Local news publishers discussed strategies for building consumer revenue during a workshop at Montclair State University on April 6, 2018.

Strategies for building consumer revenue key focus of ‘Reader Revenue’ event for small, indie and nonprofit news publishers

Discussions centered on subscriptions, membership, paywalls

By Jan Barry

In the world of building sustainable business models to support local journalism, few things are hotter right now than a focus on reader revenue.

For news organizations of all sizes, from The New York Times to Village Green, figuring out how to connect directly with readers and convince them to support your journalism has become an important facet of business today.

That’s why the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University teamed up with LION Publishers to host a conference about reader revenue on April 6.

The day-long event featured speakers from The Membership Puzzle, the News Revenue Hub, American Press Institute and the Lenfest Institute. About 80 participants were in attendance, mostly publishers and editors from independent and nonprofit news publishers from around the U.S.

The morning’s presentations were streamed live from the new School of Communication and Media building at Montclair State; click here to watch a replay.

Gwen Vargo, director of reader revenue at the American Press Institute, was the day’s first speaker. She emphasized the importance of research into what works in creating a sustainable revenue stream in an era of shrinking newsrooms.

Moving to subscriber-based revenue planning means less chasing page views and more engagement with loyal consumers, she said. Research with AP-NORC on what attracts new readers/viewers/listeners found that 60 % of new subscribers value access to local news. A key factor (for 45 % of survey respondents) in deciding to subscribe is a discount or trial subscription.

The research identified several categories of people with various interests, Varga continued. She outlined various ways of reaching out to diverse potential consumers:

Topic Hunters — 23% of new subscribers

Like sports or food, for example. They often follow their favorite journalists on social media. When they hit the paywall limit, they tend to subscribe. To reach them:

· Host sponsored events on popular topics.

· Offer topic-specific newsletters and podcasts.

· Have journalists engage with followers on social media.

Digital Paywall Converters — 21% of new subscribers

When they hit the paywall limit, they are motivated to get access to more content. To reach them:

· Offer a simple sign-up process.

· Provide them with a message on the need for funding journalism, that it’s not free to produce.

Social-Mobile Discounters — 19% of new subscribers

This group gets their news on cell phones and they use social media often. And they want to support news organizations. To reach them:

· Respond to comments, questions, complaints on website, social media.

· Offer Facebook groups.

· Relax your paywall to encourage sharing news from your site on social media.

Locally Engaged — 18 % of new subscribers

This group is strongly drawn to coverage of local news. To reach them:

· Provide outreach at civic events.

· Provide announcements of local events.

Life Changers — 16% of new subscribers

This includes people who may have recently moved to an area, or are undergoing some other life change. They want local news. To reach them:

· Partner with employers and real estate agents to offer discounts on subscriptions.

· Offer newsletters for college students.

Print Fans — 16% of new subscribers

These folks like the morning ritual of reading a newspaper. To reach them:

  • Use your e-edition as bridge to engage print subscribers online.

Family and Friends — 15% of new subscribers

This group likes to share news with family members and friends. To reach them:

· Offer gift subscriptions.

· Offer “family plan” subscriptions.

· Offer special rates.

Coupon Clippers — 12% of new subscribers

This group likes to use shopper coupons, and are less interested in news content. To reach them:

· Hold workshops to teach consumers how to maximize coupons.

· Sell subscriptions at these events.

· Promote a special issue that has lots of coupons.

Journalism Advocates — 9% of new subscribers

This group is concerned about attacks on the press and they want local news. To reach them:

· Address attacks on the press.

· Appeal to sense of civic duty.

The American Press Institute provides a detailed report on its website: https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/.

Christina Shih, chief operating officer of the News Revenue Hub, said that a workable solution for many local news organizations is to recruit readers to be supporters of nonprofit news operations.

“We help digital newsrooms build reader revenue in the form of a membership program,” Shih said. “Our executive team worked at Voice of San Diego where we developed a best-in-class membership program for nonprofit digital news. … Current Hub clients are national, state and local news organizations.”

Key elements of this approach are to:

  • Educate your readers on your fiscal needs.
  • Help them understand the responsibility of a news reader.

Emails are key for communicating with potential, new and loyal readers. Utilize carefully crafted and timed emails to:

  • Educate readers on concept of nonprofit news.
  • Provide a way to reach you.
  • Point out options for accessing your work in various media.
  • Ask them to be part of your organization.
  • Show them how their money affects your newsroom’s reporting work.

