The journey from Reader Relationships to Reader Revenues

Why are we talking about reader revenues — and what you need to know

Clare Cook
Oct 31 · 20 min read

The limitations of indirect funding models via advertising and transaction based funding models for journalism are shifting focus to extend audience engagement and trust with an associated commitment of financial support. In 2013 — local news paywalls were a total disaster so what has changed in six years? Reader revenues is a catch-all for the diversified strategies open to publishers wanting to convert reader relationships into revenues. There are a diversified range of reader revenues. These include: micropayments, paywalls, subscriptions, donation models, action investments, membership models, crowdfunded investments and cooperative ownership. They range in intensity from passive to engaged relations and from transactional to invested revenues.


Industry insights from latest Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions report produced by Nic Newman for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University say more than half (52%) of the 200 media executives, senior editors and digital leaders surveyed in 29 countries want subscription and membership to be their main revenue focus in 2019. Display advertising compares at 27%.

The big-name case studies make reader revenues seem very appealing. The Financial Times hit the million milestone of paying readers in April 2019 since it launched the paywall transition in 2002. The Guardian has received financial support from more than one million people.“Over half a million of them continue to support us every month — through either a subscription, membership, or a recurring contribution.” Arguably, many of these contributions are altruistic, supporting journalism for public good and — as the Guardian is keen to mention — helping to ensure that they do not have to put their content behind a paywall. Since switching on the first contributions test, after the publication of the Panama Papers in April 2016, they have received over 600,000 one-off contributions from 170 countries. More than half of our one-off contributions so far are from the US. The Guardian gets more revenue from consumers than advertising through a combination of membership, recurring contributions, print and digital subscriptions and one-off contributions, accounting for twelve percent of the publisher’s total revenue. The Dutch member-funded journalism site De Correspondent has 60,000 members paying €70 a year with a revenue model from memberships, publishing, grants, events and speaker fees. They’ve pushed hard on an engaged journalism model with their staff allocation of time, in May 2018 employing a conversations editor. It’s American counterpart The Correspondent over 30 days in November and December 2018 raised $2.6 million for its ad-free, inclusive English language platform. Founding members were invited to become active participants in a movement for “unbreaking news,” to change what news is about, how it’s made, and how it’s funded, and to contribute to a community of knowledgeable members sharing expertise from around the world. With the involvement of members from more than 130 countries, the campaign became the most participatory journalism crowdfunding project in history, a classification formerly reserved for the organization’s initial Dutch campaign in 2013 more than 42,000 people gave an average of $50 each to the cause. Ken Doctor is betting real world and physical engagement can combine to provide a sustainable local model with Lookout Local through mobile with topical local reporting and national partnerships: “We believe the successful local news outlets of the 2020s will be the ones that authentically embed themselves into the life of the communities they serve. That’s got to be done both digitally and in the real physical world.”

But how do you turn reader relationships into revenues?

In 2019 CLEF: The Community Listening and Engagement Fund released its early findings from a fund designed to “help news organizations better listen to, engage, and produce more relevant and differentiated content for the public they serve by using models, tools, and consulting designed for this purpose.” The $650,000 project published Learning to Listen: Building a Culture of Engagement in Newsrooms detailing the strengths and lessons of audience engagement and newsroom transparency services, including Hearken, GroundSource, the Listening Post Collective, Document-Cloud/MuckRock, and the Coral Project’s “Talk.” But little data is currently available from CLEF participants’ reports that connects use of these services with increased revenue or membership. The majority of newsrooms did not report seeing any evidence of increased revenue within the time frame of the CLEF initiative, but there were exceptions. What it did do is help argue for additional support from major funders, and several organizations reported increased sponsorship, as well as revenue generated through events and merchandise. Interestingly “Some newsrooms were unable to provide information because of the disconnect between the newsroom side and the revenue side of their organizations. This is one of the areas in which grantees requested support, as they too want a clearer picture of how engaged journalism ties into increased revenue or membership”. Some excellent resources on benchmarking help work out how to turn relationships into step by step business KPI and more.

