This past weekend, I spoke on a panel at Ohio University’s Future of Student Media Summit. It was a great opportunity to revisit the topics of media business models and organizational structures that absorbed most of my time as an undergraduate and continue to fascinate me today.
With the hope of continuing many of the promising conversations that began at the Summit, here is a quick summary of my key takeaways from the weekend:
I am often frustrated by overly conservative ideas that are proposed as “solutions” to the business model challenges facing the media industry, so I was very encouraged to hear Ryan Frank’s closing keynote at the conference. Ryan spoke about the need to try “moonshot” projects, which are endeavors that can lead to 10X (not just 10%) improvements in how your organization operates. This was exactly the right message that student journalists — and their advisors and alumni benefactors — needed to hear.
Too often, we think that improvements on the margins — more banner ads on the website, launching a mobile app—are what’s needed to make journalism sustainable. Students and media professionals need to be more ambitious, however, and remember that the reason journalism thrived in the 20th century was because there was an unassailable business model surrounding it.
We should be in search of a similarly dominant venture that can support journalism in the 21st century, rather than modest improvements that will only serve to prolong the agony of losing audiences and revenue to companies such as Facebook, Google, and Snapchat, whose own moonshots have made them the dominant players in the media economy.
Think beyond advertising
An extension of the previous point is that it’s time for all media organizations — especially student media—to start thinking beyond advertising. There were several interesting sessions at the summit about opportunities for media organizations to offer agency services, and one statistic from the Borrell Associates report stood out:
Nearly half of college media advertisers would feel comfortable with students managing their email marketing and social media. That is a huge opportunity for student media to grow revenue from existing customers, which is much more efficient than acquiring new advertisers.
More broadly, there are other trends such as ad blockers and the growing importance of audience data that put traditional media organizations at a significant disadvantage vis-a-vis technology companies for advertising dollars.
Advertising money is still an important driver of newsroom revenues, but I think prospects for its future stability are uncertain at best. It is time for media organizations to diversify their revenue streams and think about how they can leverage other assets — such as creative skills and a built-in marketing apparatus—to generate money.
Create — and share—value
When Bob Benz asked about my biggest mistake from when I worked on The Cavalier Daily, I didn’t have to think too long about my answer:
Although my team was very successful at growing our digital audience, increasing engagement, and improving operational efficiency, we simply did not do enough on the revenue side. One missed opportunity stands out:
Our experience covering the 2012 leadership crisis at the University of Virginia revealed how much value our newspaper created for the broader community. Unfortunately, we didn’t do enough following that event to share in the value we created. If I could do it all over again, I would focus more energy on identifying potential benefactors in the community and collaborating on ways to leverage their resources to ensure our paper could provide similar ground-breaking coverage in the future.
The Cavalier Daily and the Cavalier Daily Alumni Association are doing a much better job in this regard today, as our upcoming #GivingToHoosDay initiative shows. But our missed opportunity in 2012 is an important lesson for other media organizations to keep in mind.
Keynote speaker Gordon Borrell put it even more succinctly — don’t do anything for free. It’s not sustainable for you or your community.
The future is now
It was great to see the level of interest in these topics among both students and professionals in attendance at the event. I find the transformation of the media industry to be one of the most compelling issues in modern business, as well as a matter of significant public importance. The Future of Student Media Summit was an excellent opportunity to focus on this challenge, and I look forward to seeing the new solutions that emerge from the conversations we had last weekend.
Special thanks to Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication, the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and The Post — and especially Will Drabold—for organizing and hosting this event.