D. Managing Culture, Managing Change

Ok, so you've acquired a digital news site or been acquired by a public media station. What's next?


Let’s say you have completed the diligence phase of an acquisition, successfully closed the transaction, and have had the early conversations necessary to set up for success. What can you expect in a post-acquisition integration process? This chapter and the following will address all of the various issues involved in managing the changes that are required for a digital acquisition to actually work inside a station.

Managing change is a complex, multi-dimensional process. And in the case of a public media merger, a huge part of that change will be cultural and centered in the newsroom. To help you prepare for what’s ahead, this chapter and the next will:

  • Lay out the major stages your merger process might go through.
  • Illustrate the challenges of each stage.
  • Offer some suggestions for how to navigate the rocky middle period of an integration process.
  • Explain the cultural frictions that might be at work in a merger process.
  • Articulate what you can do to build a new identity that encompasses everyone.

Each post-acquisition merger process will take on its own character and rhythm depending on the particularities of the people involved. But it can help to understand some of the major stages a post-acquisition merger process might present. Many of the station/digital newsroom mergers we studied went through a similar set of stages as they worked towards bringing their newsrooms together under a shared set of goals and procedures. Those stages were (1) a honeymoon, (2) a rocky period, and (3) building a new identity.

Getting a sense of what happens in each of those stages can help your leadership and editorial teams to expect that integration processes will take time, and there will likely be bumps along the way.

The honeymoon phase

The diligence and transaction parts of an acquisition process can be time-consuming and emotional. When you’re finally past the paperwork and ready to get started, you may be in for a lovely honeymoon phase when everyone is ready to dive in enthusiastically and give each other the benefit of the doubt as people get to know each other and get to know “how things work around here.” Many of the newsrooms in the study went through a “honeymoon” period in which everyone was relieved and excited when the transaction was complete and they were ready to get to work. 

How long can you expect the honeymoon to last? 

The first three to six months post-acquisition can be smooth as teams learn about each other and continue to do their work as usual. Just how long the period of goodwill and suspension of judgement will last depends on the below factors: 

(1) The baseline level of rapport and familiarity between the teams. If you are bringing together newsroom staffs who have collaborated before, or if you have staff in your newsroom who used to work for the other team, you will likely benefit from a baseline of familiarity and pre-existing relationships. These kinds of pre-existing relationships—and especially mutual respect between the teams—are a huge asset to a merger process and can definitely make a honeymoon last.

In the study, we saw honeymoon period length and quality depended on how much newsroom personnel from the two entities were familiar with each other before the acquisition. In a few cases, the public station had hired former digital newsroom employees into the station before the acquisition. Thus, the baseline level of familiarity and rapport began strong.

For example, Colorado Public Radio and the Denverite, which experienced relatively little cultural conflict in their post-acquisition merger progress, had some strong existing relationships between the newsrooms which helped create a strong strategic and cultural baseline for integration. Executive Editor Kevin Dale explained:

“[One of the founders of Denverite] Dave Burdick and I had worked together before at the Denver Post…CPR respected and knew the people at Denverite and vice versa, so we just never had that cultural conflict. Even if we do have a conflict here or there, we go on like you have a conflict between any desks in a newsroom. I already knew I was going to hire Dave Burdick as our Digital Managing Editor when the Denverite acquisition possibility came up. Dave being here is what really catapulted our digital strategy because he just thinks about it on a different level than most people from legacy newsrooms do.”

(2) Relative size and differentiation of the digital properties. If the acquired site and the station’s site are very different in audience size and editorial focus, the integration of the newsrooms may also be easier to navigate. The more potential for competition and confusion in audience and coverage between the two sites, the more likely that the honeymoon period will be short. The Denverite, for example, because of its focus on a single city — compared to CPR’s state-wide focus — had a relatively defined niche from the beginning inside the overall CPR news strategy.

(3) Degree of familiarity with managing multiple brands. Some stations in public broadcasting, particularly state-wide services, have experience in acquiring entities, managing multiple brands, and feeding multiple products. These kinds of capabilities, especially at the leadership level, can help smooth post-acquisition integration processes.

For example, WHYY in Philadelphia had over the years acquired other stations, participated in a major city-wide news collaborative (Resolve Philadelphia), and had set up special branded projects and verticals within its newsroom (Plan Philly). The station leadership’s familiarity with managing multiple brands and services helped smooth the way for Billy Penn’s transition into the station.

(4) How much change you want to take on right off the bat. If your goal is to have a fully integrated newsroom, you may decide to start with putting legacy and digital news teams together right away. These kinds of changes can be thrilling but also jarring if some (or all) of the staff aren’t prepared for integration. 

Stations in the study took different approaches to what they tackled first in the integration process, which helped determine how long the “honeymoon” lasted. Some went for technical integration first, and let the legacy and digital newsrooms operate independently. Others went for editorial integration early, while maintaining separate technical stacks. 

There is no right answer for what changes you take on first, and no right length to a honeymoon period. If the diligence and acquisition stage was exhausting for teams on both sides, it might make sense to wait a while before introducing major changes. 

How can we make a honeymoon work for us? 

If you’re clear about the strategy and goals you want to reach, and if you’ve done work to secure buy-in amongst staff along the way, your teams could be ready to dive in right away. In that case, the honeymoon stage can be a powerful context for inter-group learning. When people from different backgrounds are willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt as they learn new ways of working, the whole organization can make huge progress.

Indeed, for many of the newsrooms in the study, the honeymoon phase was important for each group to find its footing in a new organizational context and for leaders to begin the work of figuring out how to bring the entities into closer alignment.

The rocky period

Stage 2: The Rocky Period

The honeymoon period ends when the pressure of making changes tips teams into stress and conflict—especially intergroup stress and conflict. You should expect some degree of a rocky period as teams across the organization start to figure out what has to change in order to work together in a new way, with a new set of people, a new brand, and new products in the mix.

It is important to keep in mind that rocky periods which bring along significant cultural conflict can be incredibly draining to everyone. Confessed one newsroom leader in the study: “I think a lot about how hard this acquisition has been. It has been so draining, and so difficult just to move the needle a millimeter.”

 Nearly all the stations in the study went through a rocky period where differences in workflow, culture, and even vision came to the fore. Some stations’ “troubles” were relatively mild, others’ were very acute. We saw three types of conflict in merger rocky periods which you should be aware of.

(1) Cultural conflict. This kind of conflict stems from different backgrounds, orientations, ways of working, and ways of seeing the world. In bringing together a public media organization with a digital news organization, some degree of cultural conflict is inevitable. The next section of this chapter will dive deep into some of the common cultural disconnects so you know how to spot them. Cultural conflict looks like: judgements about the other group’s way of doing things, disagreements about values and tone, conflicting routines and deadlines, even disagreements about how much meeting time is appropriate. 

Cultural conflict can also manifest as a concern among staff about identity: which identity is most important, or fearing the loss of an identity. This is very common in acquisition and merger situations, especially when adopting a new brand is part of the process. For example, two newsrooms in the study had to address explicit staff concerns about the potential loss of credibility in the adoption of a new brand. Explained one newsroom leader: 

“The overwhelming sentiment in the newsroom was, “I didn’t come to work [at the acquired newsroom], I’m working for NPR. NPR is the brand that people respect, it’s what gets me calls, it’s why I develop sources, how I get call backs. No one’s going to respond to me if I use this new brand.”

(2) Strategic conflict. This kind of conflict can arise when there are unclear (or not widely shared) goals or disconnects in resources versus stated priorities. The previous chapter on Setting Up for Success articulates the preventative measures you can take to minimize post-acquisition strategic conflict. But because the media landscape—not to mention many station’s operations—are so complex, strategic conflict can be hard to avoid. Resource decisions and resource constraints can also prompt strategic conflict by shedding light on the disconnects between aspirations and support. 

(3) Cultural and Strategic Conflict. Cultural conflict entwined with strategic conflict can be a particularly toxic recipe for a rocky period. When different teams hold different understandings of what constitutes success and disagree on how to get there, the integration process can grind to a halt. And conflicts can compound and escalate.

The ability to spot cultural conflict—while it won’t guarantee your teams won’t suffer from it—should help to prepare your leaders and staff for the rocky period. The next section will take a deep dive into the different news and organizational cultures that public media and independent digital newsrooms swim in. Get to know these peculiarities and taken-for-granted ways of working so you can help teams de-personalize cultural conflict when it happens.

Culture Conflict 

By far the most difficult stumbling blocks in any post-acquisition merger process are about culture. Culture is a broad term that encompasses concrete actions and routines; and more ephemeral things like language, values, and ways of thinking. In general, any part of thinking, being, and doing that is taken-for-granted in a group is about culture.

From a leadership perspective, one of the most important issues to tend to in a post-acquisition merger process is the inevitable cultural clashes that will occur between teams that come from different organizations. Though there are some factors that mitigate against culture clashes (more on that below), what will help most of all is to understand the basic attributes of the cultures you are bringing together. Making culture explicit, especially during periods of cultural conflict, is a good way to diffuse tensions and help orient teams toward constructive problem-solving, rather than destructive finger-pointing. 

With that in mind, here are the common cultural types that emerged in the research. We offer these as starting points for cultural reflection. Your organization probably has its own unique set of values, practices, and orientations. Adding to or amending these lists will help you prepare to tackle the cultural challenges that come with post-acquisition merger processes.

Public Media Culture 

Public media culture in radio and television is deeply steeped in its broadcast roots and its membership model. Because most of the stations that have undertaken mergers thus far have been radio (or dual licensee) stations, this list reflects more of the public radio culture than public television. But similarities, particularly around institutional conservatism, certainly apply to all. This list of cultural attributes comes from the study of merger stations and from our previous studies of public broadcasting.

Craft-focused, production-driven. The independent producers who helped shape the early years of public radio and television left an indelible mark on the culture of public broadcasting. The attention to craft and attunement to production processes are salient cultural features of public broadcasting newsrooms. Reporters and editors who are used to working in a fast-paced digital or print environment will likely be confused by the time and attention to detail that many public media reporters, editors, and producers devote to a story or series. This can be a huge source of cultural conflict in merging newsrooms. 

Story-driven (radio). Similar to the attention to craft, public radio professionals in particular prize the art of “storytelling.” Story-telling refers to narrative arcs and to the quality of sound (or visuals) that accompany a story. Public radio stories on their best day are “driveway moments” in which the listener is transported to another space and time listening to an audio tale. While “stories” in public radio can have journalistic elements, they are often not the same form, content, or structure as print or digital news “stories.” The differences in meaning also entail differences in decision-making, editing, and workflow—all of which can become a source of cultural conflict in a post-acquisition merger process.

“On the air and off the mind.” Broadcast media are ephemeral media. A story or segment airs, is listened to or viewed synchronously, and then disappears. Stations and broadcast media producers engage in an enormous amount of highly structured, highly routinized work, to produce a 24-hour local broadcast service. The daily grind of this work often leads to an “on the air and off the mind” mentality, in which media goes onto the air, and then producers quickly shift their attention to the next day’s (or week’s) work. Print and digital media work differently: a newsroom publishes and rather than disappearing, that content circulates (particularly on the internet) and can grow in audience and importance over time. Particularly with the rise in importance of social media distribution, a digital text story may require care and feeding over time, post publication, that broadcast newsrooms are not used to providing. This difference in orientation can also be a source of cultural conflict.

Launching things but not feeding them over time. The ephemeral nature of broadcast has nurtured a related cultural pattern in stations around initiatives and projects: launching things but not feeding them over time. Stations can and do mobilize considerable resources and attention to pull off major new initiatives and projects. But many stations struggle to institutionalize changes by re-assessing, shifting, and resourcing initiatives and projects over time. When it comes to newsroom acquisitions, the risk is that a station and digital newsroom devote considerable time and attention to the transaction process, and even to the honeymoon phase, but the merger processes themselves can lose internal visibility and priority as leadership turns their attention to other issues. This is a source not just of cultural conflict, but of strategic risk for an acquisition. 

Matrix and meeting madness. Public media organizations, especially large ones, can have complex structures and a range of specialities. Public media also tends to have a culture of consensus decision-making, meaning many stakeholders are consulted but authorization for final decisions is often weak. The combination of complexity and consensus can lead to matrix decision-making processes that are very meeting heavy. This kind of consensus-seeking and bias towards meetings can be a jarring source of cultural conflict for digital newsroom leaders new to public media.

Polished, risk-averse, conservative. Public media organizations, by virtue of their age and their mission to serve a wide swath of the “public,” tend to be risk-averse and conservative. And because their brands are often well-recognized and well-respected in their communities, public media culture tends to prize a certain quality of polish and completeness in content and communications. For digital newsrooms coming from a start-up environment where the ethos has been to test and iterate, the public media risk-aversion, conservatism, and polish can generate culture clashes.

Broadcast versus digital wars. Public media, especially in radio, is now more than two decades into its “digital transformation.” Yet even as public media stations have increasingly trained their own digital talent and built out digital products, the digital teams of many stations have often been under-resourced, under-leveraged, and under-appreciated compared to their broadcast colleagues. This ongoing baseline cultural tension between digital teams and broadcast teams inside stations is the backdrop for digital newsroom acquisitions. This means many digital newsrooms will be entering station cultures in which “broadcast versus digital” has a long history and its own set of meanings and connotations. Those underlying tensions can be confusing and add an extra layer of cultural turmoil in a post-acquisition merger process. 

Playing for the long haul. Public media stations, especially those that have reached a certain scale and heft, have become very skilled at playing for the long haul. Stations run capital campaigns that paint visions of the future and draw on a history of past service, broadcast shows develop loyal followings and air for years (think of your local station’s Car Talk reruns!), successful general managers can serve for decades; station board members can similarly serve for decades. Much in the public media culture and practice lends itself to long-term thinking and planning. While institutional stability can be a source of reassurance to digital newsrooms, the long time cycles and slow pace of public media can also be disorienting and difficult to navigate. 

Values-driven. Public media culture is deeply values driven. Most public media professionals joined the institution because they profess a belief in the values that public media stands for. In 2000, the Public Media Program Directors Association sought to articulate those values, especially as they relate to programming. The values they uncovered fell into three categories: Qualities of the Mind (including love of lifelong learning, substance, and accuracy), Qualities of the Heart (including a belief in civil discourse, humor, and focus on public life and culture), and Qualities of Craft (including pacing, attention to detail, and a human voice). 

Many public media professionals still carry small cards around that list these values. For digital news professionals that have had their training in other settings — newspapers or digital start-ups — the focus on values and mission can be both inspiring and a little puzzling. The values-driven culture of public media is not quite the same as a journalism culture. And bridging those value differences—and coming up with a new hybrid of both—is the difficult cultural work of a post-acquisition merger process.

Digital News Cultures

Digital news culture comes in a variety of flavors, reflecting the types of digital newsrooms that have emerged since internet media took off in the early aughts. Understanding the cultural type (or types) of the digital newsroom in an acquisition is important for being able to anticipate some of the cultural challenges and culture clashes a post-merger acquisition will bring. 

This section outlines two types of digital news cultures. One type takes its cues from the early internet bloggers who found a freedom and range of expression in internet publishing that was not available under traditional institutional brands. Another cultural type takes its cues from traditional newspaper journalism. Especially as the newspaper industry has shrunk and many veteran reporters and editors lost their jobs, a new breed of digital newsroom was born that draws on the traditional culture and publishing cycles of print news. 

Some common cultural attributes of digital newsrooms

Fast-paced – get it up, get it out.  Digital newsrooms of the more blog-type are used to producing short, regular stories. Digital newsrooms of newspaper origin are used to producing stories of varying length on deadline. Both of these publishing styles are faster-paced and more regular than most public media digital newsrooms. In fact, perhaps the most important cultural difference between public media newsrooms and digital newsrooms (both blog and newspaper) is the metabolism rate. Public media newsrooms tend to produce less and more slowly than independent digital newsrooms.

Fact-focused, analysis-focused.  Digital news professionals tend to be fact-focused and analysis-focused. The typical “who, what, when, where” basics of the news format are the orienting principles. This orientation can stand in stark contrast to the public media focus on narrative storytelling, craft, and quality production.

