CEO, Spirited Media
Jim Brady is CEO of Spirited Media, which recently sold its three local news sites (Denverite, The Incline and Billy Penn) and is in the consulting business. Brady is the former Executive Editor of washingtonpost.com and was Editor in Chief of Digital First Media and Public Editor of ESPN.
The biggest piece of advice I feel like I’m giving ... right now is you can’t change your business model unless you change how you operate. I feel like a lot of people (say), ‘Oh, we need more consumer revenue.’ It’s like, OK, so what else are you doing to make that happen other than just changing from advertising to paywall? Because if you want to get money out of a consumer now, you’ve got to rethink the user experience of the site … the stories that you do. Are you doing events? You can’t just say, ‘Well, we used to get money from advertisers. Now we get it from readers.’ Like, OK, that’s an idea. But, like, to execute it, you actually have to pay attention to your readers, and you’ve got to come up with ways to get them more involved in what you do, and I feel like that piece is still missing.
I closed a popup; I got another popup. Now there’s a video playing somewhere making noise. I don’t know where it is. You spend half your time just doing whack-a-mole on these sites because they’re not designed for you. They’re designed for the advertiser. Throw off as many impressions and as much revenue as they can. The problem is people quit using those sites because they’re so bad. Especially people who actually put value in user experience. And they go to Vox, or Vice, or places that actually understand that, and don’t junk up their site with a bunch of crap.
The access model (subscriptions) is the same for everybody. Everybody pays their same $6. But if you have a membership program, and somebody can give you $5,000, or they can give you $5. Or, like, you have a range. People give what they can give, but it opens the door to a lot more givers, and it’s a buy based in passion, not in access, because I’m a little worried about what happens to a lot of the newspapers that have these paywalls, when there’s half as many people working at these newsrooms as there is now. Are they going to be able to legitimately say I need the same $5, even though we produce half as much journalism every day? … Continuing to get people to buy that I think is harder than continuing to get them to give your money because of an emotional relationship they have.
The best way to innovate is always steer against the tide, and when the market of advertising is aflood with cheap, useless stuff, like, why steer into that? Why try to make more cheap useless stuff? Why don’t you say we’re actually going to do less stuff, and it’s going to be better, and we’re going to have a deeper relationship with you, the advertiser? … What we were trying to do was go back to that old model of doing premium partnerships, where we bundled up advertising, newsletter sponsorships, event sponsorships, and saying like, ‘Look, we’re only going to do deals with five or six partners, but they’re going to be pricey. But there’s only going to be five or six. And if you come in as the first bank that buys one of these, we won’t take any other bank advertisements this year. If you want to come in as the first auto dealer, we don’t take any other auto dealers.
I think if you come into a city with five people, and you want to do a start-up, and you say, ‘We’re just going to be better than the 200-person newsroom at these five things,’ I think that’s a short story. You’re not going to be around very long. You’ve got to differentiate yourself. You’ve got to have people have a sense of who you are.
I once had somebody define local news as anything that happens in the city, or is of interest to anybody in the city. And I thought, ‘Man, that is about as broad a definition...’ So, anybody in Detroit who’s interested in Australian politics, you guys ought to have Australian politics on your site. What is the limitation of that framing?