A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting of the revenue minds at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in midtown Manhattan. Ten independent news publishers spilled their guts on how they made (or didn’t make) money flow into the newsroom. It was intense, man.
One of the big revenue stars there that day was Jonathan Butler, whose hyperlocal site Brownstoner has Brooklyn real estate covered from end to gentrified end. The website does alright for itself, Butler told attendees, generating revenue via display advertising, real estate classifieds and a business directory.
But the enterprise’s true cash cow, the one from which all milky goodness flows, is event production. There isn’t a weekend that goes by in New York City when millennials aren’t throwing money around Butler’s Brooklyn Flea or his foodie fan fest Smorgasburg. The events are so successful that Butler now spends most of his energy managing them, while his staff manages the Brownstoner site.
Chalk it up to Butler’s business savvy. He has a good grasp of his audience: young people with expendable income and a taste for all things vintage and locally made. He understands what his advertisers and sponsors expect: events that will draw the right crowds and infuse cash into local businesses. And he knows that consistency is key, from weekly schedules to the highly curated collection of vendors working each event.
I give major props to Butler for decoding the revenue mystery. But at the same time, I can’t help feeling that the news business in general is still in deep financial shit. Must it rely on producing entertainment in order to bankroll journalism? And at what point does this particular revenue stream become a distraction to the creation of news content?
Even Butler expressed that high attendance didn’t necessarily translate into increased readership. From a business standpoint, it probably doesn’t matter — revenue is revenue. And as a hyperlocalist, I like to think Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg have fostered a sense of community and identity among some Brooklyn residents. But as a journalist and publisher, I cringe at the thought of adding carnival barker to my duties.
The news business is a business — I get it. But I’d rather not neglect the news part of that equation.
Disclosure: Butler’s Brownstoner recently announced plans to expand its coverage into the borough of Queens, where I’m likely to develop my own hyperlocal news site.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user 12th St David.