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.