In the ever-evolving media landscape, driven by technology and shifts in consumer behavior, the concept of sustainability within news media has gained profound significance. Lately, I’ve been extensively contemplating sustainability, as it encompasses creating a community-driven content product that remains relevant over time while striking a balance between financial health and community well-being. Sustainability holds deeper importance for me, as ensuring the longevity of this industry is one of my core missions. The challenge involves constructing a profit-oriented news product model and strategy that caters to the needs of today's generation. I believe that the intricate interplay between financial success and community engagement lies at the core of sustainability in our industry, and this article explores the multifaceted art of achieving sustainability in news media. For me, the allure of news media sustainability extends beyond financial considerations alone. In pursuing sustainability, news leaders must embrace the complexity of their roles, engaging in a constant assessment of finances, an unwavering commitment to the community and the capability to reinvent — guided by consistent principles and practices.
Understanding EBITDA: A cornerstone of sustainability
At the heart of news media sustainability lies the mastery of crucial financial metrics, with EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) taking center stage. While not the sole guiding force behind sustainability, and despite enduring some criticism over the years, I still believe that EBITDA provides news leaders with a tangible metric to evaluate their organization's health and capacity to seize opportunities. This pivotal concept embodies the delicate balance between financial prudence and delivering a high-quality community product. Two additional key metrics, EBITDA margin and net income, also play an instrumental role in defining and guiding an organization's health and success.
In my journey of comprehending news media revenue, these metrics have served as foundational building blocks, offering insights into an organization’s viability and sustainability. Amid the pursuit of significant achievements, focusing on achieving profitability remains an ongoing strategy, underpinning every aspect of strategic development and project meetings. Striving for profitability is a fundamental sustainability goal, and managing these metrics effectively ensures the attainment of this objective.
Attaining and maintaining a healthy EBITDA empowers news outlets to achieve a harmonious equilibrium between financial stability and editorial excellence. Revenue leaders within news organizations must emphasize a comprehensive understanding of key metrics, including EBITDA, EBITDA margin and net income, throughout the entire organization. These concepts should organically become ingrained and serve as the core foundation for weekly scorecards, alongside other vital metrics and monitored KPIs. This approach establishes the initial cornerstone for building sustainability.
Customer obsession: The catalyst for sustainability
In the age of hyper-personalization, understanding and catering to the audience’s needs is paramount. News organizations must become customer-obsessed entities that deliver information and add value to readers’ lives. By grasping the nuances of audience preferences and tailoring content to address their concerns, news media can establish itself as a trusted resource and secure a loyal readership.
One of the most delicate balances yet to be struck is identifying not just what the generation needs to read and understand but what is of utmost value as a resource for their day-to-day lives and, thus, what they're willing to pay for consistently. This is where creativity and data can guide the future of sustainable news media. Within any given multi-generational community or region across the country, what are the hyperlocal resources and points of content that hold the utmost value and enhance the quality of life for readers and audiences? Achieving this requires a hyper-focus on understanding the mindset, outlook, interests and demographics of the community served. This endeavor cannot be merely a one-time project but must be an ongoing focus and concerted strategy within local news organizations.
I believe that navigating this concept poses a significant challenge for news media, which has its distinctions from other industries. While most sectors may have an easier course in adapting and evolving their products based on customer feedback and demands, news media faces the unique responsibility of upholding a high level of objectivity concerning information that often pertains to subjective or controversial aspects of American life and culture. Despite this, drawing from my background and experience in sales and revenue, I tend to focus on specific content concepts that align with advertiser safety and are rooted in subscriber interests, entertainment and overall lifestyle. I fully recognize the paramount importance of maintaining unwavering integrity in journalism; however, I also emphasize the potential for meaningful evolution beyond the realm of national politics, which can offer substantial value for readers, subscribers and advertisers alike. The key lies in precisely identifying these evolutionary pathways as the crucial next step for achieving sustainability.
Evolutionary reinvention: A pathway to sustainability
Not every community, city or region across the country experiences rapid growth, leading to limited audience and advertiser expansion opportunities. Additionally, the demographics and microeconomics of cities tend to change over time. However, local community news holds an advantage in this aspect compared to other industries. The reinvention and sustainable model of cultivating and distributing information and content can adapt to various changes within a community while maintaining quality and profitability.
News media’s uniqueness lies in its connection to democracy and free speech, serving as a cornerstone of American values. This bond means that while adapting and reinventing may take longer and require careful consideration to understand the shifting dynamics of a community and the evolving interests of readers and businesses, it remains pivotal for the long-term sustainability of news media. Achieving news media sustainability on a social level involves reinventing and enduring across different generations, which requires thorough self-assessment and staying true to your organization’s core mission of delivering resourceful content and information to the community. Navigating this evolution healthily and profitably becomes the third fundamental building block in developing long-lasting success and sustainability.
The intricate symphony of sustainability in news media harmonizes the elements of financial acumen, customer obsession and evolution. The impact of each of these aspects on the overall output helps shape the organization's potential valuation. Navigating this complex landscape demands a delicate balance of prudence and innovation, empowering news organizations to seamlessly blend consistent revenue generation with enduring relevance. The dedication to sustainability underscores journalism’s timeless ability to inform, enlighten and enrich communities. This approach ensures that news media remains financially viable and safeguards the critical value and essence of journalism. It solidifies its significant role in shaping the future while embracing the changes occurring in the modern news ecosystem. As news media evolves, sustainability remains an ongoing pursuit, reflecting the industry's ability to adapt and the strength of the communities it serves.
Richard E. Brown is a News Media Alliance Rising Star recipient, the former director of renewals and digital sales strategy at LPi, and the former director of digital operations and sales of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He recently served as the head of digital subscriber churn for Gannett | USA TODAY Network and is now the senior director of retention for The Daily Beast. He is a member of the board of directors for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation and is the owner of RE Media Holdings, LLC. Richard is available for consulting and can be reached at www.richardebrown.co
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