By Kevin J. Davis and Mark Lee Hunter

There is now an entire generation of reporters, editors and business leaders in newsrooms worldwide who never worked at a company that consistently boosted revenues, and whose employer’s remaining strategies consisted of cutting staff and resources. Put another way, they have never known an era of growth.

We cannot accept that this will be our future. Growth in journalism organizations must be achieved if we wish to preserve the value and influence of our work for generations to come. Some legacy media organizations will be successful in making the switch from cutting to growing again. In other communities, new industry forces, such as nonprofit investigative centers and NGOs, will occupy the growing holes in the media landscape. 

The challenge is not to “save” newspapers, or public radio, or any other media that is struggling for survival, if we are saving them mainly for our own sakes. The issue shifts if we ask first, “Who are we saving them for?” From that standpoint, the challenge is to grow to meet our communities’ needs, and not to save our jobs.

There are five mindsets that must guide news enterprises on this path.

The business mindset

This is what enables understanding  the financial drivers of an organization. That includes the revenue side – everything from membership fees to philanthropic grants. Equally important is to understand the firm’s expenses – its cost basis, and how those costs relate to operations and key activities.

The business person asks themselves the following types of questions when considering any project, initiative or strategy:

  • How is this project contributing to or harming our organization’s top and bottom lines?
  • What quantifiable value does it generate? 
  • Where are the predictable revenue streams to pay for this?
  • Are my costs in-line with anticipated revenue?
  • What are my risks?
  • Do I have enough resources (in particular people) to do what I think needs doing??
  • What are the ideal and worst-case scenario timelines?
  • Is the anticipated return on investment (ROI) acceptable?

The editorial mindset

The ability to understand what we’re covering, and how the story is told, and for whom, remains a key function. This is where news media and information service providers differ from non-journalism organizations, who are focused more on content as a means of capturing potential customers, and not as a core function of the organization per se. Telling and promoting stories that challenge, empower and inform can and must be the “secret sauce” that sets journalistic organizations apart. 

That function can no longer be based on the assumption that editors and journalists always know more and better about what their communities need than the people in those communities. Sometimes we do, indeed. But unless we have investigated the community’s side of the story too, we probably don’t. More to the point, we cannot devote resources only to producing content on the expectation that if we build it, “they” will come. If they don’t need what we built, they won’t come. 

There are exceptions to this dictum, certainly. When Steve Jobs launched the iPod, nobody knew they needed one, because nothing comparable existed and it was hard to imagine such a thing. But people did need a highly portable device that could access a large amount of music at low cost. From that standpoint, Jobs built exactly what the market was waiting for. Similarly, Steve Bannon perceived that a large share of the American public felt unrepresented by what they saw in their news media, and set out to discover how to address them over the course of a decade. We are not telling you to turn into Breitbart, which is hardly our ideal of a news media. We are indeed telling you that unless you can define a genuine demand for the kind of work you want to do, and a community that shares the demand, your success will be a very long time coming. 

The editorial person asks themselves the following types of questions when considering any project, initiative or strategy:

  • Who is this for? 
  • What do we know about their information needs, and which need(s) does it help meet?
  • How do we expect our target audience will discover this content?
  • How will it make their lives better – more prosperous, informed, secure, and powerful?  
  • What do we hope will happen as a result of this effort? What is the desired impact, and how will we measure it?

The community mindset

As we use the term, “community” means the target audience for which you are creating content, and whose needs you are dedicated to serving. Community is measured by things like the number of subscribers. But more importantly, it’s also measured by the rate of penetration. Journalists therefore need to know how big their target community is, what information it needs in order to thrive, and what other brands they interact with. 

We also must ensure the community sees and recognizes that our organization is working on its behalf. Far too often, our content doesn’t represent the community’s interests, or we over-estimate the value of our existing content, and so the community doesn’t recognize itself or its needs in the content. One of our clients, an alternative newspaper in the south of England, did a great job of investigating social problems, but ignored the vibrant culture scene in the city. When they began to cover that scene, they began to grow, because they better resembled their market.  

Community-focused people ask themselves the following types of questions when considering any project, initiative or strategy:

  • Who, amongst our known community, is this for? 
  • How can we reach them? 
  • How can we activate them?
  • What are they saying about this?
  • How can we attract more people like them?

The engagement mindset

The Internet giants defined engagement as the time spent interacting with particular content, whether user-generated or created by a provider. That measure matters for us, too. But engagement has other, multiple meanings for a contemporary news outlet. It is the cornerstone of trust, because people place greater trust in others whom they can contact, see, and exchange with*. It is the gateway to data, because through those interactions, we learn more about our users.

Engagement also means being visibly present when something important happens in the community, and visibly alert to changes in the natural, social, political or economic environments that affect our users. Engagement means acting as though we share in the fate of the community, and are working to shape it for the community’s benefit. 

Engagement-minded people ask themselves the following questions when considering any project, initiative or strategy:

  • What do we want the “customer journey” to be during and through this project? 
  • What forms of interaction and opportunities for involvement do we want to offer our target audience through this project? 
  • What can we give them that will be meaningful to them?
  • What can we get in return for this value?

The growth mindset

The existential objective of any news organization is to grow. Editorial health, brand value and organizational sustainability are all tied to building and maintaining growth. Growth is what an organization’s management team must track and measure to determine its success over time. 

Every project, every initiative, must be considered in the light of a single, overriding question: How will we use this work to grow? What will it add to our asset and skills base? Who will it draw into our community? 

The growth-focused person asks themselves questions like these when considering any project, initiative or strategy:

  • How many individuals do we currently have within the target audience for this project? (Sometimes a few are enough.)
  • What do we know about the behavior and traits of the target audience that we can leverage to reach others like them? How will they contribute to a wider impact?
  • How many target audience members do we want after this project (specifically, a hard, measurable number)?
  • What action do we want new target audience members to take (join, subscribe, retweet, etc.)? Put another way, what is their point of conversion, whether or not they become paying customers??
  • What outreach, marketing functions and interventions do we plan on undertaking to reach the target audience for this project? 
  • What is the budget (time, resources and expenditures) to facilitate these actions?
  • At what point or milestone will we review the project to determine its success or failure, expansion or termination?

Moving forward, every decision – every news story, every website improvement, every event, every marketing campaign, every year-end appeal, every hire – needs to be evaluated through these five lenses. 

In particular, successful product development requires bringing together representatives of different functions within an organization – in our case, business, editorial, community, engagement and growth – to approach problems or projects strategically and holistically. In no other business we know of (we have collectively studied industries ranging from automobile bearings to electric guitars) would leaders undertake an initiative based solely on the desire of a single department. In fact, cross-functional teams have become standard features in most growing industries. 

Not incidentally, when you bring together the various people in your organization who manage key activities and functions to decide on how you will commit your resources, make sure you document the expected effects and benefits from the perspective of the five mindsets.  As Nobel economics laureate Richard Thaler says, “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” More important, if you can’t remember what you were aiming for, you can’t tell with any accuracy how close you came to your goals. 

Now over to you:

Where does your newsroom stand in relation to the five mindsets? Have you tried them, in one form or another? How did it work out?

If you want to talk about your experience, let us know. We’re always looking for cases to study and write about:

Excerpted from Community-Powered Journalism: A Manual for sustainability and growth in independent news (publication pending; copyright 2018-2020 Davis and Hunter, all rights reserved). 

*Pogosyan, Marianna, “Who Do You Trust? The Psychology of trust and how to build it across cultures.” Psychology Today, June 52017.