Staff wear many hats. In small digital newsrooms, staff by necessity often wear many hats. A reporter may also run the newsroom’s social media account, for example. Or the executive editor may also manage the fundraising. Though managing multiple roles isn’t easy, small digital newsroom professionals often take pride in their many responsibilities and are able to translate learnings and insights across disciplines in a way that is more difficult in large, complex media organizations. 

Scrappy, entrepreneurial. Because many small digital newsrooms are often young, they usually retain a scrappy and entrepreneurial spirit. The desire to create a sustainable enterprise—and the willingness to innovate and keep trying new things in service of that goal—are hallmarks of entrepreneurial leaders in news. The scrappiness and entrepreneurship can become a cultural clash with the more polished, risk-averse, and conservative bent of public media.

Unique cultural attributes: Blogging origins

There are a handful of cultural attributes that are unique to blog-oriented as opposed to newspaper-oriented small digital newsrooms which are worth keeping in mind, since each can also lead to cultural misunderstandings. 

“Voice-y” — silly, irreverent, funny at times. The freedom of the blog format gave many early bloggers the opportunity to hone a silly, funny, or irreverent voice. This kind of distinctive voice is a powerful way to build a loyal digital audience. Digital newsrooms that have blog-type culture are often built around either a set of writer personalities or a distinctive editorial voice. Because public media culture tends to embody “the establishment” in the minds of many audience members and public media professionals themselves, this kind of distinctive editorial voice can represent a cultural stretch in a post-acquisition merger process.

Audience-driven. The focus on audience building in the blogging culture (which is now extended in many ways to the indie newsletter culture) generally attunes digital newsroom professionals to the behaviors of their audience in a more precise way than in public media. This appears not just in attention to audience metrics (like reach and page views) but in editorial sensibility around what kinds of stories will resonate and why. Public media newsrooms have much to learn from this audience attunement, but it can also become a culture clash when the default audience assumptions different groups hold are not made explicit. 

Comfortable with metrics and product. Because the blogging culture was native to the internet, newsrooms with this kind of background tend to be more comfortable with metrics and digital product practices than both public media newsrooms and legacy print newsrooms. This can be a real advantage in a public media environment, but can also be a source of discomfort because public media newsrooms are generally not set up to have close contact with either product practices or digital metrics.

Unique cultural attributes: Newspaper origins

Beats and editing are important. For small digital newsrooms with newspaper origins, the structure of beats and cycles of editing can be very important. Depending on the new public media station home, this can be a welcome fit or a mismatch. As public media newsrooms have hired newspaper editors into leadership positions, those newsrooms have evolved their own beat structures and editing lines. The acquisition of a small digital newsroom with newspaper origins can strengthen this orientation. 

Single-deadline driven. Digital newsrooms with strong newspaper origins tend to orient to a single deadline (often end of the day), a habit from print production deadlines. Broadcast newsrooms are deadline-driven too, though usually with more regular deadlines throughout the day to reflect the rhythms of broadcast. Depending on the publishing cycle and frequency that a combined newsroom wants to design for, ironing out deadlines and related workflows can also prompt cultural conflict. 

Occupation-driven. Newspaper journalism has a strong set of occupational norms which help give shape to its distinctive culture of journalism. Traditional occupational values like objectivity, neutrality, and public service can be deeply embedded in a digital newsroom with newspaper origins. As discussed above, the clash between public media values and the occupational values of newspaper journalism can become another source of cultural conflict in a post-acquisition merger process. 

Common Channels of Cultural Conflict

So now you have a sense of what cultural values and practices might crash up against each other in an integration process. But how will those frictions show up? What should you and your editorial leads be on the lookout for? 

Being aware of the channels where cultural conflict is likely to flare up can help you and your managers be on the lookout for trouble brewing. An important step towards quelling cultural conflict is about making competing values, styles, and orientations explicit to warring sides. You don’t want to litigate cultural conflict on a case-by-case basis, but helping all sides see how and why tensions are rising is the first important step towards navigating through a rocky period to culture change.

Use this list as a way to spot the cultural conflicts brewing in a post-acquisition newsroom.

Which media leads for which story. Digital newsroom staff and public media newsroom staff may have different ideas about what kinds of media (broadcast or digital) should lead a story. 

How much and what kind of detail a story needs. Digital newsroom staff and public media staff are often used to working in different media. Assumptions around how much and what kind of detail a story needs can become a channel of misunderstanding for professionals with different media backgrounds.

Different news values. Public media and digital newsroom professionals may approach story ideas and coverage areas with different “news values” — different sensibilities around what makes for an interesting and important story. 

Style and language. Style guidelines can differ between public media and digital newsrooms, including questions of acceptable language.

Different default deadlines. Journalists that come from public media versus digital newsrooms will also be used to working on different default deadlines. Broadcast journalists working in public media newsrooms, depending on the frequency of newscasts and timing of news segments, can be used to working over a number of days to produce stories. Digital newsroom journalists may be more used to producing frequent stories that are posted as they are ready, depending on their newsrooms’ publishing schedule. 

Different default assumptions about the audience. One of the most important potential channels of cultural conflict is different ideas of the audience held by public media versus digital newsrooms. A digital newsroom may come into public media with a well-honed idea of what audience it serves. While that audience may overlap with the public media audience, it may not. Making explicit different ideas of the audience will go a long way towards sorting through potential cultural differences.

Getting through the Rocky Period

Some level of conflict will be the understandable result of all the complexities involved in bringing two entities together. But what are the paths through a rocky period? What helped merger stations in our study through the rocky period was a combination of turnover, new leadership, and early wins.

Welcome and take advantage of staff turnover. Many post-acquisition merger processes, because they demand new ways of working from teams across the organization, will prompt some staff to decide they want to leave. Maybe a veteran radio reporter doesn’t really want to practice his craft in a multi-media newsroom. Maybe a digital editor isn’t ready to handle the complexity of working across different deadlines in different media. Maybe a radio sponsorship professional would rather just sell radio spots. In the wake of an acquisition, individuals can make their own choices about whether where the ship is heading is somewhere they want to go. And the departure of people with one set of skills and outlook is a golden opportunity to bring in new people with different skills and different outlooks. 

In many of the merger stations we studied, turnover of key personnel (on both the station side and the digital newsroom side) who had difficulty adjusting to the changes required to make “one newsroom” was hugely important in resolving cultural conflict. One or two toxic mid-level leaders can absolutely prolong “the troubles.” Removing the toxicity and bringing in new people with fresh thinking can help unblock the processes necessary for successful post-acquisition integration.

Welcome and empower new leadership. It is common in a merger situation, especially one experiencing cultural rockiness, for existing leadership to feel by turns overwhelmed and protective. Defensive feelings are par for the course in the midst of rough cultural terrain, but such a stance at the leadership level can work against integration. Sometimes leaders can get so overwhelmed that they leave during a post-acquisition merger process.

While turnover of staff can be stressful for everyone, turnover of leadership often prompts a deeper sense of unease and fear of drift. If your rocky period involves the departure of leaders in the station or the acquired newsroom, don’t despair. Leadership turnover is one of the magic ingredients for moving through a post-acquisition rocky period. The departure of someone from a leadership role presents a huge opportunity to bring in a new person who has the energy and enthusiasm for building something new. 

In particular, bringing in new editorial leadership during a post-acquisition merger process can help reset cultural expectations and calm intergroup tensions. We observed in a number of stations in the study that new editorial leadership arriving shortly before or after an acquisition made a huge difference for the cultural and strategic progress in the newsroom.

That said, new leaders will also likely find that they need to do some clean-up work in people and processes to help the newsroom get a new footing and establish a new culture. Communicating to new leaders that this is part of their mandate will help set them up for success. We observed that the new editorial leaders in the study who felt empowered to make personnel and process changes were able to make substantive progress on integration goals that had been otherwise stuck.

Create small, visible wins. In the depths of a rocky period, it might be hard to see clear to the other side. Another helpful change strategy for getting through the rocky period is creating visible wins that help illustrate for everyone the benefits that integration and collaboration can deliver. It can help to focus on producing one cross-platform project or story with those who are willing and able to champion the integration. Then make sure to communicate to the rest of the organization what success looks like.

For example, NJ Spotlight worked with the NJTV team early in their integration process to put together a special multi-platform project on New Jersey farmland. The resulting website and video series was a source of pride for everyone involved and showed the possibilities of what the teams could produce together. That spirit continued with collaborative projects around the ensuing elections and especially the COVID pandemic, including a “COVID Hub” of all their collective reporting.

For all of the newsrooms in the study, we observed that digital success built on itself and helped cement culture change post-acquisition. Seeing positive results of changes in editorial and publishing strategy can help everyone in the newsroom to see a new path forward. For example Kevin Dale at Colorado Public Radio noticed that as their web traffic has grown and their stories are reaching a larger audience, his reporters have become more and more interested and motivated by their digital publishing work.

“As we have seen our web traffic grow, they’re getting it more and more. Now most of the reporters, if they get beat on a story by another outlet, they’re beating themselves up more than I ever would. It’s more like what I’m used to in the newsroom. Instead of when I first got there I would have to ask everyone, ‘Okay, how did we get beat on this story?’ Because they wouldn’t even really know how they got beat. That just doesn’t happen anymore. So, that culture probably was the toughest thing to overcome. But the great thing is, is they all wanted it. They just needed help getting there.”

Edit, edit, edit. The process of culture change in a newsroom will require investing in editing and training in order to support people in taking up new ways of working. Any new workflow, shift in editorial tone or process, or new method of reporting will require repeated practice and a fair amount of editing. 

For radio reporters in particular who need to learn a new digital reporting workflow as part of an integration process, editing support is crucial. And so is encouragement to work more quickly with stories that work well for the web. The reverse is also true — digital reporters coming into public media will take some training and support to work in broadcast media. Skill development takes time, and it’s rare for reporters to be able to seamlessly transition to another medium in a short time period.

Designate an integration czar. In the crush of competing goals and priorities, it can be easy for leadership to lose attention to the progress of a merger. But this is a huge mistake, especially in the rocky period. Consider designating a mid-level leader to be responsible for helping shepherd the integration daily, especially in the newsroom. Having someone who is responsible for integration-related work like spotting and working through cultural friction, documenting new processes, translating vision, and helping advocate for new resources will help you power through a rocky period. Some stations named an “integration task force” for this purpose. While these bodies can be helpful for planning and checking, they don’t substitute for someone who’s full time responsibility is helping a merger move forward. 

Says Kristen Muller of KPCC: “I think what I learned from the acquisition is that someone needs to be driving towards the goal every day, and articulating what it means for people, and being clear about what success looks like.”

Building a new identity

It will likely be difficult to pinpoint a particular moment when the rocky period ends and the final stage of integration begins. Fresh leadership, the departure of toxic individuals, and a few successful demonstrations of cross-newsroom collaboration will absolutely help to advance to a new stage. What comes after the rocky period will have some identifiable characteristics. The cultural and strategic conflict will feel less present and insistent on a daily basis, and the work will increasingly feel like building a new, common understanding and common way of working. 

The creation of common understanding and a common way of working hinges on building a new newsroom identity, one that each newsroom member finds meaningful and inspiring. We observed in the study that new leaders in particular have a leg-up on building a new identity because they aren’t weighed down by old battles or inter-group conflict.

What does it mean to build a new identity? 

In the simplest terms, it means that those most closely involved in the merger process feel less attached to their old identities, and more interested and identified with what can be built together. This is a tricky process because it doesn’t mean the brands go away — in fact, maintaining different brands will likely be a key strategic goal in many acquisitions. 

One content leader shared his sense of the challenge that building a new, single identity poses:

“The next challenge for us is there really shouldn’t be a [Digital News Brand] staff and everyone else. There do need to be dedicated staffers in the same way there are radio producers on ATC and Morning Edition and the same way that there are producers on our local show. There do need to be people who make those things every day. But also all of our desks and all of our reporting should live on all of these different platforms. So at some point, one of the things that we are trying to intentionally do is to slowly, carefully, not all at once, is to shift this idea that there is a [Digital News Brand] team and then our [Station] news.”

But building a new identity means that brands become more meaningful in what they can do to serve the audience, rather than what the brands mean about the group affiliations of team members. For the stations in the study, the emergence of a new newsroom identity, however fragile, helped the process of integration by orienting everyone to a shared purpose, a shared language, and a shared set of goals. 

What can leaders do to build a new identity? 

Building a new identity is a multi-dimensional leadership process. After the chaos and upheaval of a rocky period, many processes, assumptions, and ways of thinking are likely to feel very unsettled. Building a new identity requires leaders to help settle their teams on a new, shared way of thinking and working together. 

Building a common set of editorial principles and standard operating procedures helps. So does building a common language and celebrating shared successes. But the most important thing newsroom leaders can do to encourage a new identity is to communicate (over and over again!) a shared vision and purpose, and then link those to explicit and measurable goals. We expand on each of these below.

Document values and process so everyone can see. Especially in the newsroom, leaders can help build a new identity by documenting shared guidelines, processes, and values for all to see. Being able to check current conditions and ways of working against an agreed-upon set of goals and practices can help newsrooms to become self-correcting. Having a written document with guidelines, process, and values is especially helpful as leadership and staff turn over. 

For example, Victor Hernandez at Cascade Public Media has been building a playbook for the Crosscut newsroom that lays out the values and processes that guide their work. The playbook addresses issues like what the story cycle looks like, how engagement should fit into their work, and their core editorial values. The process of putting together the playbook has forced the newsroom to have explicit conversations about how they want to work together and what success looks like. Those exercises, Hernandez says, have helped evolve the Crosscut multi platform newsroom to a stable, central environment inside what had been primarily broadcast-focused operation for several decades.

Shula Neuman at St. Louis Public Radio spent a year working with her staff to put together a vision, mission and set of operating guidelines for their newsroom. She wanted the document to reflect both her vision and what she knew the newsroom was best at doing. This document helped crystalize a cultural shift toward multi-platform journalism that had been in process since the St. Louis Beacon acquisition but benefitted from being formally written down and shared. 

Create new rituals to celebrate examples of good work. Another important ingredient to crafting a new newsroom identity is the creation of new rituals that celebrate what good work looks like. Using awards and other special recognition to highlight good work can really help push and cement culture change. Many of the newsrooms in our study found that instituting awards and other forms of public recognition for work well done helped reinforce the elements of a new shared newsroom identity.

For example, former WAMU Chief Content Officer Andi McDaniel worked with a graphic artist to create custom monthly awards for high quality stories and projects. The awards were beautiful and became highly valued on the content teams. The process both helped her honor good work and set expectations for the kind of content the station teams should create. Inspired by McDaniel, Kevin Dale at Colorado Public Radio started their own set of newsroom awards and found it to be a huge morale boost:

”I went out and bought seven little trophies, and every month we recognize people in the key areas that we’re trying to message. So, excellent beat work. That could be breaking a story. It could be digging out an enterprise piece. We have one that’s a little Shark Tank guy that’s for innovation, and we have a microphone for moments of joy. I make them hand the trophies off to each other month after month. It’s been great. I thought it would help us with messaging, but actually it’s been a huge morale thing too. People just like getting their work recognized, obviously, but they also, I think, like giving each other the trophies.”

Communicate the new vision early and often; and link it to concrete goals and resources. Leaders can think they are communicating when in fact, their messages are not getting through to the staff. Over-communicating vision in a merger process is very important for getting new language and a new sense of shared purpose imbued in staff. But rhetoric in and of itself can also ring hollow (and sometimes backfire) if it’s not backed up with measurable goals and real resources. Leaders who can link vision, goals, and resources — and communicate those links — will help cement a new, post-acquisition identity.

The editorial leaders in the study each shared how much more they had to communicate about their vision and about the changes being ushered in by their mergers. “Even when you think you are communicating something clearly and often, it’s amazing how much doesn’t actually get through to staff,” shared one content lead. Some content leads found that having regular check-in meetings with editors, and making sure those editors were communicating vision and strategy messages to their teams, helped keep everyone on the same page as the integration process unfolded. Culture building can also be moved along by regular, explicit conversations about vision and mission.