In an afternoon workshop, Shih went into more detail about use of MailChimp to set up an email schedule for communicating with various lists of people. “You have a direct line of contact with your readers,” she said. “Build a relationship with your readers.”

Ask for donations with “timely, topical pitches” when a new special report is published, she said. “Summarize highlights of the new reporting — this is what our work revealed.”

Additional tips are provided by News Revenue Hub at bit.do/readerrevenue.

Emily Goligoski, Research Director at Membership Puzzle, an online news project at New York University, provided more ways of focusing on building a network of loyal customers.

“We’re looking at ways reporters and editors can work with audiences,” she said. Emotional relationship to news organization is crucial — and at the heart of that is a social contract. “More outreach in the community provides more insightful news coverage — the single most important thing for this model,” she said later, in response to a question from the audience.

In her presentation, Goligoski outlined the emerging readers/viewers’ perspective in seeking news and what they want. This group:

· Is highly dissatisfied with mainstream news media.

· Wants a user experience that treats them like adults.

· Wants news that goes deeper, with more integrity.

· Wants to see news organizations that are humble, that correct errors.

· Wants a focus on why a topic matters.

· Wants information they need.

· Wants to know how they can help/contribute.

· Wants to see who is doing work behind the scenes.

· Wants to exchange of different points of view with shared values, interests.

· Wants a flexible membership structure.

· Wants to foster belonging, not exclusivity.

· Wants to see transparency in finances and reporting.

Meanwhile, here’s the emerging online publishers’ perspective. This group:

· Engages with the community.

· Does a lot of professional networking.

· Utilizes user research, feedback.

· Focuses on revenue sustainability.

· Uses simple software.

· Values and promotes public education on news literacy.

More information, including tools and survey questionnaire, is available on their website: https://membershippuzzle.org/

Matt Skibinski of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism spoke about crafting a strategic plan for juggling new elements of the online news business.

“Digital subscriptions make serving quality journalism to readers your number one business priority,” he said. His organization provides benchmarks and best practices. “This model makes newsrooms a revenue generator, not a cost center,” he added.

Some of the tips he provided include:

· Focus on converting your most engaged users into paying digital subscribers, without losing ad revenue.

· Don’t define your audience too narrowly.

· Focus on growing loyal readers.

· Provide more in-depth reporting not found elsewhere.

· Offer packaged guides to health, etc. specific and special to your readers.

· Lower the price for young people.

· Create an email strategy with newsletters and breaking news alerts.

· Try various trial pricing offers.

More information, including best practices and Solution Set reports, are available on the group’s website: https://www.lenfestinstitute.org/

Maria Archangelo, executive director of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, crisply presented some insights from managing a substantial and sustainable watchdog news site.

The Notebook is a 24-year-old, reader-supported, independent publication with a print circulation of 50,000 and a website. They’ve put a focus on creative fundraising to gain matching grants. The organization’s annual budget includes $200,000 from advertising and sponsorships, and $175,000 from memberships, donations and events.

Fundraising goes hand in hand with providing news reports, Archangelo said. Her tips included:

· Tell people why what you do matters.

· Ask them to support you.

· Make it fun.

· Get feedback.

Jay Senter, editor and publisher of the Shawnee Mission Post in Kansas, raised the pioneer spirit of blazing a trail for providing local news coverage in the wake of the tornado-like destruction of so many community newspapers using a simple strategy: a paywall.

Senter’s online news publication grew from covering three small towns to communities across a large school district of 228,000. Ad-based funding brought in little income, however, so he moved to a subscription paywall. Shawnee Mission Post quickly hit its 1,000 subscribers goal in first 3.5 months, and brought in income for the first year of about $85,000.

They’re on track to far surpass that now.

In a tone of modest triumph, Senter said he can now afford to cover local news “as I wanted to do.”


Jan Barry is an award-winning environmental journalist, editor of a new climate change community action blog: Earth Life Mission Log (earthmission.life/wordpress/)

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

Center for Cooperative Media

An initiative of the School of Communication at Montclair State University

Center for Cooperative Media

Written by

The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University works to grow and strengthen local and collaborative journalism.

Center for Cooperative Media

An initiative of the School of Communication at Montclair State University

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