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.
Now I understand why they didn’t want to do it—it confused the most important pitch that they themselves make every year AND it competed with them to a certain extent. Not good. So we decided to change the idea: All of their subscribers would automatically become members in my organization and they would pass along a very small fee (under $10 per subscriber) to my news team. That was a much better solution because it gave me thousands more members and a more certain amount of money to start. And it didn’t cost the arts groups anything that they couldn’t pass on. But it took me a LONG time to figure this out, many conversations, and the good advice of an arts organization consultant here, George Thorn. At this point, I have three of the four major groups I need signed up—which means I have nearly 20,000 imaginary members!
To answer your question directly, it closed because a better idea finally emerged.
Michael: That’s fascinating. It would never have occurred to me that Plan B would be more attractive to your partners than Plan A. But you and I aren’t professional arts fundraisers; how could we expect to know their needs until we ask?
I’ve had some similar experiences nailing down partnerships. But I’ve found that one thing doesn’t work: Approaching people with a vague concept of partnership and asking if they have any ideas. I think you need to go to prospective partners with a specific plan that they can wrap their head around, but simultaneously communicate your willingness to change it.
Any other points you want to make about sales? What about donations, maybe?
Barry: I haven’t asked for donations yet, though that’s coming. I wanted to have the agreements in place for a basic working model before I asked anyone for money. But I think the approach will be the same: 1) ask them if they want to work on this particular problem with me (forming attention on aspects of the culture that are healthier than more expensive products, services, empty spectacles, etc.); 2) then try to figure out the best way we can work together. I don’t think you are ever just making a sales call—you are starting a conversation that will continue into the indefinite future, no matter what the first response is. I think as journalists we are condemned to believing in the power of convincing arguments!
It seems to me that you are selling a couple of things at once: ads and distribution of your print product. Do you sell them at the same time? Or try to close on one, then move on to the other?
Michael: My philosophy has been: Get an audience first and I’ll actually have something to offer my sponsors. I tried to seed the clouds with a few ads before launch and I’m deeply grateful to the folks who took a chance on us. But I’ve only just started making ad sales at what I hope will be the final rates for the home-delivery product.
On that note, we’re out of space! What’s your big goal for this hopefully short holiday week?
Barry: I have some administration stuff to work on, research on e-mail management systems, for example, and I’m hoping to solidify a deal with an online partner to supply him with most excellent stories (print, audio, video) for his site! And you?
Michael: I don’t even want to talk about it, man. It’s gonna be one of those weeks—not that it makes me any less grateful to be doing this exhilarating work. See you on the other side, and have a happy Thanksgiving.
Barry: Ditto! And the same to our new CJR friends!
Michael Andersen publishes Portland Afoot, a ten-minute newsmagazine and wiki about low-car life in Portland, Oregon. He also writes about entrepreneurial local journalism on NiemanLab.org, oldforestnewtrees.com, and Twitter.
Barry Johnson has written about the arts since 1978, when he started writing about dance for the now-defunct Seattle Sun. He has edited arts sections at Willamette Week and The Oregonian, and recently finished a twenty-six-year stint at the latter by writing a general arts and culture column. You can find his up-to-the-minute thoughts on the arts at http://artsdispatch.blogspot.com.