With a little help and a little weirdness, readers understand why it’s important to help local startup newsrooms pay the bills
News consumers get that the work of journalism isn’t free — but they’re busy living their lives, so newsrooms need to say it plainly
Editor’s note: This story first appeared at Digital Content Next. It’s part of a series from Spirited Media about what we’re up to; the first, from CEO Jim Brady, covered the change in our business as we seek a new round of funding. The second, from Chris Krewson, VP of Strategy, is about our effort to launch in new cities with help from foundations and universities.
Reporters have a lot of fun. They get to call remarkable people every day.
Editors don’t do that quite as much, so Thursday was exciting for me — after a brief email exchange, I called a remarkable person who had only a couple of minutes as she walked between obligations.
The remarkable thing about Molly Trujillo is that she’s been really persistent about giving money to Denverite, a local news organization (where I’m the editor), even though there’s no paywall and even though she’s unlikely to be able to get to any of the member-only events because of her commute.
She’s had two credit cards stolen in the past few months. The first time, she canceled her card, then set up another recurring donation with Denverite. The second time, she was frustrated by the process of having to set up her various donations and payments for everything associated with that card all over again, so she set up a larger, annual donation with Denverite, just in case it happens again.
When we launched Denverite’s membership program, just weeks before our Spirited Media colleagues at The Incline and Billy Penn launched theirs, we had some guesses about what might cause people to donate. We knew that our newsletter open rates were outstanding, and that Denverites enjoyed our story selection, our voice and our reader-focused suite of news products. But would that be enough to get people to help us pay the bills?
So I asked Denverite members why they donate.
Trujillo told me she just really likes Denverite.
“You guys are looking at the things that are really, really interesting,” she told me.
“In one email, I can find out what’s going on this weekend, I can find out who did what to who,” she said. “I can find out where there’s going to be problems in Denver, I can find out where there are going to be really great things. The whole rundown. I just love that. The good, the bad, the fun stuff.”
Hours later, I called Jan Marie Belle, who became a member of Denverite as soon as she could, and who pays for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Denver Post and has contributed to the Colorado Sun crowdfunding campaign.
Belle said she reads our email newsletters every day, and appreciates that we have local stories that no one else has.
“You get news there that you can’t get anywhere else, and you get it early, and you get it often. And your daily emails and the way you link to things — it really is valuable because there’s a lot of information there and you seem to get it up sooner than anyone else.”
Belle, a pretty engaged Denver native, said it’s important to her that local journalists are producing local news — stories about housing and neighborhoods, especially. And it’s important to her that she and others read multiple sources of news. That’s all important to us, too, and we’re pretty loud about it.
In addition to appreciating the importance of the reporting, Belle understands why we asked for money in the first place.
“The first reason I paid for it is, I figured if you didn’t get some money, you might not be there,” she said. “I understand that people have to have money to run a business.”
When she said that, my heart skipped a beat. Yes! Correct! That’s the whole deal!
That’s why our partners at the News Revenue Hub coached us to make our messaging really clear about that: If you’d miss Denverite if it was gone, you might want to help us pay the bills, because reporting costs money, and if the money runs out, the reporting stops.
We’d long had people asking us to put a “DONATE” button on our site, but launching membership was of course more involved than that. News Revenue Hub helped our newsrooms build email campaigns that explain why we need reader support and what that support pays for.
Our first membership program email was pretty honest about our financial situation: We’d just laid off three staffers a few months before, and we needed to make some changes to the way we were doing things. Most urgently, we needed support from the readers, starting right away.
Since then, we’ve highlighted the different types of work we do, and described the processes of local journalism in a little more detail for people who have no reason to already know how it all works.
Not everybody knows at the outset that it takes time, patience and skill to report and write the kinds of stories that connect the dots between the machinery of local government and the reader’s day-to-day needs and desires.
The secret sauce, though, is doing the work in a way that makes people send you love notes.
“I love reading Denverite.” “You make Denver feel like a small town again. Interesting topics, great writing.” “I just discovered you and you are just what I need.”
Those messages accompanied new members’ first donations. Belle told me she loves that we ask readers for suggestions and that we’re responsive. Trujillo wrote after we’d spoken to add, “I really like the personal and witty delivery in each email.”
That makes a big difference for people, in our experience. It’s good to be useful, and it’s better to be useful and delightful. Do good work with a sense of adventure and a sense of humor. Think about how and when your audience is using your products, and do things other players can’t or won’t do.
Another new member, James Anthofer, donated within hours of attending a Denverite event in which we walked a little over five miles through the city.
When I asked him via email why he donated, he said that he’d found himself checking Denverite more than other local news sites to find out what’s going on in the city, but the thing that pushed him over the edge was something quirky.
“The turning point might have been this article, which answered a question I had wondered for long time a couple of months ago,” he wrote. “Denverite’s website found that story when I typed ‘parking lot horse statue’ or something like that into the site. I started subscribing to Denverite because I want it to continue to exist and answer my weird questions.”
Dave Burdick is the editor of Denverite. He lives in Denver and is probably on a bike, laughing just a little too loudly somewhere or staring reverently at the moon. Read Denverite or else.