By Jake Batsell
Perhaps you’ve heard this narrative before: A statewide nonprofit news startup builds a loyal audience of political insiders and policy wonks, then boosts revenue by selling sponsors access to that audience — both online and in person.
Since launching in mid-2010 with the support of several foundations, NJ Spotlight has diversified its business model with streams of revenue including events, advertising, content licensing, and, this year, a trio of sponsored webinars.
“We’re building brand equity, and anything that helps us do that and has a positive cash flow associated to it, we’ll pursue,” said Kevin Harold, NJ Spotlight’s publisher.
NJ Spotlight will tally roughly $900,000 in overall revenue this year, Harold said. He expects about one-third of that total will be “earned” revenue — industry shorthand for self-generated income from non-philanthropic sources.
Most of the Spotlight’s earned revenue comes from its series of in-person roundtable events. But the site generated an extra $20,000 this year by hosting three sponsored webinars on topics including offshore wind power, electricity and health care.
Harold said the webinar format works best for a sponsor looking to make its case on a complex state policy issue that “begs a platform to get into the granular nature of it.” For example, the Spotlight’s webinar about offshore wind included presentations by a New Jersey company proposing an offshore transmission system, as well as by a European firm with previous experience in that area.
A reporter or editor moderates each webinar, which lasts about an hour. Sponsors present a slideshow, then answer questions posed by the moderator or the virtual, real-time audience.
The pitch to sponsors, Harold said, goes something like this: “You have a content-rich story to tell, we have an independent flag. We will challenge you on things that you say, but we’ll give you a platform to say them.”
The webinars aren’t technically dazzling, and they don’t draw massive audiences. The Spotlight’s three webinars drew an average of about 70 live participants, although they also are archived on the site.
Those who do tune in are well-educated and influential. A recent readership survey found that 94 percent of NJ Spotlight’s readers have at least a bachelor’s degree, and many readers are government employees or work within policy-dominated industries such as education, health care and energy.
The Spotlight’s webinars brought in roughly $6,500 each at minimal cost, creating another supplementary revenue stream. It’s a modest windfall, but it’s another example of how a small news organization can capture value from a solid journalistic reputation and an audience that sponsors find attractive.
“These things are one-shot deals — as soon as we pull a rabbit out of one hat, we’ve got to move on to the next one,” Harold said. “But we get better and better at executing, we build brand equity, we aggregate the audience, we bring value … all that’s good.”