Just as important as communicating vision is linking the lofty ideals to concrete goals. An excellent example of this is the KPCC newsroom, which as part of integrating the LAist product into its newsroom, rolled out reporter-specific mission statements with individual dashboards to help reporters track the “loyal and local” audience their beats were building. This kind of linking of vision, strategy, and measurable goals can help to push a change process forward.

What does success look like?

How will you know if you’ve successfully built a new identity? At least in the newsroom, if you’re seeing your readership go up, engagement across group boundaries, appreciation for different types of work, people mastering new styles, and everyone searching for more interesting and important issues to cover — you’ve likely successfully made the turn to a new identity. KPCC’s  Kristen Muller reflected on how far they have come in their post-acquisition integration process: 

“A lot more people are reading more of what we do, and our reporters themselves are reading their colleagues’ work and learning new things. Our digital editors are now writing more. Before they were basically rewriting other people’s stories for the web, and now they’re back to writing in their own voice, and that’s great. Another one of our reporters is now doing transportation, which is great.” 

Deep change required

As explored above, public media culture, while hospitable to digital journalism, requires major shifts for an integration to bear fruit over time. Deep change will likely take place on a scale of three to five years, not months or quarters. 

The long timescale of change is understandable. Even with an infusion of digital reporting talent, change processes in legacy broadcast newsrooms can take time. A shift to digital-first reporting will challenge habits ingrained in a broadcast newsroom. At a higher level, all of the news leaders in the study agreed that public media is just beginning to understand what it means to be a primary news provider, and to be able to attract newsroom talent that understand both primary news provision and the medium of radio or television. Conversely, print reporters coming into broadcasting often bring experience with beats and daily reporting, but learning the broadcast side takes work.

But over the long term, the legacy of an acquisition can be to elevate both the quality of local coverage and the way that public media journalists think of themselves. Two good examples from our research are Cascade Public Media and St. Louis Public radio. The Crosscut newsroom acquisition by Cascade Public Media is five years old; and the St. Louis Beacon acquisition by St. Louis Public Radio is the same age. Both acquisitions took significant time to stabilize; but the changes are long lasting.

Victor Hernandez reflected that the Crosscut newsroom is now in its awkward teenage phase, in which lots of growth and development is happening and more new practices can be put in place as the newsroom aspires to a bigger role. 

“It’s a fascinating time for us because in many ways we’re experiencing rapid growth with a bit of awkward teenager mixed in. You see Crosscut is 13 years old with the merger forming Cascade Public Media occurring five years ago. Up until the past few years, we were considered by many as the little engine that could. With some questioning whether we could be taken seriously, and what our future might hold. We went from a handful of staff journalists a few years ago to a bustling newsroom today of 33. You could call it our growth spurt.

We’ve established our place in the local news ecosystem. We’re experiencing great momentum through our in-depth reporting, audience development and use of innovation to engage PNW communities, yet we’re still awkward at times. While we obviously aren’t a 100-year-old legacy operation steeped in tradition, we also haven’t yet realized what our maximum potential can become.

We’re experimenting on a daily basis, stress-testing systems, workflow and people skills to chart better strategies going forward. We are attempting new approaches that often do not hit the mark for success, but we’re applying those learnings toward the next opportunity.”

Shula Neuman believes that the legacy of the Beacon acquisition was to fundamentally change how St. Louis Public Radio reporters work and think about themselves:

“We’re a much better news organization than we ever were before. And I say that, I mean, certainly from 20 years ago when I was here and there were four reporters. I don’t even think it’s cognizant for the people who weren’t here during the merger, but I think the legacy of the Beacon is reflected in our approach to journalism. People here aren’t thinking about themselves as a radio reporter, or a print reporter, they’re thinking about themselves as journalists. Our reporters now think, “Oh, I better do some pre-writing before I go out to talk to this person.” That was never on anybody’s radar four years ago. Now it is common practice.”

While these two examples highlight newsroom mergers that are more than five years after the initial transaction, significant change is also possible within the first two years. For all of the newsrooms in our cohort, the covid-19 pandemic accelerated collaboration and cultural change in the newsroom in unexpected and welcome ways. Rachel Sadon, the former Editor in Chief of DCist and now the News Director of WAMU, explained,

“While we still have progress to make, the pace and sensibility in the newsroom has completely changed from two years ago to be more digitally oriented. There are still challenges, but it is a fraction of what it was.”

E. Creating One Newsroom

Most newsrooms with many brands and many platforms will want to operate as one, integrated unit. So how does that work?


Regardless of the structural starting point of an acquisition, the end goal of most acquisitions will be for news teams to work as one newsroom — a newsroom that may have many brands and many platforms but operates as an integrated unit. This can look like editorial teams that transcend platform and channel; it can also look like teams organized and branded separately but operating under a common editorial leadership. So where to start with creating one newsroom?

Tactically, we found that some newsrooms in the study opted to co-locate their editorial teams as the first order of business. This can help new team members get to know each other, develop personal working relationships, and learn each other’s ways of working. But this doesn’t have to be the first step towards creating one newsroom. We saw that some stations in the study gave their teams time to continue to operate independently before bringing the newsrooms together in a common space and workflow.

Whatever the starting point, the goal of “one newsroom” and the vision of a multi-platform local news service, will emerge after a process of experimentation, struggle, and change. But beginning with an understanding of how a multi-platform newsroom can work will help editorial leadership to guide the changes necessary for integration. Later in this chapter, we’ll address some core principles for managing this kind of newsroom.

But first: If the goal of your acquisition is to create a fully integrated, multi-platform newsroom, just what does that look like? How can you set up such a newsroom for success? This section outlines the core questions you need to ask (and answer) to make the most of a digital acquisition for building an integrated, multi-platform newsroom.

Multi-platform newsroom variables

Multi-platform newsrooms are complicated. Before trying to craft a multi-platform newsroom strategy and structure, it helps to be explicit about just how many variables your newsroom needs to manage in its daily operations. This list covers the major categories that can be at work in a multi-platform newsroom. Adjust this list as needed for your newsroom. 

Beat/Desk : Consider whether your newsroom is structured around beats or desks, and whether those categories fit with your newsroom’s mission and strategic place in your media ecosystem. Beats could be politics, innovation, health, etc. 

Story: Consider the story types your newsroom excels at producing, and the story types your audiences gravitate towards. Your stories could be explanatory, investigative, breaking news, public service, human interest, etc.

Audience: Consider whether you have enough audience research to identify the types of audience members who regularly turn to you. Are they NPR fans, millennial city-dwellers, parents, suburban listeners, etc.? What does your research say these audience types value in your coverage?

Format: Consider the formats available to your newsroom and the formats which are your strengths. Formats could include: broadcast story, broadcast two-way, blog update, long-form, visual story, newsletter update.

Platform: Consider the media platforms in use in your expanded newsroom, which ones play to your newsrooms’ strengths, and which ones are used by your most loyal audience members. Platforms could include: podcast, newscast, broadcast, station news site, digital news site, newsletter, social media.

Product: Consider the media products in use in your expanded newsroom, which ones play to your newsrooms’ strengths, and which ones are used by your most loyal audience members. Products could include: podcast show, broadcast special, topical or daily newsletter, digital news blog, digital news special feature.

Brand: Using audience research if you have it, consider the suite of brands in use in your expanded newsroom. What are the brand values of each? What do audience members expect and value about that brand? What creative risks can that brand take, and what would violate the brand’s values? Brands in your newsroom might include: digital news brand, station broadcast brand, broadcast show brand.

Managing fully integrated newsrooms

With the variables for your newsroom mapped out, you should be able to see clearly the range of stories you can produce and audiences you can reach. Now, how to prioritize? Prioritization is strategy, and the key to managing for success in a multi-platform newsroom. Without a shared sense of hierarchy and direction, the sheer number of options, audiences, platforms, formats, etc. can lead to diffusion of effort. There are seven questions, in decreasing order of importance, that you should ask to help set strategy and priority. You can use this process to organize the strategy and priority of your newsroom as a whole, and you can use this process to organize your coverage on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

Define your audience

Strategy and priority in a multi-platform newsroom should always begin with understanding the audience or audiences. Who are we trying to reach, and why? The power of a multi-platform newsroom is the ability to reach many audiences. But the ability to reach many audiences is not an excuse for not knowing anything about them. Use your audience research to understand and define who you are trying to reach and why.

Match audience and brand 

In crafting an understanding of your audiences, you may find that you have more clarity about which brands different audiences resonate with and why. As you set strategy and priority for your newsroom, try to match up your audience types with the brands available to you. Your understanding of the fit between brand and audience may shift over time as you see how stories perform and as you learn more about your audience. But it helps to have a working hypothesis about how audience types fit to brands.

Define method

Once you have an understanding of who you are trying to reach and why and under what brand, you can ask more specific questions about coverage types and story ideas. How is this story (or area of coverage) told best with this specific audience(s) in mind? In answering this method question, you can draw on your list of beats and topic areas and story types.

Define platform and product

How will this story best reach this audience? Because story content and format are closely tied to platform and product, consider questions 3 and 4 to be part of an iterative decision-making process in which you assess how the combinations of topic, story type, media product, and media platform best fit your intended audience and brand. 

Define engagement and revenue tactics

Engagement should absolutely be part of your multi-platform newsroom strategy. Engagement is not just an end-of-story process but, depending on the sophistication of your newsroom, can be integrated throughout your story selection, creation, and publishing process. The better your audience research, the more you will understand about how to engage the audiences that matter to your newsroom. Consider for each type of story or coverage area how you want engagement practices to be woven in, and how you will track them.

Define revenue strategy

Engagement and revenue go hand in hand in a multi-platform newsroom. Without a loyal (reading, listening, viewing) audience, sustainable revenue is incredibly difficult to build. For each of your newsroom’s major product areas, consider how you will tie your audience’s behavior and engagement to revenue. For specific story or project planning, consider how you can convert a segment of your intended audience(s) into paying members.

Consider the collaboration angle

A multi-platform newsroom is capable of producing many different types of stories, but that doesn’t mean the editorial strategy should try to serve all needs at once. With a strong articulation of your newsroom’s values and strengths, you can also consider how collaboration can help you meet your editorial goals. Many news ecosystems around the country are building their own collaborative networks. Public media newsrooms have an important role to play, but what kind of role should depend on the needs of the collaborative and the underlying strengths of the public media newsroom.

Here is the process in a table format:

Who are we trying to reach and why?What does the brand stand for?What stories work well here?How do we engage?How do we monetize?How should we collaborate if at all?
Digital/Station Site
Digital/Acquired News Site

What does it look like to make editorial decisions in an integrated newsroom? John Mooney, a founder of NJ Spotlight and now Executive Director of NJ Spotlight News, is part of the editorial leadership in the combined TV/digital newsroom. He reflected, 

“The notion of one newsroom doesn’t mean that every story is treated by multiple platforms. It just means you potentially have multiple platforms available to report a story.  

It’s important to recognize there are places where you work together, and places you don’t. TV is very in the moment, obviously visual, today’s news, event focused. Our digital reporters are more often taking the long view on stuff. It’s important to recognize you are different, and you don’t need to fit a round peg in a square hole. 

I have viewed it as a Venn diagram of four circles – digital, broadcast, live events, and social. Part of those circles overlap but much of them don’t. Recognizing that is really important. And sometimes it’s better to stay in your lane. The day’s story is coming into the one newsroom – and there is as much space not overlapping platforms as there are overlaps. When we get a story in the sweet spot where we hit all or most of the platforms, that’s great. But there are some things that are just single-platform stories.”

Newsroom leadership team structures

Running a successful multi-platform, multi-brand newsroom requires skilled leadership. Depending on the size of the newsroom, the structure of leadership roles can have a huge impact on how well an editorial strategy is executed. 

We observed in the study that the configuration of the editorial leadership team helped shape the success of a merger process. If a station aspires to have a robust digital and broadcast news operation, an editorial leadership pair reporting up to an Editor in Chief (EIC) or an Executive Editor can work well. In those kinds of structures, the pair of editorial leaders (e.g., Managing Editor for Broadcast and a Managing Editor for Digital) can work together to coordinate story planning across platforms and provide tailored editorial guidance for their respective teams. The EIC provides overall strategic direction and can advocate for the station’s journalistic mission to the leaders of other departments and functions.

If an editorial leadership team is missing one of those three roles, we observed that it can be very difficult for merged newsrooms to come together as “one newsroom.” If a station’s editorial leadership is too flat—for example, the station has two editorial leads for broadcast and digital, but is missing an EIC function, the risk is that the news teams devolve into inter-group conflict and confusion. The newsroom may also drift strategically without someone to attend to both the operational and long-term evolution of the newsroom. 

We observed in the study that the role of Editor in Chief is very difficult to fill. Especially in a merger situation, the top news leader has to be skilled in understanding how to create and publish important journalism across different platforms, and also understand how to manage change. Editors In Chief in public media newsrooms are also under pressure to represent the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in their leadership and in the newsroom cultures they are building. Combining these skills and attributes is a difficult task. Shared one public media executive: 

“We’re missing things and misunderstanding things because we don’t have people in the newsroom who represent the experiences that we’re reporting on. So whoever steps into an editorial leadership role needs to be able to manage all these structural changes and strategic changes and programming decisions about what new products we make and how we think about changing the organization structurally, but they’ll also need to be able to change the people and the makeup of it. So this person needs to be a strategist, a culture manager, and a journalist all at the same.”

Our observations of the mergers cohort suggest that EICs with a print journalism background bring some particular strengths to the task of building a multi-platform newsroom. Because the editorial structures and routines for print newsrooms are fairly fixed, public media EICs who are familiar with those ways of working have the advantage of working with a template for what a newsroom should look like. 

If a station has a strong news executive, but either the broadcast or digital news teams are missing their own operational leader (or have a leader with too much non-editorial responsibility), the risk is that the careful editorial planning and coordination that has to happen between teams and across platforms will be partial or ad-hoc. 

For many stations that want to execute a successful “one newsroom” strategy as part of an acquisition, having a three-person editorial leadership team will be an investment worth making. For example, in Colorado Public Radio, Managing Editor of Digital (and Denverite founding editor) Dave Burdick and News Director Rachel Estabrook work closely with Executive Editor Kevin Dale to shape the coverage strategy and audience development across CPR’s broadcast and digital platforms.

Changing beat and desk structure

Depending on the editorial strategy you’ve set in the acquisition process, going through a newsroom merger may require a re-organization of beats and desks. 

Our research revealed that acquisitions in many of the stations we studied coincided with rethinking the desk and beat structure of the public media newsroom. These newsrooms included: Colorado Public Radio/Denverite, KPCC/LAist, Cascade Public Media/Crosscut, Saint Louis Public Radio/Saint Louis Beacon.

Many of the newsrooms in the study shifted from a relatively flat and unelaborated structure of many reporters with different assignments reporting to a few general-purpose editors to a structure with specialized teams. These changes followed a revised editorial strategy that elaborated a handful of topics or beats the merged newsroom would cover. Executive Editor of Colorado Public Radio news, Kevin Dale, described a process that was similar to others in the cohort:

“When I came in, CPR had a daily editor and a features editor. And the daily editor did all the newscasts. They would start work at 8:00 AM and they would be online at 10 o’clock at night, still trying to make sure there was stuff for the morning newscast. So, they’d go home for a few hours, play with the kids and then go back online. And then the features editor literally edited all the four to five minute radio features. And then we had our talk show. And so what I did was came in and set it up like a more traditional newsroom with topic teams. So we have a public affairs team and they do all the newscasts and all the features and everything. And we have a climate team now, and then we have an editor who’s over health and education and business. And then we created a daily team. So we have a morning editor, and an afternoon editor, and they shepherd the newscast and the quick web stories. So, I was just creating desks like you would see in a newspaper or a newsroom. And then creating the process of this newscast, how do I get out on the air as soon as possible? Or this is a web story, how do I get it up as soon as possible?”

Tone and voice of a merged newsroom

The process of merging newsrooms is not just structural, as the previous section explores, it is also about crafting a new identity. One of the most important identity shifts in the newsroom in a fully-integrated or partially segmented model, will be around revising the tone and voice across the news brands. 

