I’ve sat through my fair share of publishing industry conferences, congresses, and fireside chats. The number of times I had to endure CEOs, CCOs, CTOs, in fact, any old O, lamenting the day they started to “give away content for free” is a multiple of plurals. To witness how they battle to build paywall strategies, after the fact, has at best been embarrassing, at worse, gutwrenching.
So you can imagine the moment of enlightenment (and relief) to finally hear from a media enterprise that hasn’t backpedaled on that well-trodden road. Instead, they have helped more than 70 newsrooms raise over $90 million — and that without paywalls.
“We don’t believe in paywalls because that’s walling people out from accessing content that they need to make important decisions about their lives,” says Mary Walter-Brown, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of News Revenue Hub.
Her comments come in the wake of the recent announcement by the world’s largest digital journalism association, The Online News Association (ONA), that they have appointed News Revenue Hub “to rebuild its membership offerings”, make its technology more useful, and develop a holistic strategy for serving the journalism community.
This is the latest in an impressive list of journalism organisations and bodies — both for-profit and nonprofit — that have joined the News Revenue Hub for membership and strategic support. Others include the Institute for Nonprofit News, Report for America, and the Maynard Institute.
A matter of trust
So how do you convince readers to part with their hard-earned money voluntarily when they can access content for free?
It’s a matter of trust, explains Mary. “First and foremost, a news organisation’s goal is to educate its community and address their news and information needs. (Without paywalls) we are left with figuring out how to build a reader revenue model that focuses on attracting people, serving them, and building trust with them.
“So much so that when we ask them to voluntarily invest in reporting that is so powerful and important to their lives, they’ll be ready and willing to invest in it. And not only that, by doing so, they will see themselves as stakeholders and someone who can help shape and guide journalism in their communities.”
It’s a complicated challenge, however, because every monetisation strategy should be tailored to the specific community the newsroom is serving. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work. True relationship building takes planning and community surveys to help newsrooms understand each constituency’s unique needs.
The ‘secret sauce’
The News Revenue Hub team works in the newsroom alongside the management and team to direct the challenge of understanding a community’s needs. Such an engagement takes at least a year, during which they expect to see an immediate growth of 50% in reader revenue.
The secret sauce is execution. A lot of times, when we’re working with a newsroom, prior, they might have had one campaign or two campaigns per year. But when we start working with them, we put in place a roadmap for an entire 12-month period where we’re mapping out goals.
There are many other ingredients to this ‘secret sauce’. Trust is one of them, says Mary. There’s also commitment, transparency, and, crucially, experimentation. “We live in a media landscape that is changing constantly. For the past year in the US and the UK, we’ve been dealing with this phenomenon of selective news avoidance, where people are actually consuming less news and being more selective about the news they’re consuming. So, we have to pivot our strategies in that scenario.
“We can’t just keep peppering people with more and more asks. We have to pull back, and ask our readers what’s happening, what do you feel? If a daily newsletter is too much because your inbox is overflowing, then how about a weekly newsletter that recaps everything? So, we have to be nimble and responsive, which is part of that critical recipe.”
It’s OK to ask
Working with European publishers, Mary has seen a “sort of heightened sensitivity or discomfort” in asking for donations to fund news. This needs to be overcome.
“The most important thing, if they ever want to build a reader revenue model without a paywall, is they just have to get comfortable asking… So I think what my friends in the UK and Europe need to understand is: ‘It’s okay. It’s not showing weakness. It’s not admitting defeat. It’s giving your consumers an opportunity to have a stake in community journalism.’
When you start to frame it as an opportunity to bring people in and help them invest in you, it feels less uncomfortable.”
After years of paywall carnage, that’s a strategy I could get comfortable with.
5 key takeaways:
1. News Revenue Hub champions a revenue model that doesn’t rely on paywalls, prioritizing free content access to serve the community.
2. Building trust with readers is crucial for voluntary investments, turning them into stakeholders shaping journalism.
3. Tailored strategies are essential, with no one-size-fits-all approach. Deep community understanding is pivotal.
4. Execution, building trust, commitment, transparency, and adaptability are key components of News Revenue Hub’s ‘secret sauce’ to success.
5. European publishers should overcome discomfort in asking for reader support. It’s an opportunity for readers to invest in community journalism.