Sustainable journalism revenue models? You need to get creative

The new currency in journalism sustainability is creativity. And it’s no where more evident than in the new breed of creative storytellers springing up in three very different corners of the globe. Citydog.by is based in Minsk, Belarus, and — as of eight months ago — Prague. Whereby.us now has four sites: The New Tropic in Miami, The Evergrey in Seattle, Pulptown in Orlando, and Bridgeliner in Portland. Leeds City Talking in the UK runs under the Hebe Works agency. Rather than building newsrooms they build feature-rooms.

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The revenue model is to seek out high-end brand activation, native advertising and comprehensive social media packages. The expansion model trades on white labeling automated native ad and tech solutions — the toolkits for local engagement and user-centered behavioral analytics. The brains behind the operations are young creatives, not always journalists. These teams are combining data, creativity and technology in new ways that flip ad-based models away from CPMs and banner adverts. They trade on storytelling and creativity leveraging their skills to educate, empower, and inform the audiences about latest trends and what’s on, that are worth their time and attention. They all seek out key strategic partnerships.

How do these partnerships come about? Is this the exciting future for journalism revenues? What makes the business model so unique? What impact do these emerging trends in revenues have on the skills needed in the industry?

Citydog.be started in Minsk, Belarus, in 2012. It produces eight to ten articles a day plus some news content and events calendar. The audience are at the heart of everything: young active interested middle urban and creative class mostly people who care about what is happening and live to the fullest. They have healthy lifestyles appreciate organic cosmetics and are creatives: Polaroid is back in fashion don’t you know. The success and growth draws the light ever brighter on this model — it can work in a difficult market. There are tight restrictions on internet publishing and advertising legislation. Publishers generally were feeling a sense of liberalization but then just two months ago there was a huge crack down on one of the independent news portals . Project director Irnya Vidanava told me: “There is no feeling of security and safety and there are amendments on the law which will try to regulate much more internet media and it is unclear situation for everyone.”

Partnerships feature heavily in the strategy of all three of these creative feature-rooms. City commerce who want to reach the audience who have hard-hitting messages that need help with social and digital campaigns can deliver lucrative contracts over longer periods. They trade on the creativity and understanding how to connect with communities in a way that brands can’t. And that is what they monetise. It’s native advertising 3.0 fulled by storytelling and creativity. “We always believed in the storytelling which we used in all our projects even way before it became the buzzword we knew we had our tone of voice and style.” The partnerships start with creative or near creative industries and share the philosophy and understand that relationships with the readers and audience comes first rather than just selling the product. First comes an established base of partnerships then you can build bigger partnerships.

They trade on relationships sprinkled with creativity which is why it spells a new era in recruitment and skills for the profession. Traditional sales people are not what’s needed: they are used to selling eyeballs and these feature-rooms are selling long-term relationship building and brand activation. They are trading on community love. Staff are more likely to be poached from advertising agencies, brands, creative and the sales side.

Citydog has now expanded to Prague and the move is a key signal of the business model’s strength. “We knew there was not so much potential for growth in Belarus so for expanding and we saw there was a niche in other cities with similar profile. So it started as a pure intellectual exercise because my brother was doing his executive MBA and he was a big fan and if your model works in this very disturbed and strange market why don’t you see if it is applicable in a normal market. So we did the research for his final project and when we started looking at the business model and playing with numbers and market research it was obviously a niche and a possibility and from there we started looking at different markets not the east but to the west which is quite an unusual move from Belarus. I wanted to try it in the free market and a democratic country. There is high competition for niche projects in Moscow and Kiev and didn’t want to go that way so started some criteria and market research Prague seemed to be the best option. Prague is the first pilot outside of Belarus. And the plan is to expand out to other cities as well.”

We found our model. We believed in it and we went for it despite all the odds

The make up of these editorial team also marks something new. Like De Correspondent in the Netherlands with their emphasis on user engagement for as much as 50% of journalist’s time, here we see employees with creative or advertising sales backgrounds. Iryna said: “In Prague I was looking for the team and that was my big challenge how do you find the same stack of talent in a new market where you are not based yourselves. One of the reasons we chose Prague was because I have very good network there but not as good as I know everyone in Minsk. So there was two ways for me to go -either professional journalists and who have experience in other media who I will train on our philosophy or I will go for influences actively blogging themselves but not professional journalists and being photographers or bloggers or fashion designers or whoever and then we will train them how to write. So I was actually running both tracks and meeting with both worlds and then actually making a choice towards the second option and our first team leader is actually a very popular fashion blogger so we have been working with a team of very creative people with almost zero background in media which was a very interesting experiment both good and bad and now I am balancing the team I still have this group of people. Half of them are media professionals and half of them are influencers, writer bloggers.”

Our revenues are made up of native plus some of the traditional display banner on the premium site and interactive advertising — which is mainly quizzes: we are kind of the queen of the quizzes in Belarus

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Events are an important way of building partnerships. These feature-rooms know there’s no simple way of making money from events. Whereby.us has spent a long time working out what works and what doesn’t. There are huge time and organizational drains that go in to running events so they need to be tiered to offer maximum offline engagement at the right reward.

These are a new breed of creative feature-room trading on community love and networks showing impressive new models for journalism business.

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