The process of revising editorial tone and voice is likely to be a particularly fraught one. While stations in the study cited the voice and sensibility of their acquired digital brands as a strength, station content leaders have also worked very hard to balance voice and tone across the brands, especially as some brands have been re-oriented towards more news. Shared one content lead: 

“The process of shifting editorial voice is a delicate one because if you are entertaining, you’re engaging an audience, giving people a sense of the city’s identity. That probably requires a certain sense of humor, a certain willingness to do some silly and fun and weird things, not just very earnest, straight news. We need to keep those things, but the transition I think we are making is to carry that with a different amount of gravitas and a sense of responsibility. But it’s hard to do that without losing some of the good things of the lighter sensibility.”

In some of the newsrooms, this process of shifting editorial tone and voice has been helped along by building in heavy editing before a story goes up on the web, and by explicit agreements on style guides and acceptable language. But even so, the process of diffusing and reinforcing a new editorial voice among writers can be slow and entail a learning curve.

Size considerations

Leadership structure and workflow are also highly dependent on overall newsroom size. 

A mid-sized multi-media newsroom might opt for a heavier editorial layer, where editors can coordinate with each other and with their specialist teams. For example, the Cascade/Crosscut newsroom has 33 people, but some might consider their organizational structure as “top heavy” in terms of management. The newsroom has nine section editors, each with their own teams, and one overall managing editor who manages the day to day operations of the newsroom and reports to Crosscut and KCTS 9 Executive Editor, Victor Hernandez.

A smaller newsroom might differentiate between broadcast and digital less or not at all. For example, in the St. Louis Public Radio newsroom, reporters and editors are cross-trained on broadcast and digital. The editors are in charge of their beats, and there is no differentiation of digital and broadcast roles, except for a digital editor who floats between teams to help with digital strategizing and planning. 

Designing workflows around brands

There are different ways to go about creating one newsroom while maintaining separate brands. For stations with a station-branded digital news website and an acquired site, deciding to adopt a single editorial hierarchy can help execute a “one news team and two sites” strategy.

And even in newsrooms where there is one digital brand and one broadcast brand, teams can differentiate their reporting structures by media, as long as there is robust cross-platform planning processes to support seamless editorial strategizing and oversight. 

For example, NJTV and NJ Spotlight initially followed differentiated digital and broadcast brands that have some dedicated staffing, while also moving towards “one newsroom.” The production team for the station’s flagship nightly news and public affairs program is mostly devoted to the broadcast product. However, NJ Spotlight’s reporters regularly appear on the show, editors from both teams attend the morning editorial meeting, and the teams engage in cross-platform planning on long-term reporting projects and breaking news. The NJTV and NJ Spotlight teams recently went through a digital rebranding and website redesign, which resulted in the NJ Spotlight News brand becoming the primary brand for the multi-platform newsroom, including both the news site and the daily broadcast.

The next section takes a look at three different configurations of workflow that can be matched to a “one newsroom” strategy.  

Structuring workflow in a multi-platform, multi-brand newsroom can also be complicated. In general, your strategy and priorities should determine the workflow. But there are some general principles you can use to get started. This study found stations experimenting with three types of workflow organization: day parts, brand, and desk.

Organize by day parts

If your multi-platform newsroom is fully integrated and on the smaller side, you likely need every member to produce stories in different media and for different platforms. With those constraints, it can help to organize your newsroom’s workflow by day parts. For example, your team could be focused on broadcast production for the first half of the day, and site production for the second half. 

For example, St. Louis Public Radio expects its reporters to be able to work in radio and digital. For many breaking news stories, the medium is dictated by time of day. As the Executive Editor, Shula Neuman, explained, “Whether we’re digital first depends on what part of the day we’re in. We have these newscasts that start in the afternoon around 3pm. So if a story happens between 9am and 3pm, the closer it is to 3pm, the more likely that radio comes first.” 

For other stories that are more predictable, like the result of an election or jury verdict, St. Louis Public Radio has reporters “pre-write” stories by drafting a text story early in the day, then putting together a broadcast spot afterwards. Once the spot is ready for newscast, the reporter can return to the text story and fill in additional details for web publishing late in the day or overnight.

This hybrid workflow at St. Louis Public Radio is helped along by a skilled digital editor in the newsroom who works with reporters on every beat to plan for and help execute a digital strategy for each of their stories. Shula explained:

”Our digital editor is so great because he’ll hear about a story and he’ll be like, ‘Hey, you know what we could do with that?’ So, he helps the reporters to be thinking in advance about how their digital story’s going to be different. And then also when there is pre-writing, we try to get people to think from the get-go about how the web versus radio stories are going to be different. Because just turning a radio script into a web story is not a good experience for the audience.”

Shula noted that for some very big stories and breaking news, pre-writing doesn’t work or isn’t possible. In those cases, one reporter is assigned to handle digital and another to handle radio. Then, once radio spots are filed, the two reporters will work together to round out the digital story.

Organize by brand.  

Particularly if your post-acquisition merger structure is more segmented, it can make sense to organize workflow within specialized teams or brands. This means your digital newsroom could retain their own independent workflow, separate from the broadcast team. Coordination between the teams would then be organized on an ad-hoc project basis rather than on an ongoing basis. 

Some newsrooms in the study organized their newsroom workflows by brand. This is especially the case in larger newsrooms, like Colorado Public Radio or WNYC, whose staff size can handle a higher degree of specialization.

For example, the Denverite is a semi-autonomous editorial team that sits in the middle of the CPR newsroom. Explained Executive Editor Kevin Dale: 

“The Denverite editor has full assigning power over her team. There definitely have been times, like with any editor, I’ll go over there and say, “Hey, I’d like you to do a story on this topic.” And then they go off and do that or come back and tell me why it’s not a good story, whichever. So for Denverite, they really have their own workflow, their own assigning, et cetera. And then if in our morning news meeting, the Denverite editor is there, and if we hear something that makes sense to put on CPR on the radio, we just tell them, “Hey, we would like that for radio.” And they either write it up as a newscast or a debrief or whatever works.”

Organize by story/desk. 

For fully integrated newsrooms with larger staffs, organizing by desk or story type can make sense. This kind of organization and workflow emphasizes the content first, and the media product and platform second. If you have chosen to prioritize a small number of platforms, this kind of workflow can work well.

For example, the Crosscut newsroom is the heart of Cascade Public Media’s news service. Though the Cascade team produces video segments that air on KCTS9, their primary output is content for the Crosscut digital site. Executive Editor Victor Hernandez has put in place an editorial workflow that is organized according to his newsroom’s sections. Each section has a section lead who helps the reporting team with story selection and managing the writing and publishing process. Hernandez explained: 

”I have invited the section editors to be the general managers of their sections. They control these fiefdoms. And I want their signature, their persona, and their vision in the section. That is when a section can become special and unique.”

The output and publishing rhythm of each of the sections is unique based on their beat. But the common editorial process is laid out in the newsroom’s Playbook.

Common tools and processes

Tools and processes are very important components of managing workflow in a multi-platform newsroom. We saw two key components in the cohort: morning editorial meetings and cross-platform story planning tools. 

The morning editorial meeting. 

For newsrooms that organize workflows by brand or channel, the morning editorial meeting is a key point of visibility and integration across teams. We observed across the cohort that in newsrooms where attendance by editorial leads across platforms was expected and adhered to, the workflow and progress towards “one newsroom” was infinitely smoother than when the morning editorial meeting was ad-hoc. Part of the reason why newsroom editorial structure is so important is that each news product needs its editorial lead adequately represented in story planning. When attendance, agenda, and decision-making rules are ad hoc for morning editorial meetings, progress towards “one newsroom” slows considerably.

Cross-platform story planning tools. 

No matter what configuration of workflow and newsroom structure, cross-platform story planning tools are an essential component of managing “one newsroom.” 

Maintaining separate story tracking systems can make it particularly difficult to coordinate planning between products. The tools should be used in service of avoiding duplication of stories between news teams and news brands. Some newsrooms may need explicit agreements about the number of stories to post and cross-post per day between the sites, and these can be tagged in the story planning tools.

Shared document tools like Google Docs are the first level of such tools. Large multi-media projects require sophisticated advanced planning and coordination. More sophisticated and powerful tools like AirTable and Trello can provide an enormous boost to story planning—not just daily, but weekly, monthly and beyond. The LAist/KPCC newsroom developed its own AirTable story planning tool after many months struggling with multiple Google Docs. The Cascade newsroom uses a large Trello board, which includes views for teams outside the newsroom to see what big editorial projects are in production. Hernandez explained: 

“We continue to stress the importance of advance planning as the key to our success with all large-scale editorial projects. We mandate a minimum 3-6 month planning window for all new Crosscut newsroom major reporting projects. This duration allows for the necessary planning time to collaborate with other CPM departments such as Digital, Marketing, Programming, Sponsorship, Events and Philanthropy to identify and execute essential project support strategies.”

The Role of Training

One of the most vexing questions in creating “one newsroom” from separate teams is whether and how much to cross-train reporters and editors to work in a new medium. We observed stations in the study take a wide variety of approaches to training. 

Cross-promotional training

The lightest form of training is akin to “media training” for digital reporters that you want to feature on air to talk about their work. So for example, you could train a digital reporter from your acquired brand on the best ways to communicate on the radio broadcast (or appear in a television broadcast) and talk about a story they wrote for the site. This training works for cross-promoting stories. It can be a powerful tool for getting more of the new digital reporting into the on-air product. We heard throughout the cohort that while there is a learning curve involved in putting digital reporters on air, the payoff is worth the effort. 

Cross-media journalism training. 

This more intense form of training involves teaching reporters who are used to doing journalism in one medium to do journalism in another medium. Cross-media journalism training can be expensive and difficult. Learning to produce a television segment for example, requires a veteran newspaper reporter to learn an entirely different skill set. Gathering audio for a radio segment and cutting tape is a slightly easier set of production routines to learn. However, understanding how to “write for radio,” and how the arc of a radio story works, can be more difficult. 

Expect some level of resistance. 

For small newsrooms, there may be no choice but to cross-train reporters in digital and broadcast media. If done well, this can make the best use of a small staff. This can create a lot of resistance, however, which newsrooms should be ready for. 

We heard a number of editors in our cohort state that at least when it comes to broadcast reporters, no one should be forced to write who doesn’t want to write. The depth, complexity, and tone expected of text-based reporting may indeed be too much to expect of a skilled radio reporter. Newer reporters may be able to learn how to work in both media if trained from the very beginning; learning new habits and skills after significant work honing craft in one medium may be more difficult. 

Hiring for experience across platforms

Hiring for experience across platforms can be difficult. A few executive editors in the study reported that when they have hired digital reporters with some radio experience, those reporters have become key contributors to a multi-platform news strategy. But due to current workplace norms and workflow structures of public broadcasting, public media reporters more often have developed platform-specific skill sets (a digital editor learns about the website, a producer learns about radio, etc). This can make it difficult to hire reporters with cross-platform experience from within public media.

Crises can help

Whatever the baseline of skills in your newsroom, some level of cross-training is helpful if only for potentially conflicting teams to have appreciation for each other’s work. There is also nothing that brings teams closer together than a crisis. We heard from multiple editorial leaders in the cohort that crisis reporting situations (the covid pandemic included) increased both collaboration and mutual appreciation between reporters working in different media.

F. Creating Products to Grow Audience

How to think about your website(s), newsletters and blogs as audience-building machines.


The acquisition of a digital newsroom is not just about the people and the brand—it is also about the news product. The website, newsletter, and publishing features that are brought onto a station in an acquisition have the potential to level up the quality of local journalism service a public media organization can provide. But as with other aspects of an acquisition, realizing the potential of the news product requires thinking and acting in different ways. And it requires some smart product strategizing to figure out how the new news product fits in with a station’s other offerings.

Evolving product strategy

Shifting to a news-only digital product. 

A digital news product acquisition will, for many stations, catalyze an evolution of their existing website strategy. We observed that many of the station websites in the study were digital listening destinations, and portals for online giving, but were not optimized to be digital news destinations. The acquired sites, on the other hand, were built as digital news destinations. Because of this distinction, some of the stations in the study opted to slow or stop publishing news on their station-branded digital sites and instead shift digital news publishing activity over to the acquired site. 

For example, both KPCC and WNYC have opted to publish digital news solely under the LAist and Gothamist brands, respectively. For KPCC, the rationale was both that the audiences were seeking out the station digital news site to listen (rather than read) and that populating two sites with digital content was difficult to justify from a resources perspective. Chief Content Officer Kristen Muller explained: 

”We knew that people came to KPCC.org to listen to the live stream. They hit the listen live button and that was it. They didn’t spend time on the text news pieces, which people are going to efforts to write. Originally we thought the best version of the station site was that we could get someone to work the KPCC.org site to be a real reflection of what was on the air at any given moment. So playing into the idea that it’s a listening destination. But we haven’t been able to do that. We just don’t have the staff to manage both sides like that. But in a perfect world we would, and someone could pluck the LAist content that’s going to work for a KPCC audience and vice versa.”

For WNYC, the Gothamist was a stronger digital news brand than they had been able to develop on wnyc.org. Switching article publishing to the Gothamist site allowed them to create a single, consistent process to funnel news from all the different news teams in the station onto a single, digital-news-native platform with a large audience.

Growing a new digital news audience. 

But the power of a digital news product acquisition is not just that it can be a powerful news destination in its own right. The power for many station newsrooms is that the audience associated with the new product can also expand the digital audience for broadcast reporting. Explained one content executive: 

“The aggregate audience that [acquired site] has built over time just very quickly allowed us to take a lot of reporting that was going to die on the vine because, in audio form just 200 people were listening to it on our website, and put it in a format and under a brand where people will actually read it. There’s orders of magnitude more impact by taking the same great reporting and running it through an editorial process that makes it an article that’s accessible to a whole new audience. That has expanded the digital impact of the journalism that is already there.”

Managing and differentiating a digital news brand

Part of acquiring a digital product is also acquiring the digital brand that comes with it. But integrating a branded product into a newsroom strategy can be tricky because the brand is easy to confuse with medium (digital or broadcast) and easy to confuse with team (this is the station team, this is the brand team). 

Understand the news brand you’re acquiring. 

To realize the full potential of a digital news product acquisition, public media organizations must take the time to fully understand the brand that is coming into the public media family. The next chapter on Building Sustainability has some tips for how and why to conduct brand research when crafting earned revenue and membership strategy. But brand research is just as important to conduct for understanding the core aspects of the product itself. As outlined in the Creating One Newsroom chapter, matching combinations of brand, platform, and audience is what should guide your editorial strategy.

Here are some questions to consider about your acquired digital news brand as you craft a product strategy:

  1. How differentiated are your news brands from each other? What are the overlapping brand values and what are the differentiated values?
  2. How much overlap (in volume) is there between your audiences for each brand? What types of audience personas gravitate towards which brand?
  3. Depending on the degree of overlap in personas and actual consumption between your news brands, which audiences do you want to educate about which brands?

Build a product strategy based on the brands. 

The answers to these questions can help you decide on the features of your news products. For example, let’s say you know (through audience research) that your acquired digital brand has a hipper brand value than your station brand, and that it attracts a younger, urban audience that is particularly interested in local politics and food. You could consider building an email newsletter under the acquired digital brand that is targeted to that audience but brings in related station content. 

Consider how and whether to educate your audiences about the brands. 

The degree of audience education you want to do about your family of brands is up to you. Some stations in our study found very little overlap in the resonance and audience between their digital and station brands. This was especially true in public television, which tends to have an older audience than public radio. In all cases, stations are finding they have a choice to make around whether and how to educate audiences about the other brand.

Manage brand confusion by differentiating brands. 

Some stations in our study explicitly connected their station brand and their acquired digital news brand, others have mostly segmented the brands from each other. No matter the strategy, many stations in our study were concerned about confusing their audiences with too many brands. But our observation is that brand confusion stems not so much from the number of brands in a market as it does from brands being poorly differentiated from each other. Without a clear product and messaging strategy for each brand, brand confusion is a risk. But audience education (on whatever platform) combined with clear differentiation and clear messaging should prevent brand confusion. It should also allow a public media organization to maximize the audience for each brand overall. 

