Revenue boot camp

LIKE an ROTC cadet, I spent two days last weekend at the Poynter Institute “Revenue Boot Camp.” The idea was to take a fast course in building a profitable business model for content sites. And I am delighted to say it worked. Wendy Wallace at Poynter packed in a full semester course on Monetizing Digital Content in two days.

It was great, in any case, to go to a conference where I did not have to speak. That changes the whole dynamic. You can just sit there and try to learn something.

I had no real expectations about this Boot Camp, but it sounded like a good idea considering how stressed the legacy news industry has become as its business model melts away, and how challenged digital publications are to be profitable. I was curious to see how Poynter’s main mission, training working journalists, was surviving the change.

This non profit institution was founded by the publisher of the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), Nelson Poynter. I’ve been coming since I was at The New York Times—attracted by a superb graphics program in the 80s, led by the great Mario Garcia. And it was Poynter that I met my partner, Foster Barnes. So I like the place.

At Nelson Poynter’s death in 1978 the newspaper ownership passed to his Institute. For years this excellent regional daily, which became the largest in Florida, fueled an effective and influential school for working journalists. More recently the non-profit set-up may have saved the Times, and at least prevented it from being sold to a chain that later became bankrupt. As newspaper profits evaporated, the Poynter Institute was itself stressed, and last year the trouble was compounded by a series of internal missteps that led to the departure of Poynter.org’s star blogger, Jim Romenesko.

In the background Poynter may be straining to come up with their own revenue strategy, but they put on a revenue seminar with a good deal of tactical tips for digital startups.

The program lead off with Mark Briggs, who has a new book out, Entrepreneurial Journalism . Briggs, a Poynter fellow and a co-founder of Serra Media which makes software for hyper-local sites, is now in charge of the digital side KING-TV in Seattle. He dived right into the degree of reluctance (mixed with ignorance) with which most news folks approach business. The idea of becoming an entrepreneur has about as much appeal to journalists as it does to Marxists. The sentiment is reciprocal; certain business people would say that all journalists are Marxists.

Briggs quoted David Boraks, founder of DavidsonNews.net, a lively and successful local-local site: “Journalism is an entrepreneurial venture. We’re not the future, we’re the present of local journalism.”

Mike Orren, founder of Pegasus News in Dallas and now a consultant,  followed with a rapid-fire briefing on making money at a small content site. Every. Possible. Which. Way.

His tactical approach was persuasive, although a publishers have to gate their time and resources according to what works best and what does not. Cheap network ads go into the latter category. Don’t imagine they are going to fund your operation, unless you’re Google or Yahoo, Orren said. Don’t talk about CPMs to advertisers. Instead go for sponsorship. Show a big advertiser how to build a relationship with your readers.

“Selling ads to someone who doesn’t believe in advertising is like getting an atheist to go to your church.” Orren said. “First, get them to go to any church.”

Bill Mitchell, who heads the Poynter entrepreneurship program, and Jeremy Caplan, another Poynter fellow and director of an entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY’s J-School, added a tactical quick-course on subscription revenue.

Chris Seper, founder of the thriving vertical, MedCityNews, stepped up next, with a similarly astute and rapid-fire tactical presentation focused on how how to exploit premium content with partnership deals ranging from custom publishing to “paid posts.”

This is not what Rafat Ali meant when he started Paid Content. (He showed a slide from the Way Back Machine when that startup was just a blog called Paid.) At the high-point of the conference Rafat shared his lessons of doing a startup, and gave a bunch of solid, Tweetable pointers to the Poynter audience. I Tweeted three:

: “Anytime you use the words ‘data’ plus ‘dashboard’ you get money. Investors love those terms.—@rafat #RevCamp


: “Intelligence is a word investors also like.”—@rafat #RevCamp


: “People will never respond to [a pitch e-mail] that’s longer than the longest Facebook status update you ever wrote.”—@rafat #RevCamp

To a rapt room, Rafat gave a personal account of the roller coaster of startup emotions, emphasizing it takes a certain amount of guts. If you don’t want to charge up your credit cards, you don’t want to get into digital publishing.

A good attitude in the face of all of it is essential. “If you are not foaming at the mouth when you tell your idea to an investor, then you are not motivated enough,” he said.

Rafat sold Paid Content to the Guardian at the right moment, although the buyer, like many buyers, had no real idea what to do with the company. After eight years, he is moving on to a new startup, Skift, a data-based travel site, and is now closing on a seed round of funding. Sounds like a much better investment than Facebook.

The 25 publishers and wannabes in the seminar were swept away with the conversation from the whole seminar—with topics like fundraising, revenue and how to handle “paid posts.”

The take-away for me was the conviction that out in the long tail of digital publishing, you want every kind of revenue you can get. Subscriptions. And sponsorship.

Missing from the seminar was much talk about design, or promotion. But, hey, if you are going to pack in a whole semester course into two days, something is going to fall off.

If Poynter can continue to provide content as useful as the Rev Camp, it deserves to survive. To do that, it’s going to have to have its own revenue boot camp, and find a business model that will continue to great Nelson Poynter legacy.