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How to Evaluate Commercial Revenue as a Sustainability Strategy for Investigative Media Organizations

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Introduction: The Three Main Commercial Revenue Strategies

Nonprofit investigative journalism organizations are increasingly borrowing strategies from larger commercial publishers to supplement their grant funding and to extend their impact. While membership and subscription strategies are focused on your consumers, commercial revenue strategies mean making deals with other institutions.

There are three broad categories of commercial revenue strategies, each defined by what is being sold.

  1. Advertising: Selling marketers and advertising agencies access to your audience.
  2. Syndication: Selling other publishers access to your reporting or other internal data/information.
  3. Services: Selling other companies or institutions access to your skills or expertise.

Example of advertising on Rappler’s website. Photo: Screenshot.

Advertising sales, the most common revenue strategy of most commercial publishers, includes both selling directly to companies and agencies, and also selling to third-party advertising networks like Google AdSense. For many general news organizations with large daily audiences, such as Malaysiakini in Malaysia, Rappler in the Philippines, Premium Times in Nigeria and El Faro in El Salvador, advertising provides important revenue that supports investigative reporting efforts.

Syndication, the revenue strategy of news agencies like Reuters and AFP, includes selling rights to publish full stories, infographics, or data from journalism organizations. Syndication strategies not only generate revenue to cover the costs of investigations, but also extend the impact of the reporting to include the audiences of the participating organizations.

Service sales is a broad category of strategies that build on the specific internal strengths of the investigative journalism organization. Organizations with robust content management tools and technology may sell technology services, like The Washington Post’s “arc publishing system.” Organizations with deep expertise in data analysis, like India’s DataLEADS, offer training at bootcamps that not only generate revenue, but also promote and facilitate more data-based investigations. Service strategies benefit the organization both by generating revenue and by enhancing the skills, tools, or expertise being offered in the market.

Collage of dataLEADS events and bootcamps. Photo: Screenshot.

Commercial revenue strategies sell access to content, services, or audience. Each strategy requires the organization to participate in very well-defined and competitive industries, like advertising, training, or technology services. Customers have clear expectations for the terms by which companies compete for their business, such as product and service features, pricing, and post-sales service. The illustration below distinguishes commercial revenue strategies in the red oval on the right from more audience- and consumer-focused services like subscriptions, events, or classifieds on the left.

Options for commercial revenue. Photo: Ross Settles.

Choosing Among Commercial Revenue Strategies

Successful commercial revenue strategies share two characteristics. First, the strategy should make a net positive contribution to the finances of the organization. In strictly financial terms, the strategy should be profitable or reach profitability in some reasonable timeframe. Second, the strategy should be replicable. The organization should have the talent, systems, and processes that allow the service to be repeated, ideally with lower costs and higher contribution each time the service is offered.

To evaluate whether a commercial revenue strategy is appropriate for an investigative media organization, the organization’s management needs to go through five questions:

  1. Mission: Are there any fundamental mission conflicts with the proposed commercial revenue strategy?
  2. The Market: What is the market for the content or services that the media proposes to offer? What are the attributes of a successful product in that market?
  3. Strengths and Weaknesses: What are the unique strengths and potential weakness of the organization to offer the content or service? Can the organization compete with existing products in the market? Can the organization offer the content or service over time and with consistency of quality?
  4. Product Definition: What is the content or service that your organization plans to offer? What are the detailed product attributes that make it unique in the market?
  5. Execute and Measure: How will the organization staff, reward, and measure the performance of the strategy? Did the new product strategy make a positive contribution in either generating profits or enhancing the impact of the organization?

Let’s look at each set of questions in more detail.


When choosing between different sustainability strategies, consider two questions:

  • What are the organization’s mission and goals?
  • How do the proposed strategies challenge or conflict with the mission and goals?

For example, a group committed to investigating threats to digital privacy may adopt operating principles that restrict the use of cookies to collect website visitor data. At the same time, the group may want to participate in advertising networks to generate additional revenue. Since ad networks mostly require cookies to select the ads to serve, the organization’s mission and operating principles directly contradict the underlying requirements to implement advertising networks.

Each of the three types of commercial revenue strategies listed above pose different types of mission challenges for investigative journalism organizations. Advertising is usually the most problematic. It allows an external institution, company, or agency to “rent” access to the audience for the distribution of messages usually unrelated to the media’s mission. Syndication creates fewer conflicts. But conflict can still emerge between a media organization’s business managers and the organization’s editors and board.

Business managers want to maximize the value of the intellectual property that an original investigative story represents. Organization editors and board members may prefer to give away more ownership rights to guarantee a greater circulation and potentially greater impact but lower monetary return. Finally, packaging editorial skills training for other institutions provides the least conflict with the core mission. But issues often arise around whether the organization has diverted too many resources away from the principal investigative work.

