New Revenue Models, Post-COVID-19

The media headlines have felt grim. The Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest newspaper, has lost more than 40 percent of its advertising revenue. In April, revenue at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was down more than half. Layoffs in media and elsewhere have pushed community radio to consider its own future, too.

How bad could it get? Buzzfeed recently termed the post-coronavirus period a media extinction event, with the toll of COVID-19 on the news media anticipated to be worse than the 2008 financial crisis. Even massive organizations like the New York Times are projecting declines in spots by businesses. Outlets are finding an audience rebellion on their hands as they block ads online that reference COVID-19, further impacting these media organizations.

Community radio faces some complicated issues. In rural communities where the population is sparse, there is a finite donor pool. Even the largest stations depend on individual giving for a sizable portion of their budgets. Now consider what this means for a community where there are few people. Even with top-flight content, sustainability is difficult. Compounding this issue is the need to diversify income, but having the financial position for doing so is incredibly sketchy. Few stations in a recent NFCB member survey indicate they have any cash reserves, and so they can’t afford to risk what little they have on projects that take 12-18 months or more to potentially work, if they work at all for the scale of that region.

How can community media possibly move into new revenue models? Here are a few engrossing reads:

  • “The number of things you could track can feel overwhelming, especially when you hear from large organizations with dedicated audience teams about all the data they have and how sophisticated their analytics tools are,” says the Membership Puzzle Project. However, discovering revenue opportunities and assessing donor habits does not need to be nearly as intimidating. In fact, the Membership Puzzle Project makes several recommendations for readily available data your station can look at to make smart decisions about donors, their interests and where you could find avenues to raise money.
  • Was your station planning 2020 elections coverage? Chances are, it was severely disrupted by the outbreak. Why not take some cues from the Wall Street Journal, which switched up its plans for member-centric Q&As, online engagement and streaming coverage and made them specific to COVID-19? Whether you decide to stick with the race to the White House and Congress, or change up your content to focus on local effects of coronavirus, your station could incentivize your donor relationships with exclusive content.
  • Speaking of perks for donors, text-messaging services are cropping up as the next great place for a community media organization to engage its audience. As Mike Donoghue remarks, “The goal is to allow organizations to take back control of their audience by opening up a meaningful dialogue between journalists and readers free from the chaos and clutter of traditional social media channels.” By going direct to your members, your station builds on the relationship and can encourage giving for months to come.
  • Have you considered doing something adjacent to your core programming that you do not normally do? Take inspiration from those traditional media outlets that are now getting literary, literally. These organizations include the New Yorker (fiction podcasting), the Boston Globe (serialized fiction), the Verge (science fiction), the Times (opinion articles that could appear in the future) and High Country News (climate-oriented sci-fi). While there’s a valid argument about the blurring to the lines between news and entertainment, different kinds of content can bring in new audiences and donors.
  • In recent years, more media organizations, such as Axios and Slate, were getting into the live-event business to help make ends meet. Community radio stations, too, have opted for banquets, concerts and other in-person fundraisers to offset the pressure of on-air fundraising drives. However, Nieman Lab notes COVID-19 has killed off live events for every sector. Will there be a turnaround? A few events companies are shutting down altogether, with the feeling that the “new normal” for gatherings post-COVID-19 will be a business they’re not interested in being in. If your station wants to stay in the live-events space, Nieman Lab brings up some important questions to consider.

There are other ways to creatively grow your base, such as the forthcoming YouTube tool that allows your station to offer a membership from its channel on the platform. For more resources, you’re encouraged to subscribe to nfcb.org posts by receiving a weekly email here.

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