Beat Business Training: Turning Writers Into Sellers

 In Featured, Research, Tow Knight News

Can a beat become a business?

That’s the notion we’ve been testing in an intensive development program aimed at helping early stage community publishers transition their startups, hobby project or, in some cases, coverage ideas into sustainable businesses.

The idea for the program originated in discussions between Tow-Knight Center Director Jeff Jarvis and the principals at Coats2Coats, a consulting firm that had designed and implemented previous business training sessions for entrepreneurial publishers.

Those sessions had focused on publishers with established sites who needed an intervention – sometimes just to give them a push to the next level, often to ward off an existential moment.

We wondered whether we could set publishers up more successfully by intervening earlier in the process, before they were wedded to a particular content approach or had developed bad habits. And the result was a Tow-Knight Center-funded Beat Business Training program conducted online and at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

The program started in June, with 16 publishers or would-be publishers. The publishers were chosen from among more than 50 applicants based on several criteria. Each had to be focused on a specific geographic community or topic – no general or national sites. Each needed to either have a compelling idea for a media site or services that they wanted to test, or a young, existing project they were willing to relaunch based on what they learned.

The class met together at CUNY twice, each time for a week. Each participant has a business coach to provide guidance and support. The coaching will continue 1:1 into the fall, even though the classwork is done, and will be supplemented with webinars to provide deeper instruction on tough topics.

The first week at CUNY was immersion therapy: A deep dive into what the publishers knew – or thought they knew – about their content strategy and potential audiences, along with an introduction to the basics of revenue strategy. Most important, we had the participants build a 100-Day Plan to guide the transition from concept to business.

The 100-Day Plan combines aspects of strategic and tactical planning, focused on a sprint to implementation. The plan focuses on elements that are big enough to make a difference, but practical enough to get done.

Our second week of class came one month after the first week, timed to give participants a chance to test their thinking and practice some of the skills we’d focused on earlier. When class members returned, they’d had experience giving an “elevator pitch” describing their business. We’d asked them to pitch 40 times, and to include a specific ask for leads, partnering or money. For folks with an editorial focus, making an ask is perhaps the toughest hurdle in moving from idea to business, so developing that muscle early is vital.

We’ve since used the 100-Day Plans as yardsticks to assess progress for the class participants in their journey from concept to business, and we’ll report back on “final” results in another month or two. But here are a few of the broader concepts we’ve applied so far:

Know what you are bringing to the party:

In previous publisher training, we’ve seen that participants often arrive without a full awareness of their own markets and what their distinctive value is within them. Without an understanding of your market, your content idea is little more than a term paper topic. We pushed participants into doing a SWOT analysis early on, to focus them externally and help them articulate their value proposition.

A content strategy is more than an editorial plan:

Publishers have to think about their content strategically and not based simply on craft or gut. We used a Coats2Coats tool called the Impact Grid to help publishers think in terms of the types of information they can provide, the audience targets they want to hit, the channels they will use to get there and the results they hope to achieve. The results piece is often missing, when we begin working with an entrepreneurial publisher. An editorial plan focuses on the product; a content strategy focuses on the impact. You have to think about what results your work can achieve if you want to build engagement – and you need engagement to build revenue.

Selling doesn’t have to be an icky experience:

Too many journalists perceive sales as the stereotypical high-pressure used-car experience. Part of the challenge in this training is helping these prospective publishers internalize a win-win philosophy of sales, where their business helps connect other businesses with consumers in the community. Then the training moves to adopting behaviors that engage customers on a regular and structured basis. Feedback was universally positive about the workability of the approach; some participants began putting the lessons into practice immediately.

Get your house in order:

A common element of all CJET programs to date, including the CUNY version, is the need for orientation on business fundamentals. These include corporate formation, employment law, setting up accounting systems, leadership and management skills, and similar topics. All participants reported that this part of the program was valuable and actionable.

And finally: Your focus has to change from writer/editor to entrepreneur/publisher.

This is the toughest part for journalists or writers to get past. They get the concept intellectually, but focusing on revenue, marketing and the intricacies of running a small business doesn’t feel natural and doesn’t align with how they’ve conducted themselves so far in their careers. Beat Business is designed to confront this gap at every turn, with the goal of solving what is journalism’s real original sin: Keeping reporters, writers and editors in the dark about revenue and the business they are really in.

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