For each type of commercial revenue strategy, organizations need to decide whether the potential for conflict both with the core mission and within the organization itself are worth the incremental revenue or impact that the strategy promises. If they decide to proceed, then management will need to develop internal processes to manage the challenges and mitigate any conflict these strategies may present. A typical example of internal processes and tools to manage conflicts in the advertising market are the advertising guidelines created by most publishers who accept advertising, which lay out the details for what advertisements can be accepted.

The Market

When organizations decide to embark on a commercial revenue strategy, they need to use internal research and investigative skills to develop a detailed picture of the market they are entering. For each potentially competitive product in the market, the organization needs to develop answers to the following key questions:

Product: What is being offered? What are the product or service attributes? Why is each attribute important?

Partner Development/Sales: How are partnerships with the external institutions created? What is the typical “sales” or business development process?

The Exchange: What’s the exchange? Is there a price involved and how is the price set?

Advertising markets provide very straightforward answers to these questions. The product is usually access to the organization’s audience through routine advertising interruptions, like banner ads. It may also include customized content offerings (sometimes called native advertising, content marketing, or advertorial), in which the advertiser pays the media organization to create a unique advertising message and to distribute through their media channels. The partnership is established through a traditional sales process. Pricing reflects the market and is based on the organization’s audience size, composition, and relative value to the advertiser.

Syndication is more complicated. It can be a simple transaction for a completed story in which the exchange is the right to republish with agreed-upon attribution for a fee. Or more often the syndication partnership begins earlier in the reporting process with the partner providing both reporting support and eventually broader, more impactful distribution than the investigative organization can provide alone. However, for small or medium-sized investigative journalism organizations, the income from such partnerships is rarely significant, given their limited output. Although additional reporting support can be beneficial, the main benefit from such partnerships can be in wider distribution, leading to increased visibility and impact.

Services, the broadest category, includes everything from training and editorial services like fact-checking to technology solutions like metrics and content management systems. Although this route is challenging, needs careful consideration, and may not be viable for many investigative journalism organizations, particularly smaller ones, it can bring in some income and help to diversify revenue. Many GIJN member organizations get some of their income this way.

Mada Masr in Egypt, for example, receives approximately 20% of its income from a number of revenue-generating activities such as a membership program, editorial services, and translation, which they describe as “traditional and integrated marketing solutions, branded media, entertainment opportunities, experiential marketing services, event activations and digital web campaigns.” Also in the Middle East, about two-thirds of Tunisia’s Inkyfada‘s revenue comes from services, including web development, graphic design, rental of surplus office space, training, and an events business.

A GIJN member in India, IndiaSpend, is partly supported by the commercial activities of the associated online multi-channel network, Ping Broadcast. The Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism in Nigeria was set up as a nonprofit funded largely by donors but its parent organization, the Premium Times group, not only relies on advertising but also offers analysis, data, and intelligence reports on a commercial basis to mostly corporate clients across the country. In Kenya, production studio Africa Uncensored relies on commercial video commissions as well as grants to support its investigative work.

Some GIJN members and other investigative journalism organizations charge for their educational programs. For example, Bellingcat’s training sessions on investigative skills provide about 35% of its income. A dozen five-day workshops are planned in 2020. Other groups raise money to underwrite trainings. For example, The War Horse, a US nonprofit journalism organization focused on military service, holds expenses-paid writing seminars with a grant from the Wounded Warrior Project and other partners.

Many GIJN member organizations have relationships with universities and training centers, where they earn fees for teaching. Some schools also provide office space and inexpensive interns, which help subsidize the group’s daily operations.

Each type of service will compete in a unique market that will require dedicated investigation and analysis. Training products, for example, are differentiated by trainer reputation or credentials, training frequency, in-person versus online, and the option for a recognized diploma or certificate, among many other attributes. Technology solutions, in contrast, will focus more on product features and service support. Sales may be direct to a corporation, through a third-party sales agency like Google AdSense, or direct to individuals or even some combination of all three. Pricing may be fixed and market-based, such as for training courses; could involve subscription pricing, such as for software use; or might be customized, based on the service provided and the results obtained.

Choosing a commercial revenue strategy for service sales will require a close look at the market in which the service competes. For each type of service, an organization will need to develop a profile for other offerings in the market and determine how their organization will match or exceed the attributes of the competition. Developing a detailed roadmap for each offering will help the media organization evaluate its ability to offer the product at both a competitive level and at a price that allows them to make money.

Strengths and Weaknesses

With the market roadmap in hand, organizations need to develop an internal evaluation of their own strengths and weaknesses relative to the proposed strategy. Can they execute at a level that allows them to compete with existing products? How do they build on their strengths? How do they compensate for weaknesses?

For each of the three types of commercial strategies, different factors usually drive success.

