Modern journalists are expected to have a wide range of skills. There are old ones, like how to spot a story, conduct an interview and write an article. There are ones which other people used to do, like write headlines, take photos and record and edit audio and video. Then there all the new ones, ranging from blogging and linking to Tweeting, Storifying and handling spreadsheets full of data.
But, with news companies large and small grappling with the problem of making money, one skill which journalists seem reluctant to discuss is the one which has been helping to pay their wages up to now. Selling adverts.
The divide between journalists and ad sales folk at media companies can be deeply entrenched. I recall working at a radio station, in which most of the open-plan office was filled with desks of people who seemed to bash phones all day, while ever-increasing numbers appeared on a nearby whiteboard. Even though I sat just a few yards away, I had little idea of what they were doing, just as they didn’t offer an opinion as to what should be in my five o’clock bulletin.
Not that I was particularly bothered. After all, even an imaginary barrier between the commercial and editorial parts of a news company seems like good sense. At one time, the drive show was sponsored by the local police. Yet if I had to run a story which was critical of the police in some way, I didn’t feel any pressure from anyone to do things differently. Which is as it should be.
But when I came to the question of how I might fund the hyperlocal website I used to run, Saddleworth News, I realised that nobody was going to sell ads for me. So I had to have a go at it myself. I set up an account with Rick Waghorn’s Addiply for text ads, and started trying to sell display ads directly to local business people.
I ran into several problems. The major one was that I found myself to be not much good at selling things. It’s all very well to suggest that, because journalists are able to do a ‘death knock’ on a bereaved family, cold-calling businesses should be a doddle. Maybe for some people it is, but I found selling my site to a reluctant shop owner to be a lot tougher than getting information from a reluctant member of the public.
Specifically, I discovered it was hard to convince business owners to part with cash for an advert on a website, even one which had a relatively large audience like mine. The butcher, baker and pub landlord generally have little knowledge of advertising or media trends, and are usually happy to do what they’ve always done, and stick an old-fashioned ad in a paper or magazine every so often. We might know about how the paper’s circulation is a fraction of what it once was, but not everyone does.
The adverts I was able to sell were usually taken by people who used Saddleworth News as readers, and so understood the value of being on the site. Often the advertisers ran internet-based companies themselves, so they could easily see the number of clickthroughs they were getting from me, which helped encourage them to stay on.
The traditional separation between commercial and editorial inevitably got a bit blurred. If one of my advertisers came up in a local news story, I’d always mention the fact they were a supporter of the site. Indeed, I found my amateurish sales patter tended to work best on someone I’d just interviewed (“Thanks for sparing the time to chat, by the way, you can advertise on my site too you know, it’s got thousands of readers a month…”).
But even though at the site’s peak I usually had 12-15 advertisers at any one time, it was only enough to cover costs and keep me in a bit of petrol and beer money. Fine when I was only doing it for a couple of hours a day, but in order to bring in enough cash to make the site my full-time job, I would have been forced to spend most of my time selling ads rather than writing stories. Not an appealing prospect, and a key reason why I ended up handing the site over to students.
I’m sure that, over time, and especially as more local papers go weekly or close altogether, small businesses might see the value of spending a bit more of their advertising money with a quality hyperlocal site. I’m also sure that, with a bit of training, journalists like me could learn to sell ads adequately enough. But I’m even more sure that adding yet another difficult task to the skillset of the modern journalist wouldn’t go down well with anyone. Perhaps this is one skill too important to be left to amateurs.