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Build an entrepreneurial revenue team

Photo of Sky Barsch
Sky Barsch

Sky is Chalkbeat’s Director of Earned Revenue. She oversees Chalkbeat’s sponsorship sales and reader services revenue.

Why this?

News organizations can no longer depend solely on legacy revenue streams such as advertising sales and multiyear subscriptions. To develop and sell a variety of innovative revenue-generating products, sales teams need to be integrated into your news organization in order to best capitalize on your unique mission, audience, and place in the market. Teams that have a deep understanding of the news organization’s work and who can speak confidently and authoritatively about that work will not only have better success with advertising/sponsorship clients, they’ll also be better equipped to conceptualize new products that your audiences will pay for. 

The common mistake

Old-guard thinking is that the sales team has to be entrepreneurial in a silo. Advertising, sponsorship, and underwriting teams have often been viewed as secondary to the “stars” of the organization — the journalists. This is limiting because when revenue team members are out of the loop and don’t feel a part of the organization, they’re kept from understanding your product and your audience as well as they could, and therefore don’t have the knowledge and insight they need to succeed. 

Another mistake at many legacy news organizations is treating revenue as last in line for organizational resources such as access to product development, tech support, and graphic design, because newsroom needs come first. But the sales team is not selling any old widget — they are selling your mission, your audience, your connections, your brand. Keeping them in the loop and feeling part of the team will make them better salespeople.

Our approach

Our leadership emphasizes revenue.

At Chalkbeat, our team works on the farm — we’re not housed in a silo. Chalkbeat’s leadership team has established revenue as a top priority, which is critical to my team’s success. This kind of integration requires buy-in and direction from the top of the organization. Product, audience, and operational support are there for sales and revenue team members in the same way it is for editorial. Revenue has access to those resources to do their jobs and deliver for clients.

In our monthly managers meetings, revenue is always discussed. At our annual all-team meeting, revenue team members are in the room and might be partnered with journalists for team-building activities. A member of the revenue team sits on our Audience Squad — because audience size and quality are so critical to sponsorship sales. A revenue representative was a key liaison in our migration to a new CMS and gives input when exploring new tools such as email service providers and project management software. If we need metrics or information about coverage (a client might ask, are you planning any early childhood education coverage this month?), there is an expectation that newsroom members will be responsive and not put up any roadblocks. And we’re welcomed and encouraged in employee resource groups, social Slack channels, and at our holiday party.

We work with our editorial team, not against them.

When I meet with clients, they want to know what is happening at Chalkbeat — what are we hearing and seeing, what are we covering?  Not because they want to influence coverage, but because their work is in or adjacent to our topic area, or they are loyal Chalkbeat readers, or they are fans of our work. They want to connect and be informed. If I can say, Our reporters in the Chicago bureau are covering teacher diversity, and Our national reporters have noticed a trend of learning loss, or, I was at an event planning meeting and it’s likely we’ll get so-and-so to speak, my clients feel more connected to and excited about their investment with us — especially if it’s a mission-driven ad buy.

At the same time, we keep editors and reporters informed about new revenue-generating products. Editorial should have at least a decent grasp on what products and services your organization offers to sponsorship and advertising clients, as well as how to put inquiring clients in touch with the appropriate staffer, so as not to miss any revenue opportunities that arise. While our interactions with editorial have all the necessary ethical guardrails (sponsors can not dictate coverage nor get special coverage), we have regular check-ins with bureau chiefs, engagement editors, and event coordinators so we understand what’s going on and we can ask questions or share ideas.

A sales team that is truly part of your organization can help editorial teams in ways that go beyond revenue generation. For instance, when I joined Chalkbeat, each news bureau had to look for and manually approve any reader-submitted event listing for inclusion on our website and in our newsletters. The revenue team knew this was a burden on reporters, so we looked at how we could improve (and monetize) the system. We asked ourselves whether the calendar of events was really… editorial? (It is service journalism at its core.) Engagement? (Because readers submit events, there’s inherent engagement.) Revenue? (If we’re monetizing only part of the process, is it truly a revenue component?)

