Existential threat to journalism: sustainability

After the fifth article you have read in an online newspaper, a personalised message pops up and prompts you to pay as much as you find the service is worth. You like the online outlet and you go there often to get information. You can keep using it if you don’t pay, but if you do, you get access to more services such as specialised newsletters and events. What do you do?

This is the membership model that was developed by News Revenue Hub and that some US-based news organisations have already adopted. What is membership, however, and how does it differ from subscription? Subscribers are those who subscribe to your services, while members are those who pay for them, explains Mary Walter-Brown, founder and CEO of News Revenue Hub in the talk “Subscription vs. membership. Getting the most from your audience” at the International Journalism Festival 2018. She further explains that it is important for news organisations to make it clear to their readers that advertising is no longer their main source of revenue and that readers need to step up in a more meaningful way if they want a particular news organisation to continue to exist.

The news organisation reality is that ads revenue has dropped by almost 50% in the last years and that news organisations rely more and more on paid subscriptions in order to survive. Readers need to understand this in order to be willing to pay for their news. She further points out that the conversations with the readers need to become personal in order to convey such a message and that “News organisations are really good at telling other people’s story, but we are not good at all at crafting or telling our own story. We’re just not comfortable talking about ourselves as journalists and as a result, our readers have no idea about our business model or what we need to stay afloat.”

Both Mary Walter-Brown and Ben Nishimoto, Director of Philanthropy for Honolulu Civil Beat, explain that in order to turn subscribers into members you first need to build a relationship with them and then ask them for donations. Relying solely on donations is an entirely new business model and it entails “a whole shift in the newsroom culture,” shares Mary Walter-Brown. Here are some tips how to achieve such a shift:

Develop a relationship

Ben Nishimoto and Mary Walter-Brown share the opinion that people are willing to support journalism they believe in. First, however, they need to be convinced that the information they are paying for can’t be found in any other media outlet. Moreover, readers are willing to pay for information that is of interest to them and helps them in their daily lives. To build such a relationship with the reader, news agencies should open their content to them, share their mission and educate them on what they do.

Ben Nishimoto gives an example from his news organisation, Honolulu Civil Beat. This digital outlet started with a paywall subscription that didn’t bring much revenue. Then, it shifted to a free content to attract more readers. Once the outlet had enough dedicated readers, it was easier for the editors to communicate their mission and to ask for financial support. The outlet also stressed that the money goes to support its journalists. As a result, Honolulu Civil Beat started generating more revenue from donations than they did before from monthly subscriptions.

Get personal

Getting personal with the readers is crucial when asking them for donations. This is, however, not very easy as editorials find it difficult to adjust and show their vulnerabilities. Mary Walter-Brown stresses the importance of lifting the veil behind news gathering and stresses that it is essential to teach people about the processes that happen in the editorial room.

The relationship between the news organisation and the readers needs attending to. News organisations can achieve a deeper relationship by providing additional services to their donors such as access to exclusive reports, participation in events, or other products their readers find important, she adds.

Newsletters have been proven to be an ideal tool for strengthening the relationship with readers and although preparing a newsletter requires a big commitment from the editorial team, it is still worth the effort and the money. Ben Nishimoto shares that since his outlet hired a dedicated newsletter editor, their donations have increased significantly, email subscriptions have grown and the average reader that comes through an email/newsletter stays longer on an article and clicks more through their content.

He also explains that transparency and trust are well-related in the news business, which has motivated Honolulu Civil Beat to adopt a completely transparent process of how they work: from publishing a list of their donors to explaining to their readers why they publish certain information but decide to disregard other.

Ask for money

News agencies are not used to asking their readers for money. As a result, they do the bare minimum and get minimum results. It is essential to show editorials that when they become more personal, communicate their mission better, share their financial challenges with their readers, they will get the support they need. Mary Walter Brown shares that editorials can be convinced only through data that audiences care, that asking them for money works, but one needs to be persistent and to have built a strong relationship with the readers. She further adds that editors make emotional decisions, which needs to change. An ambitious and dedicated manner of building trust and relationship pays off, but news organisations need to allocate time and staff to do it the right way.

The three key performance indicators for a successful implementation of the membership model are audience growth, mail subscription growth, and conversion from subscription to membership.

Create a feeling of investment

When readers become donors, they consider themselves as investors not only in the news organisations’ product but also in their mission, explains Ben Nishimoto. They email frequently, participate in events, and share their opinions more openly. The behaviour of the reader has changed and journalists need to listen to their concerns and implement them in their coverage.

Mary Walter-Brown shares that it takes time for the reporters to feel comfortable with such direct feedback from their readers. The whole relationship between readers and reporters has shifted, as reporters come to know that they have fans and that readers not only value their content but are also are ready to stand up with them if needed.

Still, that doesn’t mean that only because readers expect reporters or news organisations to cover a topic, they will do so. What is essential is to explain to the readers why the editorial has decided to go another way. Ben Nishimoto adds that in his news organisation reporters have a special column where they explain how they make decisions, which doesn’t make people agree with their viewpoints but make readers trust them more.

Every news organisation needs to start having honest conversations with their audience not only because this provides revenue but also because it ensures trust.