Breakout Session 7: Experiments in Sustainability: Who’s Doing What?


Breakout Session 7: Experiments in Sustainability: Who’s Doing What?

Facilitated by Susan Mernit, Circuit Rider

Scribe: Roberta King, Vice President, P.R. and Marketing, Grand Rapids Community

Susan is a circuit rider with Knight. She has worked with over 70 projects that have been funded by the foundation and she’s the force behind the hyperlocal site Oakland Local.

Concerns, questions and issues with sustainability

Developing revenue streams

Everyone is looking for ideas!

Seeing lots of projects going under; what comes next after these project go away

PBS funding model

It is critical to be planning sustainability from the start AND mid stream AND in the end. All are important to success.

Susan’s slide deck in brief:

Local news deserts are coming up in communities due to newspapers and legacy sites losing ad revenue. Some 75 percent of ad revenue going to national, online sites, Google and Facebook.

Local solutions take two forms:


Sell ads


Market location, not audience

Focus on short form local content

Minimal staff

Revenue $50-$100k year

Big regional:

Underwriting, grants, donors, events, ads

High tech with apps and ad targeting

Third party distribution often to print entity

Investigative reporting

Niche reporting

Big sites with budget $2.3-5 million are often not sustainable or typical

Smaller sites are niche, but hard to evaluate

Do funders have criteria to evaluate?

What are realistic expectations for earned revenue?

An example of earning revenue successfully: Texas Tribune is doing special arts and cultural events and festivals as a source of revenue for the site.

Sustainability questions:

What aspects of the project create value? How can we make money from them?

Who can we learn from and copy? Who has models that might work for us?

What’s the revenue portfolio to try?

Can we try tactics and afford to fail?

How can we measure our success/failure?

Consider the scalability of ideas and failures.

Reading suggestion: The Lean Start Up by Eric Ries teaches how to test for success and failure.

Oakland Local’s News Cafe: monthly gathering of people who read the publication, breakfast on topics of local interest, a big panel of speakers and a robust discussion. Tickets $4-7 each, underwritten. Sells out.

Key point: You need a mix of funding sources, there isn’t just one way to make it happen.

The (Akron, Ohio) Akronist: believes that the best content is paid for, builds capacity for nonprofits. This has been free in the past, will be a fee for service in the future.

Random ideas:

Need to launch with flair and keep the buzz going. Ongoing promotion/marketing is vital. New Orleans (NOLABee) has had pop up events on topics of interest that engage people.

Relationships with local public radio stations to co-promote stories. Getting news on multiple platforms helps build strength and volume. Also community access TV, free and cheap. Working with partners make you more viable and amplify voice.

Chicago: creating an ad network for its various news sites to help build revenue for the collective.

Being realistic in the beginning is very important, using free and open source as well as collaboration will stretch the funds that a start up has.

Tapping into university help is an option: students involved in news teaching in the community.

Key point: View about success: community collaboration from the outset, people who help create a site will help it succeed in the long run.

Important to think long range: what is needed or can be done in 18 months. Where will the income come from? Plans and ideas need to be put in place.

Know your weaknesses and find expert help for something before it fails or you give up.

Relentlessness! It takes time to find out what will work. The more experiments you have out there, the longer/more you have to keep trying.

News funding vs. human services? Donors who have the passion for a news project will stay with you. It isn’t an either or, necessarily.

Key point: Community foundations, for the most part, are launching, developing and allowing projects to spin off and become independent, though many have a lot of ownership of them. Projects pivot, move from place to place and new owners take over. The Akronist pivoted from a partnership with the local paper to the library system.

How long do things last? Be aware of cycles, some might run out of steam in 2-3 years and others will go on longer before they fade and need to reinvent. Don’t think because a site goes away that it is a failure. Sometimes the leaders find new things to do and places to use their talent. Part of an evolution.

Need to bring your project to where the people are, find the platform where they are and don’t be stuck on having them come to where you are. Try Pinterest, Oakland Local’s Cafes We Love experiment

Sustainability is an issue of perceived value. Oakland Local’s ad success is based on shared values: people like what it stands for and want to support those values. How far, though, can you scale shared values with a revenue perspective.

Another Susan slide:

Dave McClure/Ben Wirz: What is Minimum Viable Product?

Focus on customer (qualitative discovery, quantative validation

Get to know habits, problems and desires (fun matters)

What causes pain, pleasure?

1-5 Testable conversion metrics of values

Attention/Usage (session time and clicks)

Customer data (email, connect, profiles)

Revenue (direct or indirect)

Retention (visits over time)

Referral (people evangelize to others)

What about an app or e-book for a mobile device? People are buying apps and e-books (via Kindle) for small amounts of money, but if you have an audience the number will add up and create a revenue stream.