Be attentive to internal confusion too. 

Managing multiple brands also requires an internal communication process. We observed in the study that internal teams were often struggling with how and when to use the multiple brands. Multiple content leaders shared with us that the growing edge for content teams is to think about audience needs and particular audience segments in relationship to brand. That is still a work in progress in most stations we studied.

Pay attention to your marketing function too. 

Making full use of an acquired digital property will require public media stations to build a different kind of marketing capability. Investing in creating a marketing function that is scrappy and quick and can be responsive to digital products will make a huge difference to the long-term success of your digital news strategy. 

Merger structure and product strategy

Of course, product strategy should not exist in a vacuum. Product strategy should strategically follow the overall merger structure established by leadership. Earlier in this playbook, we outlined three major structures for station/digital site combos: 1) full integration, 2) targeted integration, and 3) structured separation. There are different product implications for each structure. Below we review these types and illustrate the product strategies that are typical of each.

First, an important note: the three structures and product strategies sit on a spectrum. Some stations/digital newsroom pairs, like WNYC and the Gothamist, began with structural separation but were moving towards an integrated model. Others, like Colorado Public Radio and the Denverite, for reasons of coverage and service specialization, adopted a model between structural separation and targeted integration. Still others like Cascade Public Media, because their acquisitions were more mature, are operating under a full integration model. The combination of time-since-acquisition and strategic choice will help shape which merger structure and product strategy that makes sense at any given point in time.

Managing a full integration product strategy

Consider a full integration product strategy, where the station uses only the acquired digital brand and digital product for its digital news. In this model, the acquired digital products are adopted as the station’s only digital products, and the station-branded digital products are shut down.

Switching to a single digital news product can cause frustration amongst news staff, but also leads to the greatest opportunity for newsroom transformation and culture change. One of the biggest benefits to this kind of structure is the opportunity for building on top of a single robust digital brand, digital product, and digital audience. 

Yet, a full integration product strategy must be accompanied with differentiated branding across broadcast and digital products in order for this coverage to actually reach a wider array of audiences. Indeed one of the biggest challenges we identified for this type of model is the possibility of brand dilution of the acquired digital brand. With a fully integrated digital brand, the marketing and messaging around the new digital product might slowly fade into the larger station’s apparatus and erode the digital brand’s original sources of distinctiveness. 

Under this kind of integrated structure, operationalizing the product strategy will entail deciding which components of the acquired digital products to keep, and which aspects should fade out. For example, station and digital news leaders could decide to keep the acquired brand’s daily newsletter but shut down an under-performing entertainment vertical. 

Product choices should, of course, involve a hefty amount of audience and market research. Integrated product strategies should also hinge on the skillsets of the existing station staff and willingness of the station staff to learn products that might be underused or undervalued within a station-only infrastructure, like email newsletters, or the website. 

Managing a targeted integration product strategy

In a targeted integration merger structure, the station retains its own digital product alongside its newly acquired digital product and the newsroom feeds both. This is a tricky product structure to execute because it requires a very fine grained understanding of the differences in digital audiences, digital brands, and digital strategy that constitute the station’s digital products versus the acquired digital products. 

When there are clearly differentiated geographic service areas attached to each brand, differentiating the products can be easier. For example, Denverite covers a specific metro area within Colorado Public Radio’s statewide news service. From a product strategy perspective, it is clear that the audience being served by Denverite has a specific set of needs that are different from the statewide audience’s needs. This specificity is what differentiates the coverage and product approach of Denverite. Denverite’s looser voice and style online lends itself to being slightly more personality-driven than the CPR digital experience. While a CPR News listening audience may be likely to identify with a favorite host or a reporter, digital audiences are more likely to identify with a specific Denverite reporter than a CPR reporter. 

A targeted integration product strategy is best executed by a single designated product manager for the acquired site itself. Having a single product owner for the acquired site will help ensure that product needs are captured and tended to as opposed to becoming diffused in a larger station product roadmap. 

This piece of advice is based on what we observed in the research cohort. Many stations with partially integrated sites retained a single publisher-type role who worried about the business aspects of the acquired site. However, we observed all of the product functions in these cases were folded into the existing digital or product teams of the wider organization. We observed that a lack of dedicated product staffing often made it difficult for targeted integration (and segmented) news products to get the full attention they needed. 

One of the key pieces of a dedicated product owner’s role should be to work with the wider station’s product/digital team to plug into the station infrastructure and product development where needed. For example, some of the targeted integration products we observed in the cohort shared a CMS with the station but retained their own CRM, email server, and payment processor. Other products operated entirely on their own technical stack for a while, and then slowly migrated pieces of their infrastructure to station technology. The decisions about when, why, and how to shift a product strategy are best made by a dedicated product manager.

Managing a structurally separated product strategy

In a structurally separate digital newsroom acquisition, where the site and its acquired team operate largely independently of station operations, much the same product strategy and staffing advice applies as the targeted integration case above. Retaining (or hiring) dedicated product staff to grow and nurture the acquired digital products is vital to the long-term success of the acquisition. 

What makes a structurally separate product strategy distinctive is that the product roadmap for the acquired site need not have any overlaps or interdependencies with the station’s digital strategy. In the structurally separate case, the product manager for the acquired site should be fully empowered to make decisions that support the long-term audience and revenue growth of the acquired site, apart from station product considerations.

Considerations for product strategies

There are a couple of considerations to make when crafting product strategies.

Using an acquisition to develop a product mindset. 

First, a “product mindset” is a work-in-progress in public media. While digital teams have been part of station structures for the last few decades, “product” teams are a relatively new phenomenon. Product thinking—the process of conducting user research, engaging in user experience design, prototyping, testing, launching, and iterating—is very new in public media.

A digital acquisition can shift the conversation around the role of product and digital. Digital sites are attuned to their audience in a different way than the station. A digital acquisition can be a way of getting product thinking into the station. Product lessons are particularly important for stations that are developing podcasts. Those products require a similar level of integrated product, revenue, and editorial thinking. 

The full integration and targeted integration models of product strategy can support this kind of mindset shift as part of an acquisition. The structurally segmented model will likely keep any product mindset capability rooted in the digital newsroom, and provide few opportunities for sharing that mindset with the wider station.

Plan to staff and resource new product roles. 

For fully integrated and partially integrated digital newsrooms, developing a product mindset in the station requires properly structuring and resourcing the product roles that are vital for the long term success of the acquisition.

There are many roles and functions that support digital audience growth and digital revenue which are likely missing in a station. For example, social media and newsletters aren’t a natural structural fit for public media – those are needed products and roles but can be hard to fit into the current structure. It’s important to recognize those gaps and make plans to fill them. 

Don’t forget to plan for investments in “bridge roles” that aren’t directly responsible for revenue but are the link between revenue, product, and editorial. These can include investments in audience growth and audience development that help lay the groundwork for digital revenue. For example, with a generous donor gift, Billy Penn is hiring an audience coordinator.

We observed that digital newsrooms in the research cohort came into public media with mostly strong digital products. However, making room for (and devoting resources to) product development and product iteration was more difficult in stations with under-resourced and overloaded product teams. Barriers to new product development included: getting into the workflow of the station’s digital team, collaboration across departments, lack of dedicated staffing.

Consider a “mini-publisher” role. 

The segmented and semi-integrated product structure do allow for a “mini publisher” role—someone who can take responsibility for the intersection of product, revenue, and editorial strategy. This study revealed a number of digital newsroom leaders who were taking on the role of “mini publisher,” and working to garner resources and integrate disciplines in support of a holistic approach to the digital news product. While these roles can be stressful, the study shows that they can also be successful in advocating for resources.

Focus on email newsletters. 

The most important product and revenue strategy a newly-merged public media entity can take on is to focus on its suite of editorially-focused email newsletters. Much research and practice in reader revenue has shown that email newsletters are by far the most effective product for growing loyal digital audiences and digital revenue. But stations have mostly under-developed email newsletter capabilities on the editorial side. This is a growing edge that can be nurtured with an acquisition, but requires leadership support and resources to work.

Products for audience and revenue

A strong product strategy supports both audience and revenue growth. The opportunity of a digital acquisition into public media is to bring in a set of products that, with additional investment, can grow a station’s audience and revenue. 

The mechanism which drives both audience growth and revenue is loyalty. The importance of loyalty is well understood in public radio, where decades of audience research have shown that repeat listening and a sense of personal importance are the keys to turning listeners into audience members. A growing body of evidence suggests that creating a loyal digital audience is no different: driving repeat action around meaningful content is what creates habits that then convert to transactions. 

Creating digital products that drive loyalty and tracking the development of digital loyalty are thus two cornerstones of effective digital product strategy. This section will address both. 

Product strategies that drive loyalty

Daily, sticky products help create habit both in audiences and in newsrooms. Internally, products like daily, editorial-driven email newsletters and news blog style websites helped train station staff on how to turn around quick, digital news in addition to longer form pieces. Externally, products like this help build habit across audiences. 

There are two primary product strategies stations should consider investing in as part of a digital newsroom acquisition: news blogs and email newsletters. From our research in the cohort and with other digital newsrooms, we have observed that these two products are the most powerful ways to grow audience and revenue. We review each in detail below. 

Use email newsletters to boost audience growth, audience loyalty, and audience revenue. 

Email newsletters are right now the most important loyalty driver across different sectors of the news industry. Emails newsletters are powerful because:

  • Newsletters are “push” media. Newsletters meet readers where they already regularly visit in the course of their information lives: their inbox. 
  • Newsletters create habits. Newsletters are (or should be) sent at the same time of day, with the same tone and layout. This regularity encourages the development of a consumption habit that leads to loyalty. 
  • Newsletters are relationship products. Newsletters provide a direct channel for building a relationship with a reader. In the context of a newsletter, a newsroom, editor, or reporter can introduce themselves, adopt a personal tone, and guide the reader through a narrative of the day’s news in ways that bring the reader and the “people behind the news” closer.
  • Newsletters are good monetization platforms. A strong newsletter audience relationship can then generate revenue for the newsroom through newsletter sponsorships, advertising, and requests to convert to membership. 

For more email newsletter resources, see resources like Not a Newsletter, a curated Google Doc about email newsletter best practices by Dan Oshinsky of Inbox Collective, which contains several tips and case studies on newsletter advertising. See here for Dan’s archive of all past Not a Newsletter editions.  The Newsletter Guide is another great resource for newsrooms working on email newsletter strategy. For a resource to troubleshoot technical issues and questions with email newsletters, see Annemarie Dooling’s Newsletter Knowledge Share

For more on how to assess the performance of your newsletters, see Chapter H on Assessing Performance. 

Integrating visual branding and tone of current email newsletters

The newsletters collected under a single brand should have an integrated visual and tone approach. These newsletters could include:

  • Breaking news alerts
  • Membership email newsletters
  • Vertical email newsletters (e.g. Food, Events)
  • Sponsored emails
  • Daily news newsletter

Ideally, these products should be aligned in terms of tone, format, and visual branding to signal to readers the identity and values of each of your brands. Use your audience research to reflect on what you want your brand values to be. What particular tone and voice do you aspire to embody in your relationship with readers, and what do they resonate with? Oftentimes membership messaging can feel to readers like it is split off from the editorial tone of local news outlets. Yet, bringing those voices into closer alignment will help you build a stronger relationship with your readers. That relationship is the basis of a strong reader revenue strategy.

Many editorial newsletters still lack editorial messaging. The look and feel are very institutional and there isn’t much content you are offering your readers outside the headlines. Sometimes there isn’t enough continuity between editions because newsletters are created automatically from RSS feeds. 

See below for a brief checklist of newsletter positioning strategies.

Newsletter positioning strategies checklist

In general, targeting positioning strategies versus generic positioning strategies in newsletters lead to better loyalty metrics which increase the likelihood of conversion to membership.

Generic PositioningTargeted Positioning
ContentLinksNative, satisfying experience in and of itself
VoiceImpersonal, indistinguishableDistinctive, from a well-respected reporter or editor
ContinuityStandalone, disconnected from sequelSerial, with hooks to incentivize loyalty

To diagnose the positioning of your newsletters, ask the following questions:

  • Does this newsletter have editorial messages at the beginning?
  • Is the newsletter generated by RSS or curation?
  • Are there links to other content outside the brand?

Getting beyond RSS generation

In line with current thinking in the field, we highly recommend moving away from RSS-generated emails towards newsletter products with a distinctive tone and voice. You have some choices for how you could re-craft RSS generated newsletters. For example, you could make your daily newsletter a standalone editorial product that includes more text from each story in the email itself. Alternatively, you could keep it as a selection of links that drive traffic to your website but add an editorial introduction at the top. 

The advantage of a newsletter product that keeps readers in the email inbox is that there is a better chance they will read all the way to the end. If your newsletter drives readers away from email and onto your site, then the risk is that they stay on the site or click away without going back to the email. As a user, it can be difficult to click back and forth between email and web applications, especially if your traffic is coming from mobile.

We recommend examining your web audience using a tool like Audience Visualizer to understand when people are opening and reading your daily newsletter. If your audience data suggests that most people are clicking out to your homepage and then not coming back, you could be forgoing an opportunity to build a relationship with readers in their inbox. 

Observing low email referral traffic from a daily product could mean you might be under-serving subscribers who want to read your news articles while they are reading through their inbox. If a reader has to click away from their inbox to read your content, that is a high switching cost that could, over time, drive down your open rates. 


  • Adopt a curation and editorially-driven approach to your newsletters rather than relying on default RSS generation 
  • Reformat your newsletters to be in-inbox reading experiences.

Your mobile newsletter experience

Also take a look at the mobile newsletter experience you are providing. If a tool like Audience Dashboard tells you that you have a significant portion of your audience on mobile (like many news publishers), you want to be very sure that your mobile newsletter experience is a good one. Investigate how your newsletter template renders on a small screen and whether it makes the newsletter very difficult to read. Even the mobile-optimized version of your template could still render very small font and cut off much of the lede in each story. 


  • From the Email Newsletter Guide: “No matter which email templates you use, make sure they pass the one arm, one eye, one thumb rule for mobile friendliness: hold your phone one arm’s length away, cover one eye, and see if you can read the email. If there are any calls to action, click on them using one thumb.”
  • Diagnose your mobile audience for newsletters and investigate how they are using your newsletter products.
  • Adopt a template for your editorial newsletters that is mobile-friendly.

Monetization Considerations

Newsletters can generate diverse sources of revenue through sponsorship, advertising, and membership. You should absolutely consider the monetization strategy supporting your suite of acquired and station-branded newsletters. 

Start with understanding the current ROI of your products. Which newsletters, if any, are generating earned revenue (e.g., sponsored email blasts, banner units, etc.)? Which newsletters, if any, are being used to convert subscribers to members? 

When you have a rough estimate of the revenue being generated, consider the resources currently required to create and publish those newsletters. Which are automatically generated? Which require some editorial work to put together? Try to allocate the costs associated with producing the products. 

Then consider the size and engagement of the audience for each newsletter product. Which product has the biggest subscriber list? Which has the highest overall open rate? Which has the proportion of subscribers who open 80% or more of the time? Email newsletters with very engaged audiences, even if they are smaller, have more revenue potential than an email newsletter with a very large distribution list but a small open rate.

With the revenue and cost estimates, you should be able to calculate a yearly return on investment. With the audience size and engagement estimates, you should be able to spot which products are under-performing relative to their potential and merit further investment.  This should give you a sense of where to prioritize monetization efforts and editorial strategy. 

If you want to prioritize converting email subscribers to members, remember that the key will be to build the relationship and conversion inside the product itself. Rather than producing an unsystematic experience of adopting a different voice and tone between editorial newsletter products and the membership appeals, consider how you can weave appeals for membership into your newsletter product itself. 

We also recommend segmenting membership and campaign messages by newsletter list. This will help get you into the habit of thinking about your newsletter products as having different audiences with distinct tastes and orientations. The idea would be that your tone and visual branding stays the same across all your editorial products, but the messaging is different depending on the audience.

