Merrill Brown, perhaps best known for serving as the first editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com, launched The News Project in 2018, along with a number of media industry colleagues. Brown’s company serves as a one-stop-shop, providing software and analytics to digital publishers. In this interview, Brown joins Erich Prince to discuss The News Project and how its services can be of use to both nonprofit and for-profit news sites, as well as the “local news crisis.”
Erich Prince: Having had a number of roles in journalism, from being a journalist at The Washington Post to being the first editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com, what are some key insights from these previous roles you’re bringing to The News Project?
Merrill Brown: Observation one: Technology, product development, and proper use of the platform are really important when thinking about the digital world, and it's often underappreciated by people focused on news and content. We want to empower editors, writers, and producers to do what they do best.
Observation two: We're in a global information revolution. A very new chapter of that is about entrepreneurship and innovation in local news, and in coverage of important topics.
As you look at the world and you look at news economics and so forth, one conclusion is unavoidable: Revenue is challenging. Smaller organizations and lower overhead are characteristics of models likelier to be successful than those featuring large organizations and big overhead. It's really important that small organizations be as smart and as nimble as their news counterparts in larger organizations if they intend to create sustainable business models.
A third thing is that, although being a national news organization is important, we're also in a very niche [news] world. That could be news about communities, cities, regions, or states, but I'm also talking about niche categories that are increasingly poorly covered by national media — whether it be housing, science, the environment, race issues, or gender issues. Increasingly, people who care about those issues and need to read world-class material about those issues are going to find coverage in niches [on the Internet]. From an entrepreneurial point of view, these niches are going to drive audience traffic and revenue. They're going to help create the new civic conversation we need to have about all of these things in a new news world.
Prince: What do you see as the similarities and differences between working with nonprofit versus for-profit clients?
Brown: There are more similarities than differences. In a world where there are more and more people seeking philanthropic dollars, the idea that nonprofit news sites could exist without having revenue strategies now seems ridiculous. Everybody needs sophisticated revenue strategies, and — to a certain extent — those strategies are very similar.
They are about membership, subscription, paywall, various new content forms, and native advertising. What for-profits have that nonprofits don’t are very aggressive — sometimes intrusive — advertising strategies. You won’t see intrusive advertising on public media sites or most nonprofits. You won’t see site ownership sold to somebody as many big news organizations do. But, increasingly, whether it's programmatic or simple banners, getting the revenue component of this right is critical, and the tools and capabilities are very similar whether you're a nonprofit or for-profit.
Prince: One of the main things we talk about in journalism right now is the “decline of local journalism.” Many small-town media outlets are struggling. Can you walk me through some of your recommended strategies to help local news sites?
Brown: We are a technology company with a SaaS business model that provides — in addition to the platform we offer — services that help people reach sustainability. We're not a consulting firm; we're not a services company, per se, but we help people who launch on our platform, especially over time. We do this in many ways, ranging from revenue strategy, to audience development, to product.
To the local entrepreneur, first of all, you need to look at your market and understand what the advertising opportunity actually is in that market. Even in what we call “news deserts,” there may be relatively easy opportunities to skim some revenue from local merchants, restaurateurs, and others that aren't finding Google and Facebook as effective.
The next step is to register as many readers as you possibly can — and if it's just an email address and not a credit card, that's a good start. But you always want to try to make sure you get as close to the reader as possible.
Also, have not just an opportunistic plan around all of this but, rather, a thoughtful plan that has you going step-by-step through this process.
Finally, make sure your product strategy is leading towards new revenue opportunities that are right for your market’s demographics and circumstances.
Prince: What are the advantages of The News Project, as opposed to, say, getting developers from Upwork, a WordPress package, and Google Ads, and cobbling everything together?
Brown: It's one-stop shopping. We know exactly what we're doing in all these fields. We're always learning and getting smarter about it, but we have a very clear approach to building a news and information company properly. Everything is already built. You can [launch] quickly, and you have all the tools and capabilities included in the package. It's technologically integrated and we help you with the data. As we say, news business in a box is a rare thing.
It doesn't exist at this level of comprehensiveness at this price point anywhere else, we think, in this country. We want to help thousands of people to get it right. The point is it's all here, and we have the team and expertise.
Don't stop now! Stay in the know on news media trends with more from Erich Prince.
Click the social buttons to share this story with colleagues and friends.
The opinions expressed here are the author's views and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaVillage.com/MyersBizNet.