Show a little vulnerability

“What if in 2018, instead of trying to sell our audiences something they may not want, or threatening to shut off access to news they actually need, we simply admit we need their trust, understanding, and investment to provide great journalism?”

I don’t need to tell anyone about the steady decline of journalism’s business model. News outlets have been on the skids for a decade. Each quarter sees the closing of local, regional, and even previously successful national digital outlets.

Advertising and subscriptions aren’t bringing in anywhere near the revenue they once did, but still it’s hard to let go of the idea that news organizations have to sell their audiences something. The scramble to reinvent the business model with metered paywalls, programmatic ad servers, and sponsored content is focused on squeezing every possible drop of profit from consumers while cheapening the value of our relationship with them.

What if in 2018, instead of trying to sell our audiences something they may not want, or threatening to shut off access to news they actually need, we simply admit we need their trust, understanding, and investment to provide great journalism? What if instead of being obsessed with transactions, we focus on relationship building? What if we peel back the layers of our hardened journalists’ shells and reveal a little vulnerability? Because journalism is incredibly vulnerable right now, and there’s no shame in that.

Dozens of news organizations, most of them nonprofit, already are taking this tack successfully. Honolulu Civil Beat is a case in point. The Pierre Omidyar-founded regional news organization started as a for-profit shop with a metered paywall. After six years of steadily reducing the price and mediocre growth, they decided to drop the paywall and build a broader community of engaged readers. They became a nonprofit in June 2016 and rolled out a grassroots membership program. Instead of asking readers to pay a set subscription fee, Civil Beat’s editors, reporters and development team introduced themselves in a series of emails and asked their audience to contribute what they thought the content was worth. A year later, revenue from individuals had increased by 78 percent, with the average “transaction” increasing from $60 to $140.

By closing the paywall and being transparent about their revenue needs — even with a billionaire benefactor — Civil Beat convinced readers to help the news outlet diversify its funding and strengthen its ability to provide strong, independent reporting.

This isn’t limited to nonprofit news organizations that can offer a tax deduction in exchange for a donation (which data shows isn’t why most people support a cause). PolitiFact, the popular fact-checking arm of the for-profit Tampa Bay Times launched a membership program a year ago and saw a similar response from their audience. Instead of shying away from being part of a major for-profit metropolitan newspaper, they used that as the point of their plea, asking their passionate audience to help them cover their own costs and remain financially independent. In the past year, they’ve recruited 1,560 members and secured $190,000 in contributions with another $104,000 scheduled to come in over the next year.

At the News Revenue Hub, we’re fortunate to work with 16 brave news organizations who are pulling back the veil on their business operations and letting readers know that their support is critical if they want newsrooms to survive and thrive. Based on the initial audience data we collect with each new client, most news consumers don’t fully understand how news operations are funded. It’s our duty to explain the changing business model to our audiences so they can understand what role they must play in sustaining quality journalism.

With understanding comes trust, and from trust comes a much more valuable bond than any paywall or display ad can generate. That’s my hope for 2018.

Mary Walter-Brown is founder and CEO of the News Revenue Hub.

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