor can it sustain a single journalists entire career. That’s why Spot.Us is built around collaboration.

Other streams that are untapped.

  1. Becoming an ISP provider (might only work in rural regions)
  2. Events! Look at the tech blogs: Mashable has parties for their MTV crowd, TechCrunch has startup conventions for the biz crowd, ReadWriteWeb has conferences for their straight geek crowd. Could the SF Chronicle host an event for public discussion and charge at the door?
  3. Ad networks. The best thoughts around this I’ve seen recently come from Boss Jarvis’ presentation at Aspen. Say what you want about the numbers – the concept deserves exploring.
  4. Newsroom cafe anyone? Still one of my most commented on blog posts.
  5. ViewPass or as I understand it – increasing our knowledge of readers to increase CPM.

There are probably a few dozen more we could brainstorm.

The trick is figuring out how we can make these all work together. We need services that can help news organizations roll these out together. Systems that play well with each other and don’t lock the others out. That’s why I like Mark Pott’s GrowthSpur. It isn’t trying to BE a news organization with a single focus. It’s focusing on a log (looks like advertising to start) and will help other organizations find and put weight on that log. Then the news organization can spend time focusing on other logs. Or, if they are smart reach out to other news service providers (like Spot.Us) to put weight on their logs as well.

In essence – Spot.Us, GrowthSpur and others are trying to be the rope that news organizations need so they can distribute their financial weight across several revenue streams.