Each time I have spoken about multimedia and citizen journalism to a room full of journalists, someone always asks the inevitable question – the one question I've never been able to answer: “So how do you make money doing this?”
My answer was this: “We don't.” Our paychecks were still paid for by advertising and subscription revenue from The Bakersfield Californian. We did not sell sponsorships for our Podcasts or video ads for the pre-roll in our video player. All content on Bakersfield.com is accessible for free. The newsroom didn't worry about how to make money, we just tried to grow our online audience by experimenting with new forms of storytelling. Wasn't it up to our advertising department to sell the Web site?
Journalists were learning new tricks without a business model to back them up. During the housing boom earlier this decade, as The Californian's budget got fat from real estate advertising, we spent money left and right on new equipment and training. We added new positions, like a fulltime videographer and a multimedia editor. But no company leaders were bridging the gap between the newsroom and advertising to come up with ways to sustain our new endeavors. Our video hits were growing exponentially, but our company didn't monetize them. Perhaps the newsroom could have done more to figure out how to make money, but we were operating with that ethical wall between us and advertising. As the multimedia editor, I was not encouraged to sell pre-roll ads. But if I realized it meant my paycheck, perhaps I would have sought sponsorships. The success of the newspaper falls on everyone's shoulders, from the people who deliver the product in the morning to those who put it to bed at night. Unfortunately, as far as I know, the advertising department never approached the newsroom to find out what we were doing on the Web and how they might be able to sell it to advertisers or sponsors.
Meanwhile, The Bakersfield Californian was not ignoring its future. It had big plans that did not include the newsroom whatsoever. The company formed a subsidiary called Mercado Nuevo (“new market” in Spanish) which would attempt to be what The Californian could not: An incubator of new ideas and new products, without the wall between editorial and advertising, and – more importantly – without the wall between product and audience. The Northwest Voice, under the leadership of our Vice President of Audience Mary Lou Fulton, was the first of these Web-first publications to be created with 100 percent community submitted content. It was followed by Bakotopia (a music and youth-oriented Web site and magazine), Mas (a Latino Web site and magazine), and The Southwest Voice (serving southwest Bakersfield - now merged with the northwest publication to be simply The Bakersfield Voice). Was this to be the “newsroom” of the future?
I remember the first time we in the newsroom heard about The Northwest Voice. Our northwest Bakersfield reporter was mad – was she going to get scooped by our own company? We were appalled that we were going to publish articles written by the public. They had no training. They were not professional journalists. What was our worth if we were just going to use community content? And why was the company sinking money and resources into this rag instead of the newsroom so we could do a better job of covering the northwest community ourselves?
At the time, I had just become the “online content editor” in the newsroom – the first newsroom Web position at The Californian (a position I pitched to our bosses and for which I wrote the job description). I immediately applied to attend the multimedia bootcamp at UC Berkeley put on by the Knight Digital Media Center. That was where I realized our reputation as a company preceded me. Mary Lou Fulton travels the world speaking about The Californian, its new products, and its citizen journalism efforts. As I introduced myself to people at the workshop, about every other person would say, “Bakersfield? Mary Lou Fulton? The Northwest Voice? You guys are doing awesome, groundbreaking things down there. Great to meet you.” I kept a professional attitude and my mouth shut, although I wanted to say, “The Voice? That rag? Putting professional journalists out of business?”
How ironic that two years later I would become the Contributions Editor at The Californian, doing exactly what The Voice had done, and evangelizing citizen journalism to the same group of multimedia bootcampers at Berkeley each time I returned as a guest speaker. And, of course, still answering that question about revenue. How do you make money doing this? We don't.
More to come ...