Merrill Brown on the future of news beyond advertising

‘Advertising needs to be part of the mix to be sure, but the future of news is all about building products that people will pay for.’

Ana Lomtadze
Oct 17 · 8 min read

At a time when news media worldwide are facing financial hurdles, The News Project (TNP) has an unlikely target in mind — small and medium sized newsrooms, which are arguably the most affected by the crisis. Intrigued by this offering, last week GEN visited TNP as part of our study tour in New York City, focusing on ‘Time to Change your CMS!’. We spoke with TNP’s CEO and Founder, Merrill Brown, to learn about its preliminary outcomes. We also asked why TNP prioritizes reader revenues over advertising and which existing business models Brown himself finds inspiring. He also shares what makes him hopeful about the future of local journalism.

GEN: What do you mean when you say The News Project (TNP) is ‘news business in a box’?

The News Project

Merrill Brown:When we talk about offering “news business in a box” we are describing the comprehensive set of TNP capabilities that we have created for small and medium sized news organizations. Everything is included in our package. Templates for most editorial needs, platform capabilities and hosting services similar to what large companies utilize and monetization capabilities including everything a site needs to be successful in working to attract reader revenue. All of this and more TNP makes available to customers at a price newsrooms can afford, perhaps the only such comprehensive package offered anywhere.

Many new Content Management Systems (CMS)were launched in the US in recent years: ARC, Chorus, Brightspot, Newspack, etc. What is unique about TNP’s offering?

We think with our first major site, CalMatters, TNP has started to demonstrate what we can do. It will take a bit of time to gather the data we’ll need to really make our case. Ultimately TNP will be judged not just by the design and user experience you can see today at CalMatters, but by what we’ve done for our customers under the hood. We hope to help all TNP customers reach their goals.

‘Advertising needs to be part of the mix to be sure, but the future of news is all about building products that people will pay for.’

What are the outcomes of your work with CalMatters? What has been working well thus far and what can be improved?

CalMatters was TNP’s first client

The site is performing well and with our moving the site to our platform at the same time we’ve also helped the great CalMatters team with a reimagining and redesign of their site. With our colleagues at CalMatters, we believe we have accomplished a great deal. Since the summer launch, we have been working with them to improve the site and to add new features designed to better serve their many audiences.

Who have been your clients since CalMatters? Do you envisage taking on international news media (i.e. outside of the USA)?

We will be serving audiences throughout the world although our immediate focus is in on North America. We expect to be announcing new TNP customers later this year and hope to welcome customers from outside the U.S. in 2020.

If a small-size news organization had to choose between Newspack/Wordpress and TNP, what would be the advantages of selecting the latter?

We think of all three services as complementary. It is simplistic but Newspack is thought of as serving small news organizations, while WordPress VIP, which coordinates Automattic’s work with TNP, serves larger news sites. At TNP we’re focused on the middle group which we generally think of as editorial groups of 5 to 50.

‘…most small publishers are not well prepared for the complexity of developing reader revenue strategies.’

How do you use AI (i.e. ‘Charming Robot’) in your tech and advisory services to increase your clients’ revenues and user engagement?

Charming Robot is The News Project’s partner providing strategic, user interface and user experience services. Our story templates reflect a decade of their experience both in researching how people travel through digital properties and in implementing those learnings. We are a technology and services company with a SaaS (software as a service) business model. Charming Robot’s body of work demonstrates that they’re a global leader in their work with news and information customers. In terms of AI, we are eager to encourage customers to look at solutions that will provide readers with personalized content and urge them to be thinking about feeds that capitalize on technology driven content development solutions.

When it comes to revenues, TNP seems to focus on reader revenues more than ad revenues. Why is that? Do you believe a community of engaged readers will increasingly start paying? Is it now too late to redirect ad revenues from platforms back to news media?

We share at TNP the increasingly widely held view that the economics of news require new revenue streams whether what’s being produced is for local or national audiences. Advertising needs to be part of the mix to be sure, but the future of news is all about building products that people will pay for. That’s the future and that’s our focus in part because most small publishers are not well prepared for the complexity of developing reader revenue strategies. The technology is complex, the analytics can be daunting and the strategies, whether we’re talking about membership, subscription or other reader revenue approaches require a varying product approach.