  • Advertising strategies are driven by a clear understanding of the size, depth, and value of the audience and relationships with advertisers.
  • Syndication strategies are driven by strengths in reporting and ability to create profitable partnerships for the content.
  • Services strategies are usually driven by the value of the service offered and the ability of the organization to support the service in the long term.

Developing an understanding of an investigative journalism organization’s strengths and weaknesses in a particular market requires a shared understanding among the management team of the market they are entering and a candid evaluation of the organization’s ability to deliver unique, competitive, profitable products. Management will need to identify strategies that build on strengths and provide solutions for weaknesses and shortcomings. Solutions may include hiring new staff, establishing external partnerships, or implementing new technology.

For example, organizations planning to sell advertising may have no internal staff capable of developing advertising clients — a major weakness. Solutions include hiring new staff with advertising sales capabilities; partnering with another media organization that has advertising sales capacity, or adding technology that makes the sales process more automatic, like Facebook’s Audience Network.

Product Definition

When management has a shared understanding of the market and an assessment of the organization’s capabilities, it’s time to define the product. What will the organization offer and to whom? Usually an organization will establish a product development team to lead the development and execution of the product strategy including defining the product features, prices, and sales strategies. Four elements stand out as the core of a product definition:

  1. Target market: Within the larger market, what institutions will the organization target as most likely to be interested in the product? Choosing a well-defined target market allows for the product features to very closely follow what the target market needs. For example, an investigative journalism organization focused on a particular location may choose to target only advertisers from that location rather than the universe of all advertisers.
  2. Product Features: The product development team will now need to define the exact features that will make their product attractive to the target market. Product developers often talk about product attributes at three levels. “Basic” attributes are the characteristics of the product that are required to participate in the market. For advertising, organizations must have an audience and a verifiable description. For syndication, organizations must have a reporting product. For services like training, the basic attribute is the ability to deliver on a regular and reliable basis.”Competitive” attributes are characteristics that drive a potential buyer to choose one provider over another. These can include price, reputation, and ease/cost of managing the partnership. Finally, there are “reassurance” attributes that confirm that the buyer has made the correct choice and create the basis for a repeat purchase. These often include post-partnership reporting and services, like advertising performance reports or post-training check-up services.
  3. Pricing: With the features defined, product development teams can develop a pricing strategy. Prices have to provide enough profit margin to contribute to the organization’s operations and still compete effectively with other offerings in the market.
  4. Sales Channel: Whether developing a syndication partnership or selling advertising, organizations have to define how these relationships with external institutions will be built. Will they have staff devoted to creating the relationships and developing sales? Will they join a third-party advertising representative firm? Advertising rep firms will focus on selling ads into a group of media often with a similar or complementary audience. The Economist Group’s The Ideas People is a good example of an ad rep firm, selling ads for over 80 different media outlets including The Economist itself.
  5. Execute and Measure: Finally, organizations will need to determine the team needed to execute the product and sales plan. To manage these teams, organizations will also need to develop a set of measurements to determine whether the strategy is performing as planned. These measurements, often called Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), can be simple (number of sales) or in-depth (number of sales calls needed to close a sale). The most fundamental KPI is always financial contribution, the profit that each product sold can contribute to the core news operation. Does the incremental revenue from the entire strategy more than cover additional costs incurred to execute the strategy, including the additional management overhead costs, the cost of goods sold, and the costs of sales? Organizations will need to invest in fundamental accounting and financial practices necessary to have a reliable picture of whether the new commercial strategy is contributing to operations. All commercial strategies are fundamentally to generate resources for the core investigative reporting mission. If it is not possible to determine whether the strategy is performing, there is always the risk that the strategy is draining, not supplementing, resources.

Planning and Measurement Are the Foundations of a Successful Commercial Revenue Strategy

Any sustainability strategy, whether focused on individuals or institutions, begins with careful planning.

The level and detail of the planning should grow as the time and resources devoted to executing the strategy increases. Every additional expense for a new commercial revenue strategy needs to be justified: How do the profits that it contributes support the core investigative journalism mission? Without diligent planning, investigative journalism organizations run the risk of creating new commercial revenue strategies that distract from the core mission and may actually create a net loss for the organization.

Commercial revenue strategies can make a financial contribution to the resources needed to operate investigative reporting newsrooms. But they require diligence to guarantee that the contribution justifies the additional effort to develop and execute the strategy.

Commercial revenue strategies are complex and have to exist and grow within well-defined industries. Each type of revenue strategy includes dozens of smaller product and service design decisions impossible to include in an introductory article. Watch for future stories by GIJN which profile these varied strategies and the elements required for success.

Ross Settles is an adjunct professor focused on digital media and entrepreneurship at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of Hong Kong University. He brings almost two decades of experience working in strategy, marketing and product development for media companies in the US and East Asia.

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