How engaged journalism can help news organizations generate revenue

By Kiara Santos

July 21, 2022

Study after study has shown that engaged journalism, which listens to community members and highlights their voices and needs in coverage, leads to improved outcomes: people feel more civically engaged and more connected to the journalism. 

But can those same principles pay off on the revenue side as well? Is it possible for news organizations to pursue engagement-focused revenue strategies? 

Jennifer Brandel says yes. 

Brandel is the founder and CEO of the consultancy Hearken, and she recently spoke with the Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange about how outlets can identify, build, and iterate on sustainable revenue strategies centered on engagement. 

The Founders Exchange is an accelerator program supporting Philadelphia-area media leaders of color as they build their own businesses. It is a program of The Lenfest Institute and The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund with additional support by the Independence Public Media Foundation. 

Hearken helps organizations embed listening into their growth and operations to build more resilient companies and communities. It believes in and recognizes the value of engagement to help journalists reach new audiences and create deeper relationships.  

Brandel drew on her own experience to share strategies — or “sales levers” — for how Founders Exchange cohort members can best position their businesses to successfully attract regular support from funders and investors. 

Here are three strategies Brandel highlighted on how local news organizations can pursue engagement-focused revenue strategies: 

Network across your community

Many entrepreneurs may find themselves working alone as they struggle to build their companies and careers, but many others are most likely thinking through the same challenges. 

Brandel encouraged the PMFE founders to reach out to other mission-aligned organizations in their communities to potentially take on challenges together. She called this “signals and patterns,” a way to identify recurring issues and work toward a solution.

For example, rent is expensive! To save on the cost of office space, Hearken shared a commercial lease with seven other small start-up civic entrepreneurs. The arrangement was beneficial not only because the eight companies could reduce costs, but they can also lean on one another to share their expertise. When one member organization of the space wanted to help people to register to vote, it collaborated with another group in its shared space that was working directly with community members by aiding with SNAP food access. 

“This community you’re part of right now, people that are struggling with the same things, to whatever degree you are able to have, writing about the patterns you’re seeing can put a signal up about what else is needed,” Brandel said. “Hold onto those people who are in the struggle with you and even create solutions around what might work for you.” 

Share what you know 

If a media organization has successfully reached new audiences or engaged their community, there’s a good chance other outlets will want to learn from what they’ve done. There’s a business opportunity there. 

Brandel suggested two potential revenue streams for media organizations — workshops and consulting strategies. 

“We gave a lot of the same talks for free, bones of information we had gathered over the years, and we started charging people – per seat or per head. If you know what to do and someone doesn’t, chances are you can create a workshop,” Brandel said, drawing from her experiences with Hearken. 

Publishers can also add positive comments from participants onto their websites to grow their reach.  

“Use testimonials to build out a page on your site,” Brandel said. “It’s as simple as a photo and a bunch of text but it signifies your genius and wisdom and what people find valuable about it. It helps you get to know the customer and helps you understand their other needs you can identify, help, and charge for.” 

This strategy not only fortifies the brand of the company, but also brings other people to look out for what might be offered by each organization. 

Staffing “in”

For entrepreneurs, time is one of the most valuable — and limited — resources. In order to maximize opportunities, Brandel shared strategies for how to work with funders to subsidize your time. 

She encouraged the founders to add line items to grant and funding applications that can allow them to re-allocate resources to both support the new project that’s being funded and ongoing work.

Brandel shared how she assigned a member of her team to help “fill in” work that she could no longer take on because she was working on another project. While sometimes it could be beneficial to hire a new person, in this instance Hearken leveraged someone who was already on their team to help mesh different facets together, identify and resolve problems, and provide the respective organizations ample time to focus on their other projects that allow the staff to blossom.

“We need someone there to help us solve our own problems and to keep us coordinated… it’s like a mutual aid program we made to help us solve our problems,” Brandel said. “It may seem like two steps back, zero steps forward, but what it created was someone whose job it was to get our needs met. We might not always need to hire for it, we just need someone to run that specific need and that person was out in our community.” 

Hearken was founded on the belief and recognition that curiosity and listening are the foundation of better business. Through these listening-based approaches, Hearken has not only partnered with communities to produce better journalism, but also grown and developed sustainable revenue streams to support the work on an ongoing basis.  

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