Industry Insight: What’s a Journalist Worth? Finding the Answer Could Help Sustain Local News

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What a helpless feeling it is when editors “do their part” for the financial health of the news business by eliminating journalism jobs. Revenue drops, newsroom expenses are cut. Rinse, repeat.

Who really knows what those positions and people were worth to the business? Or how much their loss will hamper future revenue growth, feeding the cycle?

And because it’s such an inexact science, there is rarely opportunity, on the flip side, for an editor to make the case that adding a new reporting or editing position will help grow the business in any kind of tangible way.

In contrast, a publisher wouldn’t hesitate to expand her advertising sales staff, having confidence that the average rep position brings in a certain amount of revenue. If the person in the job falls short, you can replace them with someone who gets better results, or eventually determine that you’ve reached the ceiling on number of positions.

What if you could attach similar metrics to newsroom jobs? It could be a powerful argument against short-sighted cuts to local journalism, supported by data. It could be a blueprint for entrepreneurship around what editorial investment could do to expand and unlock new revenue streams. Maybe we could start growing again.

It could also be a double-edged sword, and the tension around such talk isn’t new.

If the exact financial worth of a reporter, editor or photographer is calculated, whither journalism that’s of great importance to defending the powerless, the penniless, and democracy itself? What if those stories have only indirect or insignificant impact on the bottom line?

News organizations’ push into the digital subscription business has put more attention than ever on reporter-level and story-level metrics.

And there’s no question that editors are in an uneasy position. Live by those metrics, making a business case for investing in the newsroom, but also die by them. In this world, how do you defend work that has no tangible impact on revenue?

Publishers could end up viewing local journalism in three major buckets: content that drives subscriptions; content that drives page view-based advertising; and content that drives context-based advertising (an arts and entertainment vertical, for example, or special section on real estate).

The first category gives editors the most leeway. Investigative and accountability reporting that has impact, but doesn’t generate a great deal of audience or page views, could make the most effective case to readers that they should pay for a subscription.

Digital subscriptions offer hope for newsrooms whose only previous direct impact on the business was measured in page views that drove CPM-based programmatic ad revenue. Car crashes generate page views. Asking tough questions at city hall is more likely to generate subscriptions.

But it’s not a black box anymore. Modern analytics tools can track the exact journey to conversion…the stories people read or didn’t read on their way to subscribing. Editors can’t get away with saying “everything else” generates subscriptions.

Start with the caveat that there will be exceptions…the occasional story that has no impact on revenue, maybe even costs you subscriptions and advertising, but is true to mission and doing right by your community.

Then ask what kind of change and what kind of results could be driven by an editor who decided to stop producing any content that doesn’t drive subscriptions, drive page view-based advertising, or drive contextual advertising.

What would be the justification for further newsroom cuts then? And what a foundation that could provide in making the case that adding a reporter in a particular beat or community would pay for itself based on the subscription or page view revenue multiple we know would be generated over the cost to employ them.

Matt DeRienzo is vice president of news and digital content for Hearst’s newspapers and websites in Connecticut. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.

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