A stubborn myth about earning news revenue

Making great content isn’t enough to build a sustainable news business. It also takes smart revenue planning.

September 6, 2022 by Ben DeJarnette

A statue of the mythical Apollo
Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

Build it and they will come. 

It’s a common attitude among news founders who believe that intrepid reporting and smart writing alone will attract the readers they need to unlock revenue growth.  

But Henrico Citizen publisher Tom Lappas can tell you it’s a myth. 

“I was naive and thought ‘hey, if we do a good job with this product, people will gravitate toward it and we will just get advertisers coming our way,’” Lappas said on our News Guest podcast. “A year or so later, I realized that wasn’t exactly how things worked.”

Like many LION members, Lappas learned that earning revenue as a news business starts with a whole lot of planning and legwork. For Lappas and the Henrico Citizen, that included:

  • Deciding what a business development hire would work on and how to set them up for success. “You need to put together a whole plan for what that person is going to be doing, and who they are going to be targeting. And you have to understand what their pay structure is going to look like. There are a lot of different ways to hire folks, and I’ve probably tried all of them at one point or another.”
  • Finding the right people to work in a business development role. “The people who have really thrived in this role are people who already were invested in the community. They were volunteers with community organizations, or they were really gung ho about being part of Henrico County. One of the things that I’m trying to do now is get in front of as many Ruritan Clubs and Rotary Clubs as I can to tell them [our] story. Without even asking, somebody will stand up at the end and say, ‘hey, tell me more about what you’re doing. That sounds like something that I would like to do.’”
  • Doing audience research and sharing insights with prospective advertisers. “About three years ago, we did a really in-depth survey with a university here in Virginia. It largely confirmed what we thought our readership looked like, but it was nice to be able to say, ‘here’s 1,200 survey respondents, this is who they are, and if you advertise with us, you know you’re going to be reaching people like this.’ It’s an investment, but if you’re going to get into the advertising game, it’s probably an investment you have to make.”

You can hear more advice from Lappas and news business expert Simon Owens on our latest episode of News Guest

Here are four other ways that we’re helping LION members and other independent publishers plan for revenue growth in September and beyond. 

  • The News Entrepreneur Academy includes a lesson on Launching a New Revenue Stream, and later this month we plan to add a new Evaluating Growth Opportunities course that will provide frameworks for identifying different revenue opportunities and deciding whether an idea is worth pursuing.
  • The 2022 GNI Startups Lab includes three programs focused on managing money and risk, building and managing a team and planning for revenue growth. Applications are now closed, but all content we use to teach the Lab courses will be available to LION members later this year through our News Entrepreneur Academy

Want to learn more about planning for revenue growth? Sign up for the LION newsletter to get updates on this series and other resources and opportunities for independent publishers.

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