Is the business model for, or just to sustain, journalism?

Jack Lail expands on Janet Coats' essay which asks the perennial question: as old business models erode, how do we pay for the craft of journalism? A key point:

“For journalism to work, it has to prove its value to the community it serves, and proving that value means attracting business revenue – whether through advertising, subscription, or underwriting by an audience committed to the coverage your provide. Likely, it will be a combination of all those things, and more.”

No one talks much about what I call the “Girl Scout cookies” model.

Every year, seemingly everywhere, Girl Scouts sell cookies. They don't bake the cookies. They buy them wholesale and resell them at substantially marked-up prices, keeping the difference to pay for their activities. Everyone understands this.

Some Girl Scout troop activities might help the scouts learn how to bake — thus, their activities have some tertiary relationship to the products. Still, no one expects the scouts to supply the cookies they sell, and most buyers rely on the consistent quality and selections offered by the institutional bakers who supply the scouts' fare. A new box of Thin Mints? Mmm. Overbrowned sugar cookies produced by Troop 43, offered in a Ziploc? Uh, not so much.

So why do business-model builders always seem to expect the products of journalism to be so intimately tied to business activities that support its practice? At this stage of the game, must we force people to pay directly for a journalistic product or adjacency to it?

No. Here's why:

  • High-quality practice of journalism can create new brands or sustain old ones. (Note I do not say all high-quality journalism is practiced by the current crop of news media, nor will it be. Debate among yourselves.)
  • Those brands can carry enough weight with institutional leaders and business proprietors to get them to hear a sales pitch, at least. From established brands, they might expect to hear a pitch encouraging them to buy an ad adjacent to news product.
  • What is that ad if not a marketing service? And what are news media operators in the business community if not providers of marketing services? So why would we ever limit ourselves to selling marketing services in the form of adjacency to our news products? We can and should offer all the clever interactive tools and methods for business proprietors to get their messages of the moment in front of current and prospective customers.
  • We do not have to build marketing products or services ourselves, nor do we have to find audience for every client's message next to our content. Like the scouts, we can acquire and resell these things. In the interactive universe, media companies with a “build-it-ourselves” mentality fall behind, and remain behind, the best innovators in any category. Meanwhile, companies willing to form reseller relationships can gain leverage from the best-of-breed in every category.
  • Reseller relationships mean revenue shares, but in my experience, do not have to be loss leaders. Adding resale marketing services (low margin) to traditional ad adjacencies (higher margin) can yield a sum greater than the parts.
  • Such a marketing business can grow to help pay for journalism without relying solely on the ad inventory surrounding news product.

Let's see if I can close this loop in one sentence.

High-quality journalism creates credible brands that can open doors for us to sell, or resell, robust marketing solutions to business proprietors, at enough volume and profit over time to sustain the practice of journalism as old models erode.

I never said it would be a great sentence.

I'm also not yet ready to guarantee this will work, but I'd rather try it than continue depending solely on the value of news adjacency, or before even considering consumer-paid news content.