Why Journalism should be like the catering business

I was inside Di Bruno Bros., Philadelphia’s beloved, 70-year-old artisan cheese shop and gourmet delicatessen, when something very apparent sunk in for me.

They’ll sell me a block of Manchego sheep’s milk cheese for $5, or bratwurst or beef from the region for a few dollars a pound. It’s profitable and prominent.

But I’d bet Di Bruno Bros. makes a lot more money per minute of staff effort on its catering business than any retail experience it could create. Rather than having one person buying one block of cheese, any successful retail operation wants to use its economies of scale to up production and get more revenue for its effort by servicing tens or hundreds of people at the same time.

If you have a news site, then what is the back-end service that is really going to make the money needed to fund journalism?

That is a long-held foundation of retail service that journalism should take a lesson from. (And it’s just one more lesson we should be learning from other low-yield businesses).

Your news site, with its advertising and low-cost services, is your retail shop. It better be damn close to profitable to cover its reason for being, but ultimately, that’s not where you maximize profit and, therefore, sustainability.

Instead, your retail shop gives you a physical presence, a developed brand, a mission and a voice. It’s also where you might come across customers for your catering.

Howard Owens is doing some important, interesting work in upstate New York with the Batavian. He is working long hours on his ‘retail shop,’ a hyperlocal news site. But I wonder what his catering business is going to be.

Tayyib Smith, the publisher of sexy 215 magazine here in Philadelphia, is also the founder of Little Giant, a company that handles event promotion.

Guess which one really makes the money? But that’s not to say he doesn’t think 215 mag is of huge value to him.

“Don’t underestimate having a voice, having somewhere where people hear your perspective,” Smith told me over breakfast at Honey’s in Northern Liberties a few weeks ago. “A news site is like good real estate, in that it gets more valuable the longer it exists.”

We at Technically Media are working with nonprofits on building audience, while we also grow journalism at Technically Philly.

..But as we’ve learned in the past few years, real estate isn’t the safest bet for investment.

Chasing $150 ads is viable. It should exist. Hyperlocal niche sites should interject themselves into the commerce equation by offering a valuable audience to willing businesses.

But that’s like selling a one-off cup of coffee.

A retail space exists as a big business card, that ideally brings in a bit of a profit to boot. It pays for itself, but it’s really should be so you can stick a catering menu into the new customer’s bag.

You want to reduce efficiencies and be serving a 100 people, not one. Similarly, a niche news site is an opportunity to create a well-known, branded experiment lab, a business card to then sell bigger, more expensive, more highly profitable services.