Profile of a likely subscriber, designed by Media Innovation Studio, from Lichterman’s benchmarks

One stand-out resource is the CJR Guide to audience revenue and engagement. Some essential points to note:

  • Reader revenues exist as part of a diversified strategy — it’s rarely enough on its own . My Journalism Revenue Model resource cards along with Damian Radcliffe’s 50 ways to make media pay show how advertising, corporate underwriting, foundation funding, article syndication, events, affiliate programs, merchandise, and book sales all make their way into the revenue mix.
  • Reader revenues rely on creating unique value so you stand out as differentiated.
  • Understanding participation activities that are both of interest to members and valuable to the publication is key. How does your audience want to participate now and in the future?
  • How do you communicate the larger cause that the news organization represents and how do you stand out beyond the commodity?
  • Those that are successful in motivating members often produce journalism reflective of their mission.
  • Conversion strategies, audience funnels and stop rates all need to be fully understood to be successful in reader revenues. Research entails deeply understanding your audience’s needs, preferences, and daily habits.
  • Email newsletters are one of the best digital ways to build a loyal and engaged audience whom you can turn to for support.
  • Becoming an audience-driven — and especially member-driven — newsroom requires a huge culture change for reporters and editors that demands significant leadership.

A matrix from passive relations with transactional revneues to engaged realtionships and invested commitments

Reader relationships and revenues exist on a matrix

There are a diversified range of reader revenues. These include: micropayments, paywalls, subscriptions, donation models, action investments, membership models, crowdfunded investments and cooperative ownership. They range in intensity from passive to engaged relations and from transactional to invested revenues.

Micropayments

Micropayments are small payments and can be used in a variety of ways including pay-per-article or in tandem with another revenue stream such as advertising or monthly subscriptions. The Dutch owned Blendle platform, which lets readers access posts for a fee via its content aggregator is the best known. In Germany, the B2B social network Xing has been aggressive in offering paid for articles on a 70/30 revenue split in favour of the publisher. Popbitch asks users to credit an Axate wallet and pay as you go.

Micropayments are powerful when used in symbiosis with the advertising business model. This works if a publisher relies on advertising and a large number of their audience uses ad-blockers. Asking the consumer to turn off their adblocker or giving them the option to pay 20p to read ad-free for the day generally earns more than the original ads do. This also works if a publisher has a page overloaded with ad units. Offering the consumer a 30p pay-for-the-day ad-free experience earns more than the ads themselves. It also gives the consumer choice. Micropayments used to subsidise free current news by charging for historical news This works for newspapers who are the ‘letter of record’ for a town or county. People wanting to access articles older than a week or two are different to people reading current news. Subscriptions aren’t suitable for them because they are probably doing specific short-term research. Offering pay-as-you-go access to that archive content earns more than ads.

Micropayments in symbiosis with a premium content monthly subscription model. This works if a publisher demands monthly subscriptions to access premium content and has reached peak subscriber rates (1%-2% of impressions). Offering a day-pass that is a 20% of the monthly price allows the next 5–10% of impressions to access the premium content, increase brand recognition, and push more users down the subscription funnel. It also helps reduce churn by allowing former subscribers to still access premium content rather than pushing them away completely. Day-passes do not cannibalise the subscribers as they are too expensive for frequent visitors — monthly subscriptions are cheaper.

Micropayments in symbiosis with a metered subscription model (experimental). This works if a publisher demands monthly subscriptions to access more than a metered number of articles per month. Simple metered paywalls are easily bypassed by clearing cookies or spoofing email addresses. Instead, charge increasingly more each time a consumer wants to buy an hourly-pass or day-pass to your content. The first charge might be as low as 10p for the hour, the next hour 20p, the next 40p, the next 80p, reducing if they don’t come back for too long, and capping out above the monthly subscription equivalent (e.g. capping out at £3.99 if the monthly subscription price is £2.99).

With thanks and credit to Jamatto for his insights on micropayments and ad-blocking.