If you take on the work of overhauling the tone and format of a newsletter and want to move onto growing membership, we suggest segmenting your newsletter list by Member and Non-Member. Then experiment with targeted in-newsletter membership appeals to each group. See if you can increase the number of first-time members and solicit additional gifts from the members from targeted appeals to those audiences.


  • Segment your membership campaigns by email newsletter list.
  • Target distinct membership appeals to different audiences.
  • Further segment your appeals within the newsletters to Members and Non-Members, and have separate campaign goals for each.

News Blogs

We recommend considering a news blog product as a habit-generating tool for newsroom staff and your audiences. Many news sites – both independent and station-owned – can have a slow publishing cycle in which the site turns over only once and maybe twice per day. If you have a strong and loyal daily newsletter audience, this can be okay from an audience perspective since you are building loyalty and engagement on a different platform on a daily time cycle.

However, if part of your mission is for your news to read a wide audience, and for that audience to see you as a primary source of news, your site needs to turn over more frequently than once per day. 

This doesn’t mean creating click-bait content or compromising on quality journalism. One very effective strategy for increasing the metabolism of your newsroom in a way that brings more and stickier audiences to your site is to launch a news blog. 

A news blog doesn’t need breaking news to be relevant. A news blog hosts short, informative stories and updates on stories that readers should care about. The posts can refer to newscast stories, to longer pieces that the newsroom has published, or posts can preview developing stories. The point is that the content is short, often linked out to other sources, and very much “in” the news cycle. 

One excellent example of this is “The Latest,” a news blog product on the LAist site. We describe in detail the origin and evolution of the Latest below. 

The KPCC team had set aggressive audience growth goals for 2020. After examining their numbers early in the year, KPCC/LAist’s leaders didn’t think they were on track. The newsrooms’ staff turnovers and tumult that resulted from the LAist integration had affected audience growth and engagement. 

Managing Editor Megan Garvey had an idea. Why not leverage the many newscasts the KPCC team produced all day long and translate that coverage for a quick digital distribution? Not only could this strategy take advantage of stories already being covered within the newsroom, but it would also be another step toward newsroom transparency by communicating with audiences each day on the digital side, “here are the stories we’re following today.”

On the staff training side, early on after the KPCC/LAist integration, station leadership thought newsroom staff and audiences would benefit from a distinct and quicker news product. Megan saw that LAist content output was around 3 – 5 new pieces of content per day, and worked with the KPCC/LAist team to chart a goal to double this output. More content and output would also mean an increased presence in search, and more visibility in LAist and KPCC social feeds.  

The team defined a target audience for this product: busy Angelenos who want to stay in-the-know on the top stories every day in LA and Southern California. KPCC/LAist knew through audience research that a majority of LAist users are on mobile phones. So, they knew they’d need to serve this audience segment by providing short, conversational posts with the news and events that were easy to read on mobile, concise, and entertaining.

After two months of developing an MVP product, in late January 2020, LAist launched The Latest on its site. The output came in the form of modular stories with easy navigation — a key part of LAist’s site that would be updated throughout the day. All newsroom staff contribute pieces to The Latest, which allows this new product to act as a habit-generating tool for internal staff change. 

So far, the team has seen incredible growth from 2019 to 2020 — up 300% in page views, up 287% in monthly users, and up 131% in engaged minutes. 

G. Building Sustainability

Newsroom acquisitions can bring new opportunities for revenue. Here's what to focus on.


As reviewed in Chapter A, newsroom acquisitions can deliver on the promise of strengthening local journalism in a variety of different ways: from growing digital reporting capabilities, to preserving an archive, to assembling a strong digital news audience. 

Whatever the particular path to boosting local journalism, digital newsrooms and stations need to ensure the journalism is sustainable financially. Very few stations (and digital newsrooms) are in the position to entirely subsidize newsroom operations. The digital news product must also generate revenue, whether through contributions, memberships, sponsorships, or other forms of digital advertising. 

It’s important to understand, however, that revenue strategies and goals can shift over time as the station and the digital site become familiar with each other’s operations. While some stations in the cohort began with the goal of their acquired site breaking even over 3 – 5 years, others have decided to adopt integrated sustainability goals that reach across platforms and products.

This chapter will outline sustainability strategies that can support the growth and development of a merged newsroom over time. The chapter is divided into two sections (1) growing earned revenue, and (2) growing digital membership.

Growing earned revenue

Greater opportunities for sponsorship and advertising revenue can be a major incentive for newsroom acquisitions. For example, all of the advertising and sales staffers who took part in the study viewed their digital acquisitions as a net positive, especially due to increased platforms and audiences to sell to clients and advertisers. 

Public media salespeople who are experienced at leveraging their state or regional audiences for sales via event sponsorships and advertising over broadcast can pivot to selling hyperlocal, digital audiences across email newsletters, display ads, and text-based sponsored content. However this shift depends on leadership buy-in, a shift in mindset, and a shift in practice.

We explore some more specific recommendations for growing earned digital revenue below.

Acknowledge the cultural barriers to digital earned revenue in public media 

Perhaps the biggest barrier to growing digital revenue in public media stations—whether or not an acquisition is involved— is cultural. In our study, we heard from digital staff across the cohort that the general public media appetite for selling digital advertising products—everything from banner ads to sponsored newsletters to sponsored content modules—is very low. Though broadcast-related commercial revenue (underwriting and sponsorships) make up a hefty portion of revenue supporting the public broadcasting system overall, a cultural bias against digital commercial products persists.

As part of our study, we talked with many station salespeople with a digital background who expressed frustrations over station leadership blocking efforts to maximize digital ad sales. Branded content, sponsored content, and dedicated e-blasts were all cited as particularly fraught platforms for station leadership. This causes frustration for many digital salespeople who expressed that branded content portfolios in particular were the biggest slices of sales revenue for the digital sites prior to the merger. 

What does it take to garner leadership buy-in? Digital news leaders who have strong sales staff should push for station investment in digital revenue as part of the acquisition. A plan for investment in digital revenue—as outlined in the Setting Up for Success Chapter—is a prerequisite for a mindset shift. But the process of training and hiring digital sales staff into the station is also hugely important for beginning to shift the mindset of public media leadership and salespeople alike. 

Retain or re-hire the digital sales staff in an acquisition

When a station acquires a digital site, it is often considered essential to keep on staff the reporters and editors of the digital site who are experts in writing and editing for a digital platform, and/or to train the existing reporters or editors on the station side to learn a new digital skillset. This logic also applies to business and sales professionals. It is essential for the station to employ, mentor and promote sales people who are adept at crafting, selling and executing digital packages — including display advertising on the website, email newsletter ads, virtual events, and sponsored content on site. Acquiring stations can accomplish this by retaining the salesperson from the digital site prior to the merger and asking this person to train and guide their broadcast sales colleagues. 

Train all business-side staff in how to sell digital products

Be sure to train all your business-side staff in how to appropriately package and sell digital products. Many sales or business personnel within a public media station already have an existing set of transferable skills for selling digital assets and audiences, including the ability to source prospects, manage relationships, draft MOUs or proposals, and other general sales and negotiation skills. 

Yet, with a digital site comes new digital assets (like newsletters) to package, pitch and sell, and the work required to follow-through on digital advertising sales (including some digital literacy skills like uploading the ad to your website, adding the sponsored content to your site, etc) and tracking and reporting on performance to your client. This often involves learning a new set of digital analytics and metrics, as well as a new set of sales tactics. 

For example, the two Gothamist business-side staff that WNYC hired as part of the Gothamist acquisition have been training their new radio colleagues in how to sell digital ad products as part of the station’s standard broadcast packages. The Gothamist sales professionals introduced newsletter advertising and in-house audio advertising in podcasts. They also helped their WNYC colleagues learn how to package and sell digital products. One component has been teaching the sales staff to have the courage to “ask the next question,” as in, we know you want this ad on the radio, but what about email outreach?

Staff at least one full time employee (FTE) to manage ad revenue for digital platforms and digital assets

In general, revenue streams closely tied to the brand will benefit from some degree of dedicated staffing. This is especially true of sales-related revenue where relationships can make a difference. For example, selling sponsorships is a relationship and brand-driven process that benefits from a single empowered sales person who knows the brand and knows the community. 

With the importance of dedicated staffing in mind, plan for at least one FTE dedicated to the tasks and responsibilities associated with developing and selling digital platforms and assets. In an organization with nascent digital sales, this can start as half of an FTE’s portfolio. As the digital operations grow, we recommend hiring or designating at least one mid-level sales or business development person to focus on building out digital sales and training the rest of the sales staff, if applicable. 

For acquisitions that are adopting a segmented revenue strategy, the digital sales person can operate independently of the station’s business team. For example, WNET adopted a segmented revenue strategy in its acquisition of NJ Spotlight. After the merger, NJ Spotlight retained its business development director, Steve Shalit, to continue leading NJ Spotlight’s digital-focused sponsorship and earned revenue strategy. In this case, the earned revenue work remained consistent from pre to post merger. 

Invest in learning about your acquired and station digital audiences

Growing earned revenue as part of an acquisition also requires new ways of doing business. This starts with understanding your acquired audience. You won’t be able to sell your digital products if you don’t understand who you are reaching. 

Almost all of the stations in our study cited a lack of understanding of their new, digital audiences (and how much there was an overlap with their station audience) as a major challenge for their earned revenue and membership strategies to work. Without an understanding of the overlap in the audiences, it’s difficult to know if you are selling two different and distinct audience sets to advertisers — or if you’re selling a highly overlapping audience base but one that will be reached consistently across platforms. This can be a major Achilles heel when a potential client asks about the benefit to buying an ad on a digital platform in addition to on-air. 

So how can you conduct audience research and who should do it? Audience research can be seen as a cumbersome process that typically isn’t an official part of anyone’s job. Many stations house audience-research activities under marketing, whereas others put it in the larger development team, membership and/or product team. Of course, these teams are structured in unique ways. As we observed across our set of stations, each conducts audience research with a different goal in mind. 

We recommend conducting audience research specifically for the purposes of better understanding your audiences from an advertising and sponsorship lens. We recommend conducting audience research on your acquired audiences to understand a) which digital products and platforms they interact with the most, b) what they like about your digital site, c) whether they are existing members or listeners of your station, and d) their basic demographic information. This information can then be included in your group’s media kit for advertisers and clients. For more on audience research for digital newsrooms, see the Membership Puzzle Project’s Membership Guide, which contains a chapter on audience research for membership programs. 

Knowledge about your audience can also help you substantiate an expansion of your audience reach if your acquired digital audience is truly different from your broadcast audience. This knowledge can also help you unlock relationships with new advertisers who might not have been interested in a public media broadcast (or digital) audience but who are interested in your acquired audience.

Invest in learning about your acquired and station digital brands

Alongside research which reveals the personas and attributes of your audience, you should also plan to conduct research on the values and attributes of your acquired brand versus your station brand. 

Brand research is different from audience research in that the target of insight is the qualities, values, and attributes of the brand itself. A very well articulated and well marketed brand will have very good overlap between audience perceptions and newsroom perceptions. But in most cases, there is likely to be some slippage between what insiders think their brand stands for and communicates, versus what audience members think the brand stands for and communicates. Uncovering those disconnects—and coming to internal agreement on what the brands should stand for—is the foundation on which you should build both earned revenue and membership. Without knowledge about and agreement on the brand values, you will be flying blind.

Conducting a brand study can also be hugely beneficial for the station and digital leadership to understand how different audiences connect to their brands and the relative brand value of each. It’s important to understand where the relative brand strengths lie between the acquired and legacy brands.  

For example, early in its acquisition of the DCist, WAMU conducted a brand study to understand how the DCist brand was positioned in audience minds relative to the station brand. What they found surprised them. The “brand halo” effect— the goodwill that lovers of one brand are willing to extend to a related brand—was a benefit for WAMU listeners, who felt that affiliation with the DCist made the WAMU brand look good. But the halo did not extend in the other direction—DCist audiences didn’t think more fondly of WAMU just because of its association with DCist. 

This finding helped the team see that WAMU messaging on the DCist site would probably not help boost the profile of the DCist brand in its audience’s eyes nor convert new listeners to WAMU. But promoting the DCist on WAMU channels would help both brands expand their audiences.  Branding insight combined with audience research can also allow stations to test different messaging and experiment with reaching different audiences in ways that are hard to do under a station brand. 

Create a value proposition for each digital brand

After you acquire a new brand (and associated set of digital assets and products), it’s important to develop a value proposition for each of your digital brands that can be communicated in pitches to potential clients. 

Sales pitches to various clients can and should change given the client’s needs and goals (a tactic called “consultative selling”). However, we also observed across our cohort that many station sales teams were focusing sales pitches of the newly acquired digital assets around the unique voice and tone of the digital site. Above all, we recommend using the differentiated qualities of the acquired brand to reach out to new advertisers and to take risks with new products you wouldn’t sell under a public media brand.  

Sales strategies that highlight brand attributes tie in directly with the need to understand digital audiences and how they differ across brands. For example, if you know your digital news brand email newsletter contains an active segment of readers that are mainly younger, 18 – 24 year olds, you could market your newsletter as the ideal vehicle to advertise your client’s upcoming Zoom webinar about financial planning for young adults. Or, if you have a station podcast about the local arts and culture scene in your city or state which you know attracts a similar demographic to your broadcast, you could market your podcast audience and your voiceover advertising opportunities to cultural institutions in your station’s area as part of a multi-platform package.

WAMU and DCist digital properties offer different brand value propositions to marketers looking to reach different audiences. Some of WAMU and DCist’s sponsorship and advertising products are the same, and some are different (consider: their banner units are the same, their dedicated e-blast is only offered through DCist). Sponsored content is also a bit different between the sites. On WAMU.org, the sales team offers a longer-term sponsored content module that lives on the site for a long time. With DCist, the sales offer quicker hits. This is due to the different ways users go through WAMU and DCist sites. 

Create a value proposition for each digital asset

Apart from developing detailed brand value propositions, we heard that many station leaders and salespeople were unsure how to discuss new digital assets with their existing set of clients. This could also be a challenge if your station plans on pricing digital assets differently than broadcast ads, or if selling digital assets requires larger organizational strategy or business modeling. 

For broadcast sales people, monetizing an array of assets may require pivoting from value propositions based on audience reach to value propositions based on audience depth.  The overall sales strategy pivot from selling “reach” (a station promising to reach a wide array of folks over air) to  selling “depth” (a station with a digital site promising to reach BOTH a broad array of folks AND specific markets of individuals with the acquired digital assets) is difficult for development leaders and salespeople alike. Similarly to the challenges outlined above for audience research, many stations are unsure how to conduct audience research that will help them understand the value proposition for their acquired digital assets.

Our study revealed that some stations’ sales teams were finding success in selling a “360 package” of cross-brand media placements (e.g., including their digital assets, but coupling with radio and podcast placements).  For example, WNYC expresses the value of the Gothamist assets to advertisers and clients as a “digital pillar,” and combines Gothamist placements with podcasts and radio, to build a “360 New York” package. Of course, even with a “360 package,” challenges remain. Salespeople within the station expressed that the biggest hurdle in putting together these plans for clients is that the buying system is bifurcated – there’s often a radio buyer, a podcast buyer and a digital buyer on the advertiser side, each of whom can require separate pitches and separate management.

Take advantage of differentiation to pitch new advertisers and experiment with new offerings 

You can use your brand value propositions and your digital asset value propositions to match advertiser interests to audiences and platforms. If your acquired digital brand (and digital assets) are well-differentiated from your station brand and assets, this should allow you to bring in new advertisers – and know who you’re unlikely to attract.

Steve Shalit at NJ Spotlight explained it this way: 

“Your site’s content is largely going to define what types of earned-revenue clients you’ll be able to attract.” For example, NJ Spotlight and NJTV do not cover lifestyle and the arts. So Shalit doesn’t focus energy on attracting clients who are mainly interested in getting in front of that kind of audience ​even though there might be lifestyle/arts-interested people in their readership.

For many stations, acquiring a digital news site that previously reported on beats like culture, arts, and entertainment means an open door to many businesses and organizations that would want to get in front of those types of audiences. 

