Alexa Seeger

News Media: Stop Selling Consumers, Start Selling to Them

“If it’s free, you’re what they’re selling.”

That’s what our professor tells us. And I don’t like to be sold.

Photo used with permission from Albert Dera on Unsplash. Text added by Alexa Seeger.

In today’s media there’s really two business models. One: you are the customer and you pay for the product you use. Two: you are no longer the customer but the commodity. Companies sell ad space or data about  you to other companies that want to market to you.

Most news companies have been choosing option two. We know from the Pew Research Center’s “State of the Media” report that ad revenue makes up the majority of news organizations’ revenue. Unfortunately, as news organizations have increasingly relied on ad-driven business models, they have increasingly been pursuing clicks. Instead of long-form stories, it’s breaking news with exaggerated headlines. Instead of important local coverage, giving voice to the voiceless or being a watchdog, it’s Emmys and school shootings.

I’m not saying there’s not a place for pop culture and current national events in news. What I’m saying is when I read Farhad Manjoo’s article for the New York Times, “A Crazy Idea for Funding Local News: Charge People for It,” I found myself longing for what he describes.

I’m tired of being sold.

Instead of suffering through intrusive ads, I want to pay to read news that “emphasize[s] coverage that’s actionable, that residents deem necessary and valuable for short- and long-term planning — especially an obsessive focus on housing and development, transportation, education and local politics.”

I want that picture Manjoo paints for us.

I just got married, bought a house in Lansing, I’m graduating in May and I have a job lined up. I want to know what’s going on in my community. I want to be an informed citizen. I want to trust the press, because they’re upholding the ethics Ken Doctor talks about in his NiemanLab article. Like Trevor Kaufman describes in his interview with Ricardo Bilton for NiemanLab, I want to be treated like a customer again. Sell me the sense of accomplishment I get from being informed. Sell me a sense of ownership in my community.

I’m willing to pay for it.

What this means for the news media is a return to quality. Newsrooms no longer have to churn out stories to stay ahead of their competitors. Newsrooms once again become a space to dig into the stories that need to be told. There’s time for investigative pieces. There’s money to set agendas covering public schools and local entrepreneurs. And there are reporters to stick with these issues.

A novel idea, right? News organizations are beginning to recognize this potential revenue source. The New York Times’ subscription revenue


. Jessica Lessin’s The Information charges $399 a year, but she has enough dedicated subscribers that she plans to add six full-time journalists to her team of 31.

The key? Make something worth paying for.

For many news organizations, this approach may seem idealistic. But to put it another way, if you’re not doing something worth anything to anyone, why are you doing it? Be better.

To be better, conduct a competition analysis. Jeff Haden’s Jeff Haden’s Inc. article is a great place to start. Think about what your strengths and weaknesses are. Find out where your competitors are succeeding and failing. Most of all, look for underserved markets.

To be great, define your target market. Find out who you’re serving and what you can offer them. Start with Mandy Porta’s article, “How to Define Your Target Market.” There are specific people out there who will pay for your product. Find them.

And don’t sell them. Sell to them.

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