You must sell

Oct 24 2014

When I heard Tim Oakely, CFO for Appia, speak during an informal lunch presentation back in May, he said something I immediately knew I’d never forget. It’s the most concise statement of what I have wanted every Reese News Lab student to understand.

Here’s what he said: “In order to do anything, you must sell something.”

Reese News Lab principles

It’s so gloriously simple, yet its complexity is difficult for many to understand and grasp. It highlights – however indirectly – the three fundamental aspects of a product or service we hammer into our students.

  • Desirability: Does anyone want your product or service?
  • Feasibility: Can you actually do what you’re saying you will do?
  • Viability: Can your product or service sustain itself?

At the Online News Association conference in September, Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile told the audience that “we don’t talk about the business side at all.” Haile said, “It’s just not good enough for us as journalists to be curious about everything in the world – except how we’re funded.”

That’s what we’re trying to change about the thought process of our students, and it’s why we focus heavily on the desirability and viability of students’ products. Feasibility, we explain, is easy compared to the others. If you can create something that people want – that provides a valuable service – and you can make it self-sustaining, the actual execution will probably take care of itself.

Approaching it in reverse – pouring effort into creating a sensational product and then trying to prove market demand and sustainability – doesn’t make sense to me.

Lack of viability in industry standards

When the New York Times recently announced plans to cut about 100 jobs from the newsroom, Executive Editor Dean Baquet sent a note to the staff. That note has been analyzed by countless media observers, but one sentence stood out to me. “And our new products are not achieving the business success we expected, even though they are journalistic sensations.”

These new products are sensations by our own journalism standards. But we seem to continually think our journalism should automatically be financially successful.

We forget that “in order to do anything, you must sell something.”

If we want to continue publishing high-quality journalism in the same ways we’ve always done, then we might need to look for other, different products to sell to supplement finances. This isn’t a foreign concept because we’ve historically done that on traditional platforms.

In the Reese News Lab, we help students look for by-products of high-quality journalism that are fruitful (like LegalStats, a product that uses public records to help people navigate the legal process) or for completely new products that are financially viable and desirable for our customers (like Capitol Hound, a transcription and alert service for North Carolina government).

An optimistic future

Looking at it this way doesn’t paint a picture of doom. It creates a sense of optimism because these soon-to-be graduates will find different, more sustainable ways to help people make more informed decisions about life.

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