Paywalls

Hard paywalls have become known through the big guys like Financial Times (sometimes archive content, material linked to from third party apps like Facebook or Apple News, as well as use of private browsing modes, can navigate these restrictions.) The Times and Sunday Times launched in 2010 and has been profitable since 2014 with 3.7million registered users in 2018. They key is listening to ‘customers’ (because that’s what they are now), the need for comment, analysis and distinctive opinion, divided daily updates, personalised emails but not always the main edition.

Metered paywalls allows you to set the payment point against time, reader rate, article length and more like the New York Times the number of articles you could read pre-paywall has dropped from 20, to 10, and now five articles a month. The move is a key part of their strategy to in-creasingly focus on becoming “a subscrip-tion-first business.”

Freemium paywalls (or hybrid) have some content free but ‘premium’ or the best content behind paywall. Academic research from both Herbert and Thurman (2007) and Brandstetter and Schmalhofer (2014) show a successful revenue model is based on content of a unique character (i.e. content of a high quality or about a subject matters that do not exist on competing news outlets) is considered a most important parameter when attracting paying audiences online.

Vertical only offer standalone paid-for access to specific sections. For some publishers, this approach can be a good option for sections such as sports, or other specialist content, which enjoys a nice — often non-geographically specific — and passionate audience. There are a few notable examples of publications that are growing subscription revenue with paid email products on top of free-access membership models. The politics and public policy site The Texas Tribune publishes The Blast,26 a “premium daily newsletter” that is used by elected officials, lobbyists, consultants, and political junkies looking for insider intel beyond what they can get on the site for free.

Geolocation paywalls leverage local audiences who are a more appealing group for local advertisers to access more content for free while diaspora need to pay. In contrast, those outside of a given IP-range may hit the paywall sooner such as international access to the BBC iplayer.

Print and digital bundling if you subscribe to the paper, especially the more expensive (and lucrative) Sunday edition, then full digital access is often thrown in for free. Or could be digital + Saturday/Sunday print subscription. The publisher will often throw in free home delivery too.

If you have users paying in print already it’s a good sign. In a 2016 study, Fletcher and Nielsen (2016) use survey data from six countries (France, Germany, Japan, Spain, United Kingdom, and United States) to show that those who pay for printed news are more likely to either currently pay for online news, or are more willing to pay for it in the future. However it’s important to think about who is excluded. As many local newspapers have implemented user payment (paywalls) in their online editions research suggests the civic implications of such introduction of user payment challenge the civic function of the local news media since fewer people consult them (Olsen, 2019).

Subscriptions

For publications with highly differentiated journalism and a strong audience base in their coverage areas, a product-based subscription offering can be appealing. You need to think if your news and analysis as providing enough unique value. The focus with subscriptions is a broad based relationship with readers through events, newsletters, podcasts, and other editorial products to avoid the pay and then leave = high churn rate.

Subscription is when you pay your money and receive a product It is fundamentally a transactional relationship with more information in Building Subscriptions and Memberships for Quality Journalism

Corporate subscriptions Buying in bulk, rather than individually, works out cheaper on a cost per user basis. It has been used effectively as a seat model.

Bundling, platforms and subscriptions also create The Netflix of … driven by a growth in subscribers across both the U.S. and international streaming markets. You can also have subscriptions based on no ads such as U.S. based streaming service Hulu current subscriptions plans range from $7.99 (for limited ads), through to $11.99 (no ads) or $39.99 for Hulu with Live TV, or $43.99 for Hulu + Live TV with no ads.

We know little about the economic potential as well as democratic ramifications of segmented or personalised subscriptions like the one requested by the younger group of respondents should be researched in greater detail/personalised paywalls

In Norway a study found there were misalignments between the intended attractiveness of paywalled content and audience attitude toward this content, and misalignments between access to paywalled content and use. Local newspapers’ offerings are particularly misaligned with younger, lower income and lower news interest customers. When these groups hit a paywall, they most likely bounce off.