When considering where to take risks, we strongly recommend that stations experiment with email newsletter advertising and sponsorship, sponsored content on the digital site, virtual event event sponsorships, podcast voice overs, and social media boosts. See the Institute for Nonprofit News’ Guide to Earned Revenue for a deep dive on advertising and sponsorship best practices for mission-driven news sites. For newsrooms who prefer a more conservative approach, these experiments could take place exclusively on the digital news site and learnings from the experiments could guide sales offerings and tactics for station platforms.

Create an events strategy that makes the best use of the new digital brand and new audience

Events can be a source of revenue for stations and digital sites alike. When combining the station with digital sites, it’s important to consider how an acquisition impacts your event strategy, both in terms of creating event programming with a specific audience in mind, and how you market your event to potential sponsors. 

While the Covid-19 pandemic has created challenges for holding in-person events, stations and digital newsrooms should consider virtual events for these reasons: they are low in cost compared to in-person events, they’re more accessible to certain communities (those who have a hard time getting to an in-person event especially during work days), and they are great for driving retention and deep audience engagement. Events are an opportunity not just to share content but to connect in a personal way with your loyal audience. These kinds of relationship-building tactics can lead to higher retention (of both readers and members) over time. 

Virtual events also offer better metrics than live events and easy follow-up opportunities for sponsors. Particularly when you combine virtual events with a robust email strategy—taking the opportunity to communicate with your attendees before and after the actual event—the opportunities for better connections with attendees compared to live events can be substantial.

The trick to laying the groundwork for a robust events strategy as part of an acquisition is to assess where the events capability fits in your station, and the staffing/resources you currently have to support monetizing events. In some stations, the events team sits in marketing; in other stations events are part of the engagement team or sales team. Events, like other journalism products, benefit from an integrated editorial and revenue strategy. Deciding in advance of any actual event, on which teams will support the various components of an event can help head off confusion and under-staffing. Kendall Smith, the Partnership and Events Manager at Colorado Public Radio, gives the following advice:

“Consider what your overarching goal for events is. Is it to develop relationships with funders? With members? Is it to convert people into members? Is it to sell event sponsorship and generate underwriting dollars?” 

From the answers to those questions, you can create a plan and set of goals for each type of event.

You can also think about how to tie in different media elements to your event strategy. When Steve Shalit at NJ Spotlight is in a pitch meeting with a potential client, he thinks about ​how they might be incorporated into promotions leading up to and during the event itself. During the event itself, since having merged with NJTV, they are able to offer an NJTV video element which can open new client integration possibilities. ​A major benefit of events is being able to collect emails from ​registration forms. Steve is able to ​categorize the email addresses they collect to track which audience members care about certain topics based on the topic of the event they signed up for.

For more virtual event resources, see: Getting Started with Virtual Events (Texas Tribune’s RevLab) How a Local Newsroom Quickly (and boldly) Pivoted to Online Events with Richland Source; COVID-19 Content Monetization Webinar (Local Media Consortium); and The Best Strategies for Generating Revenue through Events (American Press Institute).

Be explicit about the legal and ethical lines for digital earned revenue

Digital advertising products like banner ads, sponsored content, and sponsored newsletter products are not subject to the same restrictions on messaging that apply to promotional messages on broadcast. Because of this, experimenting with digital ad products can sometimes feel uncomfortable to station sales staff and station leadership. This, in turn, can be confusing to the acquired digital staff.

Above all, we recommend pushing station leadership to think about ethical lines prior to the merger. Will the station allow digital sponsored content? Can the digital site be distinct enough to act as a “lab” for digital earned revenue experimentation? What needs approval from the higher-ups and lawyers, and what can the development or earned revenue team run with once the digital site is acquired?

In addition to getting clearance and definitions from leadership, it’s essential to set up internal workflows and processes that ensure your ethical standards are met and executed with each sale. For example, many news organizations establish a designated editor who will review all sponsored content submissions (to ensure it fits within your ethical standards) prior to the copy being approved and uploaded. 

The other side of the coin is continuing to communicate your newsroom’s mission and ethics, and how this plays out in your earned revenue policies, to your current and potential clients. For example, your clients should understand what your lines are around political or advocacy advertising for both sponsored content and display advertising opportunities, and they should know whether or not you permit clients to be on panels at events. 

This can be challenging. For many in our research cohort, station leadership did not think through and spell out earned revenue processes and ethical standards pre-merger, leaving salespeople to figure out what was permissible to sell and how on the fly post-merger. For other groups in our research cohort, there were messy rules around what is permitted and why. For example, many station salespeople were eager to use the digital site as a lab for sponsored content opportunities, but were waiting to hear from station leadership whether this was permitted. This left salespeople in difficult places with their clients — uncertain what exactly was on the table. 

But the issues are resolvable, particularly by putting in place repeatable processes and clear standards. See how digital-first newsrooms like the San Antonio Report and Madison365 do this successfully in the Institute for Nonprofit News’ case studies on earned revenue (see Madison365’s case and The San Antonio Report’s cases for more). 

Growing membership

Membership is an essential sustainability ingredient for both public media stations and many digital newsrooms. For most stations, membership programs have had decades to develop and focus mainly around on-air appeals to the broadcast audience. Mature membership programs in public media can bring in up to a third of a station’s total revenue. While many people inside and outside worry about the “transactional” nature of public media membership with its focus on premiums and give-aways, membership in a public broadcaster clearly remains meaningful as members return year after year to renew their support. 

The possibilities of combining Public media and digital news membership Models

The practice of digital membership in news is a much newer phenomenon. As explored through projects like the Membership Puzzle Project, membership in news can also be a thick, two-way relationship between audience members and newsrooms. These newer models of membership are both more technically sophisticated (by necessity in the digital media space) and more focused on engagement than the typical public media membership model. 

There are three major membership opportunities when a digital newsroom is acquired into public media: 

Transforming to a digital membership culture. If the acquired digital newsroom has the elements of a strong digital membership model, the practices and culture which support digital membership can help transform the public media station’s membership model. (We share some examples of this from our research below.) 

Growing and diversifying the digital membership. The acquired digital newsroom can take advantage of the station’s bigger audience to find new supporters. We saw a generally low degree of overlap between the digital members of an acquired newsroom and the station’s digital members. For example, there is a 30% overlap in membership for WHYY and Billy Penn – the other members are unique.

 Sharpening membership value propositions. The need to run two membership programs can help newsrooms and station staff to sharpen their membership’s value propositions. A clear membership value proposition is a prerequisite for growing membership into a sustainable revenue stream. Clearly articulated value propositions should help boost the overall size of membership under each brand.

Managing the challenges of running two membership programs

But the challenges of running two membership programs should not be underestimated. First and foremost, because a digital news site’s members (if any) are likely to be vastly outnumbered by the station’s member rolls, it can be easy to overlook and under-invest in the membership strategy of an acquired site. 

For example, across our research cohort, most digital news sites had less than 1,000 members. Compared to the heft of the station’s membership program (many with 70,000+ members), many digital membership programs were at risk of getting lost in the shuffle. This can perhaps best be encapsulated in one of our interviews with a senior fundraising professional in a station:

“We haven’t as an organization done as much as we could to market [our acquired site]. We often talk internally that [the acquired site] is like this hidden secret in town, nobody knows about it, so we don’t think we’ve been as intentional or as forward as we could be about marketing and what it is. Then the second piece is because it seems to be such a small piece of the overall pie, it gets lost in the shuffle quite frankly.”

However, the enormous potential for digital membership growth deserves time and attention. This section offers some advice on how to address those challenges. 

Be prepared to track loyalty by managing multiple audience funnels 

The idea of an audience funnel has gained traction in the practice of reader revenue across parts of the news industry over the past few years, and for good reason. Audience members rarely open their wallets upon a first or second visit to a news site or upon their first time tuning into a pledge drive. Growing a loyal audience in any medium is the cornerstone of any membership strategy.

The rule of thumb in public radio is that it takes seven years to convert a new listener to a member. Though the industry-wide data on digital membership are still too scant to provide an estimate of a timescale for member conversion, consider that a recent survey of global membership programs by the Membership Puzzle Project found that in the first year of membership, the average site gained only about 1,000 new members. Growing digital membership takes time.

Digital membership growth starts with growing a loyal digital audience. ‘Loyalty” can mean different things across different platforms, but above all, a loyal audience means an audience that keeps returning to engage with your digital stories and platforms consistently, over time. For web visitors, this is sometimes measured as a web user who visits a website between 3 – 6 times per month. For an email newsletter reader, this typically means someone who opens your newsletter 70 – 80% of the time or more. Digital sites have an enormous advantage here over broadcasting, since broadcasting data is notoriously wonky and nearly impossible to collect and analyze on the user level. See the Membership Puzzle Project’s research post Loyalty is membership’s North Star for more on how different news organizations and nonprofits think about and measure loyalty across platforms. 

Tracking the size and loyalty of your digital audiences is the practice of managing an audience funnel.  A traditional understanding of the public media membership funnel looks like this: an audience member listens to the radio station or watches the TV station over a certain period of time, building an affinity and loyalty with the brand. Then, two to four times a year, a public media group will launch a pledge drive that involves making repeated appeals on-air to their audiences to contribute financially. If swayed, the audience member will make a donation over the phone or go to the station’s website to make a contribution.

A digital member funnel is different. Integrating with a digital news site should drastically shift this understanding of the dominant, member-funnel. The “top of the funnel” could include the broadest calculation of web audience, and then narrow down to include the audience more active on social media channels. Perhaps the most important platform to track for the digital audience funnel is the email newsletter. Email newsletters have emerged as major vehicles to both engage audiences and to convert audiences to members. 

In the “Assessing Performance” chapter, we give some advice on how to construct a digital audience funnel. No matter what funnel schema or metrics you use, be prepared to manage multiple audience funnels, one for each membership program you plan to run.

Invest in audience research to understand the uniqueness of your acquired digital audience and what they want from membership

As with growing earned revenue, audience research is an essential piece of developing a membership program’s value proposition, learning how to adapt a membership program to the needs of audiences, and member-growth tactics. 

At the very least, we recommend investing resources and staff bandwidth into understanding the audience overlap from the station and digital news site, especially shortly after the merger in order to inform your membership acquisition strategies. You should be able to answer questions such as:

  • What percentage of your digital news site’s audiences are also loyal listeners or consumers of your station?
  • What percentage of your station listenership also engages with your digital news site? 
  • Why do your audiences that both listen to your station and read your digital news site take the time to consume both forms of journalism (e.g., what is the distinct value add of each of those products)? 
  • What drives your audiences who only read your digital news site (and do not engage with your station), and vice versa? 

These are the key questions you should seek to answer. This likely means asking the digital site’s audiences a) if they listen to the station, b) if so, how often they listen, and c) if they are members of the station. 

From our interviews, we heard at least $70,000 should be earmarked for initial market research, and an additional $20,000 or so for any ensuing brand work, if needed. Another model is to staff this work (including more robust ongoing audience research and marketing efforts) to a full time person. In sum: to gather and work with the audience data needed to develop membership and earned revenue value propositions, the ideal configuration is to both add a staffing line, and create estimates for audience and market research direct spends in the first few months after acquiring the digital property’s audiences. 

Prioritizing audience research can be difficult to do. Unfortunately, we observed that many news organizations in our research cohort did not have enough time or resources to invest in understanding their newly acquired digital audiences. 

Ideally prior to the merger or leading up to the merger, the digital site can share information about their audiences with the station side, and vice versa, in order to develop an understanding of the unique audiences each newsroom has been serving. Although digital news sites in our study were practicing more sophisticated digital audience engagement tactics (e.g. via email newsletters, tools like Hearken, etc), many digital news sites did not have an accurate understanding of who their audiences were (in terms of key demographics like age, race, gender, location, education, etc). 

In some cases we studied, digital news site leaders had crafted their brands to attract younger and more diverse audiences than typical station brands, and many station leaders assumed they would be acquiring a distinct, younger audience base with the merger. Yet because the demographics of digital news audiences can be difficult to derive from basic site statistics, these demographic assumptions are just beginning to be tested with survey-based audience research in different stations across the cohort.

Assessing brand qualities and discovering audience motivations is relatively easier to do using qualitative audience research techniques like focus groups. These kinds of insights are very helpful for crafting a digital membership product that is distinctive and responsive to what a newsroom’s most loyal audience members care about. Such insights can also help inform earned revenue strategies. For example, as part of its time in the public radio BizLab program, the DCist used small group interviews to shape and launch its membership program and inform its marketing strategy. Rachel Sadon, then the Editor in Chief of DCist, now the News Director of WAMU, explained that the insights they gleaned helped the team understand the variety of motivations in their audience:

“As part of BizLab, we had [audience research] activities that helped us our readers’ understand motivations, how they think about the brand, and how it can evolve. It helped confirm our hunch that part of our audience comes to us for events and soft news, like a lifestyle brand, while other people come to us for hard news. And some people come to us for both.” 

 And we also found out that some people shifted over time – they started looking to us for events as young people, and then settled here in the District and wanted to read about the city council, schools. 

Understanding that audience journey helped us explain our value to marketers who often want to think of our brand as either lifestyle or news and the need to not only lean into one or the other.”

Craft a unique membership value proposition for the acquired digital news site and your station’s membership program

You should use the audience research on your acquired digital audience, your station digital audience, and your broadcast audience to help you craft unique membership value propositions for each brand.

A membership value proposition is about the special value that the membership experience will deliver to your most loyal audience members. A membership value proposition addresses your loyal audience members’ needs for affiliation, belonging, and to support something they care about.

For advice on how to craft a membership value proposition, see the Discovering a Value Proposition chapter from the Membership Puzzle Project’s (MPP) Membership Guide. MPP’s preferred format for a value proposition is based on the Value Proposition ad-libs template by Strategyzer. Using this template will help you articulate what you make or do (products/services), who you serve (user segments), your user’s motivations (user jobs to be done), and how it works (how you reduce pain and enable gain) in order to develop a clear value proposition for membership. 

We heard from many participants in our study that their digital newsroom acquisitions prompted a fear of brand confusion, and especially possible cannibalization, if the membership programs ended up competing with each other. The way to avoid competition between membership programs is to clearly differentiate and clearly communicate the audiences, value propositions, and benefits of each. Unfortunately, most of the groups in our research cohort did not have a clearly articulated value proposition for their digital membership programs. 

We observed that WNYC/Gothamist, WAMU/DCist and KCTS/Crosscut came closest to defining a clear digital membership value proposition. WNYC/Gothamist decided to keep messaging around Gothamist being “reader supported,” consistent with general WNYC messaging. They’ve also decided to continue offering certain Gothamist specific premiums, like tote bags and mugs, and a member mingle event. 

As of February 2020, during our interviews with KCTS and Crosscut, we heard early indicators of digital membership taking root — with benefits like access to PBS Passport, discounts to the Crosscut Festival, and tote bags. Recently, one particular digital membership product experimentation at Crosscut is gaining in popularity —  a member exclusive weekly newsletter from Editor-at-Large, Knute “Mossback” Berger. In his newsletter, members hear from Mossback on his recent travels chronicling historical discoveries across Washington state. In addition to utilizing Hearken tools and strategies to answer reader questions, the weekly newsletter promotes Mossback’s recent videos and columns. It’s become one of Crosscut’s most effective newsletters, with an open rate of nearly 50 percent.

Another differentiated membership model is NJ Spotlight and NJTV’s membership program. After the acquisition, NJ Spotlight was adopted as NJTV’s digital news brand and rebranded as “NJ Spotlight News.” The membership program that supports NJ Spotlight News is geared towards serving the loyal digital news audience, while the membership program that supports NJTV caters to the traditional public television programming audience.

Use crowdfunding campaigns as a way to test the waters for digital membership 

If your acquired digital site does not have a membership program, you can use a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter to build an interested audience and test out elements of a membership program. A number of sites in the cohort, including the LAist, Gothamist, and the DCist, used Kickstarter campaigns to help re-launch and pilot membership strategies. 