We decided the earned revenue department would own the event listings. With the help of tech, graphics, finance, and photography folks, we ended up completely rebuilding our events platform and instituting a modest fee for any submitted events that require payment to attend. This change allowed us to give the newsroom some of their time back, and it’s given us ideas and contact information for leads to propose larger sponsorship packages.

A screenshot of Chalkbeat's event listings page.

Chalkbeat's earned revenue team oversees event listings; the website allows readers to browse upcoming events, and we charge event hosts a small fee to post events that require payment to attend.

We use the news to inform our offerings.

When Chalkbeat reported that summer camps were going remote in 2020, we quickly put together a paid summer camp guide for virtual camps as we realized this didn’t exist. We did not have to spend any money outside of staff time and brought in $1,500, and provided a service to our readers at the same time. There’s likely a parallel product or two you can build for your audience.

A screenshot of Chalkbeat's Summer Camp Guide.

Chalkbeat's summer camp guide brought in revenue and provided our readers (many of them parents) with a useful product.

We’re the organization’s biggest cheerleaders.

My team members are constantly talking with community members, business leaders, employers, and nonprofit leaders. The sales team is often the first and only face-to-face contact these people have with your news organization. Keeping them adequately resourced, in the loop, and feeling part of the organization will translate into enthusiasm for the journalism you’re producing — an enthusiasm that team members will share with the public.

These efforts pay dividends.

As a result of our integrated approach, our team has built a robust multilevel revenue stream from the ground up. In fiscal year 2020–21 we doubled what we call “earned revenue,” which is anything that requires a payment in exchange for a service. This includes sponsorship packages (similar to advertising packages in for-profit organizations) with newsletter and website banners; sponsored content articles; dedicated email sends; and event sponsorships. We also have a jobs board that in good months brings upward of $10,000, plus smaller programs like events listings for a modest fee. We are now approaching $1 million in annual earned revenue.

A chart that shows Chalkbeat's sponsorship sales from 2017 to 2021.

Chalkbeat's revenue from selling sponsorships has grown year over year.

We would not have been this successful if leadership had not made revenue a priority and integrated us throughout the company. The organization has built a culture of respect and understands that revenue team members have valuable skills, unique expertise, and good ideas. 

Key Takeaways
  • Make the revenue operation a clear priority in the organization.

    Leadership can lead by example by making time and space to share and celebrate the revenue team’s work with the larger organization on a regular basis.

  • Don’t keep the revenue team in a silo.

    Invite them to weekly newsroom stand-ups, planning meetings for new products (such as a new newsletter), and to sit on cross-functional teams. Set an expectation that editorial staff must share information that the revenue team needs to do their jobs, such as audience metrics, upcoming special coverage, and changes in publishing schedules.

  • Spend money to make money.

    Selling sponsorship and advertising is fairly complex. If your team does not have experience selling, consider hiring a consultant to help avoid reinventing the wheel, especially when it comes to setting up digital advertising architecture. Advertising agencies can at times be demanding, and a consultant will prepare your team to make powerful pitches, close deals, and deliver assets that will keep them partnering with you for years to come.

  • Don’t be afraid of failure.

    Not every idea is going to work. Not every reader is going to love every revenue product you offer. But you have to be bold, entrepreneurial, and iterative to be successful in today’s news publishing world, and with that come some bumps in the road. Leadership can help frame this mindset to the larger organization so your revenue team feels emboldened to continue to try new things.

What is the Local News Field Guide?

The Local News Field Guide is a resource for journalists and news entrepreneurs tackling the ever-changing landscape of news. The guide is written by staff members of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization that provides essential local education reporting.

The Local News Field Guide is supported by Chalkbeat's partnership with the Google News Initiative (GNI).

Learn More