Donation models

As readers start to move away from the distant transaction side they enter what Jay Rosen describes as ‘lean’ members. At one end of the continuum, these member relations can be converted but they are still quite passive. They are expected to lend financial support and patronize the product. He calls them “thin” or lean members.

Propose and pay models allow users to suggest stories and connect this with a donation of financial support. Journal Media, the publisher of TheJournal.ie Ireland’s most-read online news source, and a number of other sites, funds investigations by letting users propose-and-pay for stories they want published via their online funding platform, Noteworthy.

Pay-what-you-want schemes can be a useful tool to finance high quality and independent news media without restricting readership, therefore guaranteeing maximum diffusion. One experiment with Italian information site lavoce.info to explore how to structure a campaign in a way that maximises readers’ willingness to contribute. Researchers found that there is no difference in terms of contributions raised between the messagethat stresses the public good component of the contribution and the alternative messagestressing the importance of own contribution. Including information about the availability ofa tax allowance actually reduces the total contributions collected, due to a negative responsealong the extensive margin, that is, to a lower likelihood of giving. Pay what you want is related to charitable donations, with the importantdistinction that contributors , unlike donors to charities, are direct consumers ofthe good or service provided and their contribution could be seen as a (voluntary) payment for it. There arealso a specialised service facilitating this kind of financing for content on the web, such as flattr.com and Ko-fi.com is also a way for users to reward online content.

One-off crowdfunding campaigns can be used for one-off projects. A Little Bit of Stone used crowdfunding to create a new mobile-friendly website and allowed editor Jamie Summerfield to dedicate more time to the platform. The target of £15,000 was exceeded by £380, with a total of one hundred and forty-five backers in forty-two days through Crowdfunder. Donations ranged from £5 — £75 from community supporters, from which they received 103 pledges on their website. Pledges of higher amounts included tickets to the launch party (£50+) or a thirty-minute flight over Stone in a two-seater helicopter (£75+). Forty-six business supporters donated amounts from £100 — £1,500 in exchange for their company logo being shown on the supporters’ page, advertising slots, social media promotions and editorial coverage.

Crowdfundng can be for a single story, continuous coverage/beat, for a new platform/publication, for a service that supports journalism (Aitumurto 2015). The value creation of crowdfunding is to test the potential traction, helps brand build, audience buy in, find sources and knowledge.

Action investments

What Rosen calls ‘thicker’ members start to convert deeper and more meaningful relationships into different types of invested revenues. At this side of the matrix, members still give money and use the product, but they also show up at events, offer advice and feedback, respond to call-outs, share their knowledge, and interact with journalists. The relationship is more mission-driven and so are the revenues. Members start to get invovled and feel degrees of ownership over parts of the process.

Participation takes many forms in the more muscular models for membership. Not one way to contribute, but many entry points. (Jay Rosen)

Action investments may include non-monetary support as well as transactions, perhaps around investigations as with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. At the point of reading a big investigation is the point many people want to subscribe and Bureau Local has mobilsed huge communities to help in their reporting hoping for a correlation between trust and subscription. The Bureau Local’s new business model translates this action investment into three strategic arms: Bureau local bridgemaker (deep civic projects), bureau exchange (sharing process knowledge such as with Correctiv germany) and bureau learn (with universities and schools).

The Ferret — have received $100,000 from Omidyar Network to expand its journalistic capacity and increase its membership and reach. Ferret director Rob Edwards said: “The Ferret has and always will depend upon its subscribers and readers to give it a sustainable economic future. The grant from Omidyar Network, which comes with no strings and no loss of editorial control, will help us boost our reach and our income so that we can thrive and grow. We are very grateful for their commitment and generosity. Ferret underground Scottish investigative journalism co-operative The Ferret has launched a new text messaging network to allow members of the public to influence what issues are investigated on their behalf.”

MediaCite in France like action investments, they appeal for subscribers based on local investigations in Lille, Lyon, Toulouse et Nantes, being independent and without ads. Citizens spark ideas for stories with content then 20% free and 80% paywalled.