Display and native advertising remain important today but the key focus going forward is on building or strengthening businesses around subscription and donations..’ — The Reuters Digital News Report 2019

‘Whether it’s building membership programs, many in the spirit of U.S. public radio and public TV, or throwing large events like those built by Texas Tribune or in Pro Publica’s innovative launching of new local and regional investigative services, there’s significant innovation all around the global news ecosystem.’

Are Piano’s solutions for subscriptions and membership integrated into TNP or is it offered as a separate option?

Piano’s capabilities are an important component of the monthly subscription packages for TNP customers. Among the things unique about TNP’s offering is our integration with Piano. We provide not only the tools and analytics but we also have expertise on our team to help our customers refine reader revenue strategies and implement those strategies using the combined capabilities of TNP and Piano.

‘Entrepreneurs building new news and information organizations around the world represent a critical component of the restructuring of the news and information marketplace.’

What kinds of sustainable business models for news do you envisage in the coming future? Do you have some examples in mind of news media practicing innovative approaches in this regard?

As part of the product and revenue diversification strategies that news and information companies are implementing there are many exciting developments. Whether it’s building membership programs, many in the spirit of U.S. public radio and public TV, or throwing large events like those built by Texas Tribune or in Pro Publica’s innovative launching of new local and regional investigative services, there’s significant innovation all around the global news ecosystem.

TNP provides advisory services on monetization, membership and content presentation among others. Can you share some of the best practices on either of these topics?

Of course there are many best practices across the many news and information fields. We are particularly focused on making sure producers use their web and mobile pages in the most effective ways possible. By that I’m talking about two things. One is how readers are guided through a site into a registration process in signing up for a newsletter or for other services. There are optimal paths for this process that need to be taken seriously. Second, it is similarly critical to build story pages, not just the less frequently used home pages, that give readers related content opportunities and show a news site’s most attractive facets.

‘Small newsrooms that are smart about their reader revenue strategies are a critical piece of how we’re going to solve the local news problem.’

The News Project (TNP) caters to small- and medium-sized media outlets, and yet the fees are not insignificant — a $25,000 sign-up fee coupled with a monthly pay. How do you define the monthly fee?

To get a news organization a brand-new site or to redesign an existing property and migrate its content to a new platform for $25,000 is a very good value. The monthly fee which includes access to WordPress VIP hosting services, Piano tools and analytics and other pieces of what we offer will be set dependent on the services we offer that work best for the individual customers. If, for instance, a site has minimal audience development capabilities they’re likely to want what we offer in that regard. If they have an audience development team, then those services are less likely to be part of what they’ll want us to provide as part of the monthly package. The components of what we’ll be providing as part of the monthly subscription package will vary customer to customer.

At a time when news media worldwide, let alone local news, are suffering financially, why did you decide to choose this particular target audience? What gives you hope for the future of local journalism?

We chose this direction because we believe that entrepreneurs building new news and information organizations around the world represent a critical component of the restructuring of the news and information marketplace. In order to maximize their editorial, audience development and revenue goals these news organizations need access to the high-quality technologies and world class capabilities TNP has put together. The opportunity to get products like what we’ve built into the hands of strong local news teams at viable price points suggest one reason for optimism. Small newsrooms that are smart about their reader revenue strategies are a critical piece of how we’re going to solve the local news problem.

Interview by Ana Lomtadze & Bertrand Pecquerie


Merrill Brown

Merrill Brown is the Founder of The News Project. A business executive, journalist, educator and consultant, Brown most recently served as Founding Director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University, a post he held from 2012 until 2017. He was the founding Editor in Chief of MSNBC.com, which became a recognized leader in digital news delivery when it began operations in 1996, and cofounded the Online News Association in 1999. Brown is principal of MMB Media LLC, which provides strategy consulting, product development and editorial services for clients including early stage companies as well as large publishers such as The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian, and broadcasters such as National Public Radio and ABC News.

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.

Ana Lomtadze

Written by

Head of Comms & Partnerships Development at Global Editors Network

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.

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