For all media organizations, striking the balance between the desire to diversify revenue streams and the need to maintain high standards of editorial integrity is an urgent concern. In this panel, we will discuss how three of BizLab stations successfully navigated a sustained collaboration between editorial and business-oriented teams at their organizations.
- Adrian Ma, Bostonomix Reporter, WBUR
- Brendan Kinney, Senior Vice President for Marketing and Development, Vermont Public Radio
- Giselle Reid, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Friends of WLRN
- Meta Stange, Digital Producer, WDET
- Howard Weiss-Tisman, Reporter for Southern Vermont & The Connecticut River Valley, Vermont Public Radio
- Katie Lepri, Engagement Producer, WLRN
- Toby Tabaczynski, Associate Director, Business Development & Marketing, WDET
[The panelists provided written answers to audience questions not covered in the live discussion.]
Did you find opportunities to better serve your audience by collaborating together?
- Meta (WDET): Absolutely. Editorial/business collaboration allows us to present a more cohesive product to our audience, both on-air and online.
- Howard (VPR): Yes. Our project opened a direct link with some listeners. I think they felt closer to the station in communicating through our newsletters.
What are ways you fostered communication between your business & editorial folks? Cross-departmental team meetings, Slack channels, email groups—what worked?
- Meta (WDET): We’ve found that periodic cross-team meetings are effective for fostering communication across the station and breaking down silos. For our station, the ability to connect in-person reduces miscommunication and enhances understanding of what everyone is working on. We have bi-monthly membership meetings and a monthly marketing meeting, both of which have representatives from membership, marketing, underwriting, and editorial. Also, the business team is always welcome to pop in to our morning news meetings to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on editorially, and they often do stop by!
- Toby (WDET): Adding on to what Meta said, the ability to work together comes from building respect and trust which is what we do at WDET. If you have that, conversations and mutual commitment can take place. We are fortunate at WDET that we have those relationships.
- Howard (VPR): Since I don’t work in the same office as the development team, we swap email messages regularly. I felt like I was always in the loop and knew what was going on. There were no surprises.
- Brendan (VPR): We formed a podcast committee a number of years ago that brought representatives from various departments together to coordinate our efforts. As a result, we have built the infrastructure necessary to sell and deliver sponsorships, hold events with impact around the state and promote the shows more effectively. We use in-person meetings, Slack channels and email to communicate.
Is the concept of a firewall outdated? Should we be more concerned with transparency, disclosure and truth as opposed to separation and sequestration?
- Toby (WDET): Yes. All departments can still protect their unique goals and mission AND have open conversations to explore areas to work together and compromise as needed.
- Howard (VPR): We have to stop using the word “Firewall” when talking about BizLab projects. Firewalls are real. They are important and they should not be penetrated. A development project can never direct content. Ever. The reason I think it is so damaging to continue using the word is because I don’t think these projects have anything to do with firewalls and continuing to use the word will scare away people who might have some legitimate issues with this.
- Brendan (VPR): The firewall plays an important role in ensuring integrity in our editorial process. However, organizations can respect the firewall and better coordinate efforts to make our organizations sustainable for the long term.
Is “engagement” on the revenue side or the content side? Some of the comments seem to imply that focusing on engagement is bad for journalism.
- Meta (WDET): For us, it’s both. We rely on community-first reporting for a significant number of stories which requires engagement to be at the forefront of our editorial process. What we’ve found through that process is that our content is more thorough and representative of the communities that we are reporting on.
- Katie (WLRN): For us at WLRN, it’s both, too. Although, when I talk about engagement, I’m strictly speaking about editorial. Stories about the economy, immigration, healthcare, education, etc. are told through the lens of the experiences of people who reside in our communities. The community is a big part of our newsroom.
Why is it an either/or? Why can’t engagement be on both revenue and content?