Paying for tickets to a attend an event could be a reader revenue classed as an action.

Membership models

The EJC has collated six questions you should ask yourself before launching a membership model. The Membership Puzzle beta handbook is also evidence of the growing interest in memberships. Interestingly, there is very little academic research on membership models. Benefits for members can include access to member-only content, as well as early-bird tickets for events ad free versions, live shows and recordings (which you could monetise) sells wall art, keepsake pages (reprints from their archive), photos and prints, as well as coffee table books. Membership models have arguably grown for a number of reasons, often blending revenue potential with the opportunity to build closer links between the newsroom (and business develop-ment teams), and members themselves. The CJR defines membership as

“a two-way relationship between readers and a publication that often involves monetary exchange (and, in many cases, non-monetary contributions such as time and expertise). While a donation can represent an expression of support for a particular cause or value, membership signifies a higher degree of participation and engagement between audiences and a publication”

Mars Actu has achieved 3,000 local members paying 49€ a year in 3 and a half years. They are not out of the economic woods yet but it shows steady growth from their first subscribers in December 2015, to 1200 a year later, 1700 end 2017 and 2900 in December. They started with solid investment and marketing backing from Mediapart but are now the most advanced local membership model for local journalism in France. Bitternepark in the UK appeals for a monthly subscription of £1 per month, with options up to £25. Founder Guy Phillips is aiming to encourage subscription donations closer to £5 and is looking at offering some benefits to tie in with this. One-off donations are also accepted via PayPal, bank transfer and standing order. While larger newsrooms are using dynamic and highly customizable tools (such as Piano Media and Poool) smaller newsrooms are turning to WordPress plugins for subscriptions (such as Restrict Content Pro) and for membership (such as SteadyHQ).

Tortoise, the slow news initiative which recently raised £539,035 on Kickstarter, is an example of an outlet seeking to incorporate editorial and creative input from their paying members. Led by James Harding — a former Editor of The Times and Head of BBC News — Tortoise has promised members access to open news conferences, which they call “the ThinkIn.” In this scenario the ability of members to not just access, but also inform, content is key to their financial model.

A summary of member revenue date from News Revenue Hub for local and regional newsrooms, there is a weak but significant association between market median income and member revenue. (I.e. newsrooms in wealthier areas tend to raise more, especially nonprofit newsrooms.) For nonprofits, each additional $1,000 in market median income is associated with an additional $415/month in revenue.

Crowdfunded investments

Taking Ownership: Community empowerment through crowdfunding investment moves the relationship with readers into one of a co-owner in some way. “Financial stability is a challenge for most community organisations. Crowdfunded community investment can help address this by enabling more certainty through longer-term investment, flexibility in comparison to grant funding, the creation of new revenue streams, and increased accountability to the community. Showing that a project has backing from the public can provide the legitimacy needed to open doors to other sources of funding such as larger grant funding or social investment. Finally, giving the community a stake in an asset means they are likely to use it more, increasing revenue and sustainability of the project.” (Old et al., 2019). It fits under the umbrella of social impact investing which broadly describes investments seeking to generate social impact alongside potential financial return, often made by institutional investors (such as banks, corporates or dedicated social investment institutions). Crowdfunded community investment projects need several building blocks including community support, an investment model, a sustainability business plan and governance model.

Participatry media projects such as with Media Coop Glasgow specialises in participatory media projects where service users take an active role in production. Using a range of film and video production, animation, digital & social media, branding & graphic design, the team works with the public sector, charities and social enterprises, harnessing media for social good. They are a not-for-profit workers’ co-operative and a social enterprise

Social Spider is a community interest company based in Walthamstow, London, and was a finalist in 2019 social enterprise awards. It publishes three monthly community newspapers with each written by and for local people, celebrating local successes, covering local news and holding those in power to account. Each paper features over ten community contributors per issue who work with editors to tell their stories and write about the issues affecting them.

