Innovating journalism revenues using a new 100 day methodology

Editorial staff at Citydog.by working through a 100 day trial to innovate revenues for their site in Minsk, Belarus

Decision making is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to web-indigenous revenue models. What should we try? Should we do a membership model? Shall we do events? These are all questions I get asked by independent and community media on a regular basis. The challenge is how — in small teams and for those predominantly with a journalism or activist background rather than business — do you decide which revenues to try.

One solution is to use a 100 day framework. Both myself, and Axate — micropayment specialists — have been using this as a way to work with media organisations to funnel choices around revenue decision making. The aim is to innovate methods to drive innovation and support news media to make good revenue choices. We’ve developed our methods independently, but the common theme is 90-100 days. In that time, media can work through fixed steps and make genuine evaluations on performance and build an evidence base to see where opportunities may lie. It’s short enough to be agile. It’s flexible enough to adapt. It’s long enough to give solid evidence on which to inform decisions. Entrepreneurs deal with incomplete information and uncertainty. They often rely on intuition. Scott Shane’s the master of articulating that in his book A General Theory of Entrepreneurship. This is our real-world framework to emerge a more systematic approach.

100 day trial with Citydog.be in Belarus

Publisher CityDog.by is an independent digital magazine focusing on Minsk in Belarus. The online magazine employs a human interest, story-telling approach that distinguishes individuals from the “grey masses” of post-Soviet culture. Through this approach it features topics that help people and activists not to be afraid, despite a repressive government. The magazine has developed a unique tone of voice and visual style that makes it relevant to its audience. This format is characterized by a clean design and visually rich multimedia elements that enhance the story-telling.

From the start, they defined their core audience very clearly as Minsk’s urban middle class that is aged 25 to 40, equally female and male, well-educated, including couples and young families. Precise targeting has been the key to success, also for other innovative media in Belarus. In terms of content, they have presented in a different way, and helped to drive public debate on, under-reported topics such as urban development, community activism, local history, and LGBT issues through human stories that use photos, videos, and other visualizations. It was envisioned and created as a digital publication from the start. The target audience — the capital’s creative class — was already heavily engaged online. The magazine also drew on previous experience with print, CD, and multimedia publications. They develop interactive formats — quizzes, surveys, polls, and micro interactions — which involve the audience. This approach is credited with why they were able to grow quickly from a niche publication to one of the leading online media outlets in the country.

CityDog.by defines itself as a value-based media outlet. This is at the core of the magazine’s editorial policy and business model. The magazine is among the few publications in the country that creates most of its own content (85–90 percent), while many outlets in Belarus heavily re-post and reprint. Through the magazine, they also help push innovative content and ideas from smaller, less-known media. CityDog.by is one of the few self-sustaining, profitable, independent, online media outlets in Belarus. The business model is grounded in a well-thought-through native advertising approach, mostly driven by long-term special projects in partnership with large companies employing CSR policies. Citydog.by was a pioneer and remains a leader in native advertising in Belarus. All sponsored content is clearly labelled as such. This allows them to minimise display advertising. For more challenging topics for which it is harder to generate commercial support, the magazine seeks and is sought out for theme-based income(10–15 percent of our annual budget). While this model remains sustainable, the team needed to develop a strategy to further diversity its revenue streams.

Diversifying revenues

Like many media faced with a challenging market and platform capitalism, here dominated by Yandex, the team wanted to diversify to minimise risk. Diversification theory takes its roots from modern portfolio theory as a way to spread risk. The team were also struggling to agree on best ways forward. We therefore used the 100 day plan to articulate ideas and develop a systematic evidence base on which decisions could be made.

You gave the impulse to attack it and make the process and start it. There was a bit of scepticism: can we do anything in 100 days? But we had a deadline so we should deliver something at the end. The tools were good and we were answering the chart, then we transformed it online and created a summary and this became the basis document to refer to and continue working on and moving this around and adding contents . If there was a week and nothing happened, it was a good tool to continue not abandon it, so we did not give up on it even during Covid. It helped us think through some of the ideas and doubts and fears: it caused loads of emails and messages and somehow we have found new ground.

The framework for 100 day planning as a way to work through revenue options and best fit with business strategies, developed by Clare Cook

The three ideas that were developed through the 100 day trial were:

  1. to develop links with the creative industry and move into the recruitment space with bespoke products and services. it includes developing content to help our readers understand what our modern professions and modern understanding of jobs and qualities and empathy and skills applicable in IT industry are.

Axate — 90 day trail to assess opportunities for casual payments

In the UK, Axate have been working with local media to use the 90 day methodology. Here it is used to launch hypotheses around casual payments, and as a way to test what is working. It begins with a set of hypotheses including what could be charged for, when and what changes need to be made in order to start charging. Then it explores pricing — how much, when is the free point activated and what page notice will be run. Finally it covers the launch plan — how the process will be promoted to customers to generate engagement and sales. The key is measurement at each stage, so that good signs can be picked up and iterations made. The methodology has been designed as an adaptive process of experiments and options: how long should each test phase run for, what is worth a/b testing, what are the important timings.

Content

/What should be charged for?
/When should it be charged for?
/What changes need to be made?

Pricing
/How much will you charge?
/How is the free point activated?
/What page notice will you run with?

Launch plan
/How will you promote to customers?
/How will you manage enquiries/questions?

(…and Measure)
/How will you measure performance?
/How will you capitalise on good signs?

We didn’t think within 90 days we could make people millionaires, but it was the believable trajectory towards a point on a graph. In that 90 days - here is the ride and if you believe that was worth following then you can carry on. If not you walk away. This is a way to show meaningful data on which to make decisions and it helps with information uncertainty. It is proving to be an effective tool to get stakeholders on board, especially where there are five or more stakeholders who all have different opinions or ideas. Using the 90–100 day play is a change process to evidence decisions and get people on board. It is a process and you need to think about that as change management and bring people along with you.

Stages in the 90 day trial used by local and independent UK media to evaluate casual payment opportunities, deigned and developed by Axate

It’s built around six key principles

  1. Get the product right

Together these two methodologies use the 90-100 day methodology which can be used to work through revenue options. So far they have proven to be an effective tool in bringing stakeholders on board and working through options systematically particularly where opinions previously diverged.

Niche revenue models for independent media. Business. Resilience. Diversification. Innovation. @cecook www.mediainnovationstudio.org www.clarecookonline.com