Crowdfunding campaigns are a great way to assemble the beginnings of a supporting audience, but they do not substitute for growing and messaging a loyal audience over time. In fact, some members of the cohort found it difficult to convert the one-time crowdfunding supporters into monthly givers. This is not surprising, since the basis for membership is an ongoing relationship with a brand and a product. But there are some key pieces to membership that you can test in a crowdfunding campaign:

  • What kinds of support messages resonate
  • What premiums or benefits resonate
  • What feedback messages you get from the audience
  • What price sensitivities you see in the distribution of supporters

A crowdfunding list of supporters can also be where you pilot some loyalty-building news products — like a daily newsletter. Because email newsletters are proving to be such important platforms for growing and converting members, using a crowdfunding campaign to support an email newsletter strategy is perhaps the best use of this kind of audience building. 

Dedicate membership and marketing staffing to the digital membership program

Digital membership will not succeed without the proper amount of staff time and resources backing it.

For stations that are planning to adopt the membership of their acquired site as their primary digital membership program (as we saw with Crosscut/Cascade and NJ Spotlight News/NJTV),  we recommend training existing membership and marketing staff on how to leverage new digital platforms to expand the member-base. 

For groups that want to maintain separate digital membership programs for each of their digital brands (e.g., WAMU and DCist), we recommend allocating at least half of a full-time person’s job to lead the digital membership efforts. As the digital membership base grows (perhaps past the 2,000 or so sustaining members mark), and depending on other revenue from digital membership, it could make sense to dedicate a whole FTE to managing the digital membership program. 

Staffing can be a particular challenge in growing digital membership. We observed in our research that the energy and time allocated to digital membership post-merger was often affected by how short-staffed and burned out the station’s membership and marketing staff felt pre-merger. To state the obvious: digital membership and marketing efforts are given more time and attention when the station has the staff capacity and bandwidth to support it. 

We also observed that staff energy and time allocated to digital membership post-merger depended largely on how station leadership understood the current and potential value of the digital news site. Some station leaders saw the acquired digital sites as one of many verticals within their purview. Other station leaders saw the digital news site as the main news vertical or at least the main digital news vertical, thereby allowing station leadership to allocate more resources and attention to the digital membership program.

Staffing stand-alone digital membership within a station infrastructure is a relatively new phenomenon, and therefore there aren’t many examples of definitive success. One indicator of success, however, can be found in examples of stations and digital news sites working together to know when it’s time to change membership strategy. 

For example, Billy Penn Editor Danya Henninger analyzed Billy Penn’s membership performance and stacked it up against other newsrooms in the News Revenue Hub and the Facebook Accelerator community. She found that although Billy Penn’s newsletter was performing well in terms of audience size, it was underperforming on the number of newsletter readers converting into paying members. 

A good benchmark for email newsletter membership conversion is that 10% of your newsletter list should at one point become paying members. Henninger estimated that Billy Penn was sitting around half of that. After discussing the issue with station staff and finding a generous donor to support an audience growth and conversion strategy, Henninger got the green light to hire an audience coordinator for Billy Penn to lean into both logistics on membership and a common membership lead-generator — events. 

Attach clear goals to the digital membership program

Regardless of how membership efforts are staffed, having clear goals attached to digital membership is vitally important. Common goals for digital membership programs include the number of members, the retention of members and revenue via membership — however we also recommend focusing on audience growth and engagement efforts (like size of your newsletter list, overall open rate of newsletter list, and size of loyal readers on newsletter list) as measurements that optimize for future growth. 

Preserving outside membership technology support services can be a good idea

Some groups outsource digital membership and marketing efforts to outside consultants or services, like the News Revenue Hub (at the time of our research, Denverite, Billy Penn and NJ Spotlight were all News Revenue Hub members). 

If the station’s membership team supports a station-branded digital and broadcast membership program, maintaining outside membership support for the acquired brand can be a good idea. The practices for managing a uniquely branded digital membership program are specialized enough that adding these responsibilities to an under-staffed station membership department is risky.

Because specialized digital membership services like the News Revenue Hub are able to pull best practices across their set of clients, station membership staff can also benefit from the industry-wide learnings of its acquired site. Explained one development director:

“It’s really exciting for me to be able to adapt some of what News Revenue Hub has done for online magazines and newsletters, and bring it into our overall membership program. Because digital fundraising is a place that we know that there’s tremendous potential. We’re seeing year over year, our direct revenue that we can correlate to our digital fundraising efforts, whether it’s search engine optimization, or purchasing social media advertising. So newsletters are just another place where we know that we’re seeing such deep engagement from our community, that there’s a lot of potential and I think greater ability to test within the digital channel where we’re in some ways limited by broadcast.”

That said, integrating membership stacks can be helpful when a station is ready to strategically manage membership across brands and products. And integrating membership stacks from the beginning can be helpful for stations that have the sophistication to manage their members across a range of products and brands. 

The next frontier: linking user behavior to membership conversion

As many in the news media industry have noted, there is no perfectly integrated, seamless technical stack for membership that connects content, relationship management, and payment. One of the consequences of this is that it remains a real technical challenge to link audience reading behavior to membership conversion. 

For all the newsrooms in our cohort, understanding what audience behavior leads to membership is the leading edge of their work. Some acquired newsrooms may have a bit of this content/audience conversion knowledge from tracking email behavior or rudimentary cookie tracking, but this was not well systematized. This will be the new frontier as digital content technology continues to evolve.

H. Assessing Performance

Here's how to know if you're on the right track.


How do you assess the performance of an acquisition? This chapter provides some recommendations for assessing performance in terms of content production, audience development, and sustainability.

While we provide some frameworks for assessing success, it’s very important to keep in mind that metrics and measures in and of themselves are not meaningful. Metrics and measures need to be tied to specific strategic objectives, and those objectives will vary by organization. Thus, we encourage you to think of the frameworks presented here as building blocks for crafting your own performance regime. 

For advice on turning strategy into measurable objectives, we recommend consulting the “How do we define and measure membership success?” chapter in the Membership Puzzle Project’s Membership Guide.

Assessing content performance

Measure story output. 

Because many acquisitions will be motivated by the goal of increasing the amount of local news coverage published by a public media newsroom, we recommend establishing some baseline measures of the story outputs of the public media and acquired digital newsrooms prior to acquisition. These measures should give you a sense of the baseline production capacity of each newsroom coming into the acquisition. You should similarly make sure to compare these production numbers with the number of news staff in each newsroom to gain further insight into productivity. 

Contextualize productivity. 

Again, productivity measures in and of themselves are not meaningful. A “low” story production count could reflect the strategy of a particular beat—for example, if that team focuses on producing stories that are analysis-heavy and address long-term trends. But if the newsroom strategy is to produce daily and breaking news coverage, a “low” story production count, and low average story output per newsroom FTE, could reflect issues in workflow, accountability, or communication. 

Track story type. 

We also encourage newsrooms to track the types of stories they are covering, including the diversity of sources and communities covered. This is another area where stated strategy and objectives could become out of sync with actual production. 

Assessing audience growth and loyalty

Assessing audience growth and loyalty should be a key part of understanding the performance of a newsroom acquisition over time. If a post-acquisition merger process is going well, digital audience growth and loyalty should be increasing. 

There are many different ways to measure audience growth and loyalty. To work with the research cohort in understanding their audience performance, we adopted a combination of metrics drawn from public media best practice, the News Revenue Hub’s recommendations, and Membership Puzzle Project’s recommendations on metrics to track. 

We offer the tables below as a way to highlight and compare the most important audience growth and loyalty metrics over time. As with content and financial performance indicators, we recommend constructing baseline measures pre-acquisition for both the acquired digital newsroom and the public media newsroom. We also recommend breaking out the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic since most news organizations experienced historic increases in traffic that can skew baseline performance.

Pre-Merger(average of 6 months prior to merger)Post-Merger (average of 6 months after merger) Covid-19 snapshot (March 1 – May 31 2020 average) 
Total number of web stories published per day
* Total number of investigative or long-form web stories published per month
Number of users per month
Number of sessions per month
Number of users with 6+ sessions/month (SEE NOTE 1, below
Sessions per user per month
Average time per user per month
* Number of email sign-ups from website per month 
EMAIL (for primary digital news product) 
Total email list size for primary digital news product
Email open rate for primary digital news product
Email click rate for primary digital news product (NOTE: click-to-open rate, so “opens” should be the denominator) 
Unsubscribe rate for primary digital news product
Pre-Merger(average of 6 months prior to merger)Post-Merger (average of 6 months after merger) Covid-19 snapshot (March 1 – May 31 2020 average) 
% of email list that are members (conversion rate) for primary digital news product (SEE NOTE 2, below
* Percentage of List that opens 70 – 80% or more of the time (e.g. 5 star MailChimp users) per month
Number of users who engage (impressions; followers) per monthFacebook: Twitter: Instagram: Facebook: Twitter: Instagram: Facebook: Twitter: Instagram: 
Number of engagements per impression per monthFacebook: Twitter: Instagram: Facebook: Twitter: Instagram: Facebook: Twitter: Instagram: 
Number of total engagements per monthFacebook: Twitter: Instagram: Facebook: Twitter: Instagram: Facebook: Twitter: Instagram: 
Number of session referrals per month (number of sessions on site’s originating from social platforms)Facebook: Twitter: Instagram: Facebook: Twitter: Instagram: Facebook: Twitter: Instagram: 
Number of users per month 
Downloads per month
* Time per user per month
Sessions per user per month
Number of events per month
Number of attendees per event 
* Number of repeat attendees per event
Number of users per month
Pre-Merger(average of 6 months prior to merger)Post-Merger (average of 6 months after merger) Covid-19 snapshot (March 1 – May 31 2020 average) 
Number of views per month
* Time per user per month
Sessions per user per month
Live stream cume per month
Live stream time per user per month
Livestream TLH (total listening hours) per month
TV viewers per month
TV AQH per month

Focusing on loyalty

The most important metrics to assess the performance of an acquisition relate not just to audience reach but to the loyalty of the audience that the newly merged newsroom is able to create. As you can see in the table above, our recommendation involves tracking two sets of numbers: commonly tracked figures (like the number of users during a timeframe), and less commonly tracked “loyalty” metrics that perhaps more accurately indicate the strength of audience growth and engagement tactics. 

For example, for website data, we recommend tracking the number of users and sessions per month (commonly tracked metrics), along with the number of users with 6+ sessions per month (a loyalty metric). Some newsrooms may prefer to track the number of users with 3+ sessions/month (which is the metrics suggested in this Current piece) rather than 6+.

For email data, we recommend tracking metrics like total email list size, overall email open and click rates, and unsubscribe rates. These figures can represent “snapshots” of email newsletter health and impact. As detailed in the Shorenstein Center’s report on email newsletter metrics for newsrooms, however, figures like the percentage  of the email list that are members (conversion rate) and the percentage of the email list that opens 70 – 80% or more of the time are more telling indicators of email newsletter health and performance. Some email service providers like MailChimp report on the loyalty of individual readers through their star-rating system. You can use those star ratings as well.

One example of how newsrooms can focus on loyalty metrics can be found in how KPCC in Southern California created “loyal and local” dashboards for their reporters to track loyalty metrics on the stories they produce. 

The loyal and local dashboard reports on the number of loyal users per story (or people who have three or more web sessions in a 30-day period) and compares it to the median number of loyal users for their stories. This way, reporters don’t just see  “500 loyal users” – but instead, they see “500 users is 20 percent above or below your median for the last six weeks.”

KPCC’s Executive Editor Megan Garvey and Audience Insights and Development Manager Patrick Dougall have worked with KPCC reporters on how to incorporate the dashboard into their workflow. Garvey encourages reporters to focus on this loyalty metric, above all, when assessing the performance of stories. 

As Dougall explained: “We’ve tried to educate the newsroom that we’re not as focused on getting a huge amount of traffic for your individual stories. It’s really about – how many people do you inspire loyalty with? And then we’re working to use a lot of that [audience member] loyalty to a specific reporter to deliver more targeted membership asks.”

Assessing financial performance

Tracking the financial performance of an acquisition should help you understand how well you are using your resources in service of your mission. The easiest way to track financial performance of an acquisition over time is to construct a pro-forma business model.

We recommend that the parties to an acquisition create a business model as part of the transaction diligence process. That business model should contain a series of assumptions about costs as well as the audience size, audience growth rate, and growth in membership, advertising, and philanthropic gifts necessary to bring to the acquired property to break even and then (if desired) net positive cash flow. 

Making revenue assumptions and tracking revenue performance

The most important components needed to track the financial performance of an acquisition over time are assumptions about the variables that will drive revenue. See the Business Model Calculator on the Tools page to view our series of these assumptions, broken into major categories.

We recommend making these assumptions based on:

  • Historical analysis of performance
  • Planned investments in content, product, and monetization as part of the acquisition

These assumptions should help inform your revenue projections and help you monitor your performance over time. Most of the acquisitions in the research cohort were modeled on a three to five year break-even basis, subject to differences in the baseline financial health, audience size, and investments required for purchase and upgrades.

Making cost assumptions and tracking expenses

Of course assessing financial performance is not just about paying attention to revenues. You also need to assess the ongoing costs of running the acquired property. You should also plan for making investments in product, audience growth, and revenue capabilities as part of the business modeling. You may also want to add new staff as part of those investments.

The series of cost assumptions presented below are also reflected in the Business Model calculator on the Tools page.

When it comes to tracking administrative costs (as opposed to direct programmatic costs), some stations we studied allocated a percentage of the station’s overhead to the acquired property. 

If you are running a segmented or partially segmented acquired property, you may be able to do the cost accounting for the property separately. In fact, there were some digital founders in our study who reported that they preferred to have profit and loss visibility for their sites, even as parts of their site support were combined with general station operations.

Assembling a picture of financial performance

To assemble these assumptions into a financial projection that you can compare against over time, you can use the business model presented on the tools page.

You can assess ongoing financial performance by comparing your projected assumptions with the actual metrics. Some metrics such as newsletter growth you will want to track monthly. Other metrics like conversion to membership can be tracked on a quarterly or yearly basis. Some metrics will change slowly, and some more quickly depending on your investments in content, audience development, and monetization strategies. 

For more on tracking membership-specific performance indicators, we recommend consulting the section on “Developing Membership Metrics” in the Membership Puzzle Project’s Guide to Membership. 

Calculating return on investment

The final step in assessing the financial performance of an acquisition is actually comparing net revenue to the level of investment made to understand the financial return on investment (ROI). 

If you are projecting ROI, you can use your business model to subtract your (monthly or yearly) revenue from your (monthly or yearly) costs to get a dollar figure for the net revenue (or net cost) generated by your acquisition at any given point in time. You can express that number as return rate by dividing the net revenue generated by the total investments made to acquire the property. Those investments should include actual purchase price plus any additional resources you plan to spend on staffing and infrastructure upgrades to your program. 

If you are calculating ROI at any other point in time post acquisition, be sure to account for the value of investments made up to that point. 

An important caveat: digital news acquisitions are mission-related investments that public media stations make to increase the quality of their local service. Return on investment provides an indication of the sustainability of that investment. But a negative return rate in and of itself should not be cause for alarm, as long as subsidizing the acquired property is part of an intentional strategy. The mission-related benefits of a thriving newsroom will likely far outweigh any financial assessment.

Assessing impact

Metrics in and of themselves will not generate insight about the impact you create through a newsroom acquisition. Impact narratives are supported by data, but are grounded in the vision, mission, and strategy you lay out for your acquisition. 

Therefore, we recommend operationalizing your mission, vision, and strategy statements into measurable objectives that translate your lofty goals into concrete and measurable outcomes. (For a process to help you get started on this, we recommend consulting the Membership Puzzle Project’s Membership Guide chapter “Developing Membership Metrics.”) Those measurable objectives, when filled out with the kinds of performance indicators we present here, will help you construct a compelling narrative about impact. 

In the process of setting objectives, you may find that you need other metrics to measure impact than the ones we’ve presented here. Perhaps you need a measure of audience feedback, for example. Or you may need an indicator of policy influence. There are many good sources of advice on measuring impact, including:

We recommend constructing your own performance and impact regime from the elements we’ve presented here, combined with data that captures your distinctive approach to providing public service.