Community shares have helped groups raise millions of pounds by selling shares to their supporters. Research shows that people often use their savings pots to invest in community shares, because it’s a long-term investment, not a donation.This means the average investment in community shares is around eight times higher than what people would normally donate. “Community shares are a way to raise money by offering your community a chance to own shares in your organisation. Community shares are usually about more than just profit — they work best for people who want to get involved and support a cause or a project they really care about, often because it has a positive social impact for the community it serves.”

Clydesider ran a crowdfunding campaign in autumn 2019 to build their solution-focused Community Action Journalism, keeping Clydesider magazine free for all. Their crowdfunding campaign aimed to work with the community. So ten percent of everything they raised went into a Clydesider Community Action Fund with the donation changing depending on how much they raised. The Clydesider is a social enterprise started by community activists from West Dunbartonshire in Scotland. They came together to set up Clydesider magazine to shine a spotlight on their community’s positive news. Its goal was to highlight positive, solution-focused stories, which are mainly written by local volunteers who are equally passionate about the community. The aim was to tackle some of the negative stereotypes which people have of West Dunbartonshire. Their unique way of working mixes journalism and community activism skills, creative expertise and local grassroots knowledge to develop solutions as part of the community.

Cooperative ownership

There are a number of cooperative models that allow participatory and decentralised forms of ownership such as worker and freelance cooperatives, consumer cooperatives based on customer membership, producer and enterprise cooperatives, community cooperatives around defined common interests and multi-stakeholder cooperatives.

Marlborough News reach twenty-five percent of the town’s eight thousand residents through digital channels online and mobile. Peter Davison, one of the members, says that the paper’s co-operative values are as important as the journalism code, and adherence to the former brings compliance with the latter. There is no editor, with stories being signed off by two members to go live. Their co-operative structure is viable. They fund the costs of production through local advertising.

The New Internationalist is UK’s largest media co-operative. It is a leading independent media organization dedicated to socially conscious journalism and publishing. It is a multi-stakeholder co-operative co-owned by our workers and more than 3,600 investors. It runs a shop, magazine, books and media services. The magazine enjoys the goodwill of its subscribers, many of whom are believed to be supporters as much as consumers, for whom their subscription is less because they want access to the magazine per se and more because they believe that the magazine has an important point of view that needs to continue.

The Bristol Cable in the UK runs as a membership model. Membership is £1 per month minimum, but members tend to pay an average of £3 per month. Membership is founded on a principle that people get something back for their money “to create commonly owned public-interest journalism, produced by a wide range of people”. In 2018 the media co-operative received a grant of £100,000 a year for two years from the Omidyar Network, to expand its approach to community-driven journalism and work towards developing a sustainable model with membership at its core. The Cable’s quarterly print magazine has a circulation of around 30,000 and a website that publishes around five pieces a week, both of which are free for anyone to read. Run as a co-operative, the publication takes its direction almost entirely from its 1,800 members, who get a vote in how the publication operates. Apart from membership fees, the Cable is supported through grant funding, print advertising, and workshop commissions. It’s aiming to hit 3,400 paying members within the next year. The model of public-interest local journalism suggests that a donation-based cooperative model can also work on a small scale in some areas, if it is sufficiently well-targeted.

Manchester-based The Meteor is a not-for-profit independently run organisation focussed on community and social justice for those that are neglected by the traditional press. It prides itself on challenging local power structures and tackling urgent and pressing issues. The Meteor has published over two hundred and fifty stories for our website and three printed special editions. It has worked with over thirty contributors, provided free training and creative workshops for more than seventy community members, and engaged and listened to over two hundred individuals through holding events and attending others across the city. It has connected and collaborated with over one hundred community groups and campaigns through its work. Co-editor Conrad Bower says they have chosen a cooperative business model to try to get as many people involved in this organisation as possible and “give them a chance to have a say in what our editorial line is, what particular investigations we’re going to focus on and ultimately have a say in their own media” .

Clare Cook

Written by

Niche revenue models for independent media. Business. Resilience. Diversification. Innovation. @cecook www.mediainnovationstudio.org www.clarecookonline.com

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