CJR’s “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. Past columns by Michael Andersen, founder of Portland Afoot and Barry Johnson, who is at work on an arts journalism project, can be found here.
Michael Andersen: Hi, Barry. This week we’re talking about the part of news entrepreneurship that has always scared me most: sales. Not just selling ads for money, but selling the concept to partners and other funders and (in both your case, with an e-mail product, and my case, with print) selling distributors on the benefits of getting our content out there.
In short, the Ask.
We had a great conversation a few months ago about your salesman dad, which I’m afraid only increased my conviction that I wasn’t born for this work. What do you take away from your dad’s skills?
Barry Johnson: My dad loved to talk to people. He especially loved meeting new people—he met a roomful of people he didn’t know with the hugest smile. And I think that simple approach is a good lesson—when we go out to present our ideas we are just talking to new people, which is something we’ve done many times before. It’s fun to talk to people you don’t know, compare notes, find out stuff, test your ideas. And we know, from our journalism lives, how to talk to them.
But this is the big Demon—selling, I mean. I talked to a former colleague at The Oregonian recently and it’s the first thing that he brought up: How do you sell to people? But then he answered his own question. Every day, he reminded himself, he sells people on the idea of talking to him. Why does he do it? Because deep down he thinks it’s in the public interest for them to do so. And whatever timidity he has about it goes away.
Michael: That’s a really appealing way to think of the work. But part of my problem is that I struggle to believe that advertising is as valuable as everyone who buys and sells it seems to believe, based on the rate cards I’ve picked up from other outlets. It undermines my faith that my product will be useful to my advertisers.
Barry: I don’t think you are selling advertising. You are selling a partnership that will try to change the culture in ways small and profound. The way your partner is going to help is by showing support in your print product—and giving you a little bit of money! Will the ad “work”? I don’t think you have to worry about that so much at this point.
Michael: That does jibe with my experience so far: At least half of Portland Afoot’s sponsors haven’t wanted to talk costs and benefits—they just seem to be buying ads because it makes them happy to help. Do you think that applies to less do-goodery projects than ours—a pop music site, maybe?
Barry: I think it applies to non-profit sites, primarily, yes. But really, even a for-profit site has to believe that its existence is in the public interest somehow, or it makes selling it empty.
Michael: What’s the hardest sale you’ve made so far, and why do you think it closed?
Barry: My model is built on convincing the city’s major arts organizations to act as a “portal” to their subscribers and members for my independent cultural journalism team. I’m hoping that ultimately those subscribers/members will become the backbone of my financial success, both directly (through fees and donations) and indirectly (through ads purchased to connect to them). The most difficult moment came when I couldn’t get ANYONE to agree to allow me to pitch a membership in my organization to their subscribers directly—I was hoping they would let me piggy-back on their subscription campaigns. Even the groups that agreed that an independent arts news entity was vital to them didn’t want to do this.