- Brendan (VPR): Engagement has largely been the purview of development at VPR. Over the last few years our thinking – and practice – has evolved thanks to two initiatives: the first was the launch of Brave Little State, a “people-powered” show that uses Hearken to engage the audience in helping choose topics; the second was a 2018 statewide listening tour that brought us to all 14 counties in Vermont to learn how we could better serve our audience (and to help our new CEO learn about his new home state).
How do you balance the need to set editorial priorities early enough to raise money, while keeping flexibility to respond to changing news events?
- Howard (VPR): From the start my development people said, “Just continue doing what you do and we will find ways to get your stories to the audience.” So they never directed my reporting to raise money.
Is having reporters “pitch” on air in a pledge drive considered “okay” or “not good”?
- Meta (WDET): Our pledge drives are an all hands on deck process. Everyone gets on air at some point, and our listeners seem to appreciate hearing directly from the reporters, hosts, and producers that they already hear from every day.
Have any of your content people made a suggestion on how to word a donation ask?
- Katie (WLRN): As far as I know, no.
- Howard (VPR): No
- Brendan (VPR): As I mentioned during the panel, many of our news staff “pitch” during membership drives and craft an ask on the air. They have the opportunity to word their own asks.
From a pledge perspective, do you consider a reporter issuing CTAs a firewall breach, such as giving phone # and web address?
- Meta (WDET): Without member support, there is no reporting. Our news team is keenly aware of this and willing to make direct asks during pledge drives.
I’m getting the sense that newsletters seem to be controlled by the business side of the house. Is this the case? Why?
- Howard (VPR): For me this whole project has come out of business. So when they say they want to send a newsletter or link a story on Facebook I’m happy to do what I can to make it happen. With my workload I am more than happy for business to lead it, though there was some back-and-forth when we were deciding how to word some emails.
- Brendan (VPR): We have worked collaboratively to develop newsletters at VPR. We have a daily “headlines” newsletter that is curated by our Morning Edition producer. We also launched a newsletter for our BizLab project which automatically ships whenever a new story is posted to our website about Southern Vermont. Our development team worked with our digital team to develop the template and the technical capability to have it go out with minimal intervention.
- Meta (WDET): At WDET, our newsletters are editorial products, but we work with marketing + underwriting to determine if there are additional opportunities for support/sponsorship.
- Katie (WLRN): At WLRN, we currently have a “member” newsletter that’s controlled by Friends of WLRN. But our BizLab project opened the door for our first newsroom-written newsletter. We’ve since launched another from the newsroom and a third will be coming in 2020.
For WLRN – has your relationship with the other side changed at all as a result of your project?
- Katie (WLRN): Yes, definitely. It’s more open than it used to be. Before this project, I could bet that business didn’t know what was happening in editorial and vice versa. That’s changed. Employees from Friends of WLRN frequent editorial’s weekly story meetings. And they will definitely be more collaboration in the future.
How important is it for development/business staff to be regular consumers of the content your station is making? Should it be required?
- Meta (WDET): Our business/development staff is constantly consuming the content that the editorial team creates, which makes it much easier to work collaboratively and nimbly because the business team already has a baseline understanding of what we’re working on. I guess the bigger question is if the business staff isn’t interested in consuming your station’s editorial content, why would they want to sell it?
- Brendan (VPR): Much of our “case for support” is about the work of our content team, so our expectation is that staff are also listeners and readers of our content. I would consider it a big red flag if you have to “require” staff to consume your station’s content!
At most entrepreneurial news startups, editorial and business sides are working closely together on new initiatives. Is public radio handicapping itself?
- Toby (WDET): There are certainly some legacy habits and structures that exist in public radio and for that matter, have existed in all traditional media. Other media have been making changes for years. Public radio has a unique opportunity to change this now.
Not necessarily a firewall breach, but ALL content people have to be aware that they ARE revenue generators. I know many who *aggressively* don’t get that. 🙁
- Toby (WDET): If everyone understands they can help and have a connection to helping generate revenue, mind sets are changed and doors open. Often, people feel they need to “stay in their lane” and not look at the bigger picture of how they can help. Some of the best revenue ideas we have have come from staff outside of the Underwriting team.