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Jan. 18, 2024, 1:11 p.m.
Business Models

How The Guardian raised a record amount of reader revenue in the U.S.

Roughly one-third of all digital reader revenue at The Guardian now comes from the United States.

Earlier this month, The Guardian U.S. announced that its end-of-year drive brought in $2.2 million, a record amount of reader revenue since its first appeal six years ago. (The figure was 25% more than the previous record.) From the post written by membership editor Aleks Chan:

To every reader who has supported us — thank you, your contributions directly power our journalism and keep it free and accessible to everyone. Your generosity puts us on even stronger footing to fund our US reporting priorities in 2024, including a high-stakes presidential election and growing threats to our Democracy, continued war in the Middle East, the spiralling climate crisis and the role artificial intelligence will play in our society. We’re also planning to double down on investigations, and develop our wellness section Well actually, which casts a critical eye on the $4.4bn wellness industry, and explores how to live a meaningful life.

Looking at The Guardian overall, roughly one-third of revenue comes from digital reader revenue. Another third comes from print revenue and another third from advertising, licensing deals, and the like.

There’s a very different breakdown at Guardian U.S., which does not have a flagship print product, confirmed communications head Matt Mittenthal. On this side of the Atlantic, 55% of revenue now comes from digital reader revenue, with 40% of the rest coming from advertising plus “a small amount of philanthropy.” (Reader revenue first passed advertising as the largest source of revenue for The Guardian U.S. in 2020.)

Over a full fiscal year, The Guardian received roughly $30 million in revenue from reader donations in the U.S. and Canada. About a third of all digital reader revenue across The Guardian now comes from the United States.

Director of consumer revenue, Rachel Sturm, spoke with me about what worked well in their revamped end-of-year campaign.

Leaning on editorial

Sturm was quick to credit this year’s success to appeal emails written by star columnists like Rebecca Solnit, Naomi Klein, and Robert Reich, as well as notes from editor Betsy Reed. The Guardian’s membership editor, helped by a partnership with News Revenue Hub, refined the strategy.

Rebecca Solnit appealed to readers who want The Guardian to “confront the climate crisis.” The opening paragraph of her email:

To confront the climate crisis, we need reliable information — informed journalism, fearless reporting and trustworthy interpretation. A publication that recognizes the power of grassroots movements, activism and climate organizations in changing the world. An informed and engaged public to be able to take on the unprecedented challenge of the climate emergency. That’s why we need the Guardian.

Naomi Klein asked readers to “support news as a right for all” and included this message:

I don’t agree with every article that the Guardian publishes, or every editorial stand it takes, but I’m not looking for perfect agreement. Like so many of you, I turn to the Guardian for first-hand reporting by professional journalists from around the world, vetted by editors who are honest about uncertainty and adapt to new information. We don’t need another echo chamber — we need spaces for respectful and rigorous debate.

So much of our media landscape is bisected by paywalls, and for understandable reasons: journalism is expensive, especially investigative reporting. But the Guardian has a different and, in my opinion, very special model. It isn’t owned by a corporation or by a billionaire, and it provides its journalism to anyone in the world who wants and needs it as a right.

There is only one reason the Guardian can do that: you — the solidarity and commitment of supporters who fund its journalism year after year.

You make it possible to meet information wars with information rights.

Robert Reich’s email focused on American democracy and ended with this:

Trump and his allies want Americans to feel so disgusted with politics they believe the nation has become ungovernable. The worse things seem, the stronger Trump’s case for an authoritarian like him to take over: “I’d get it done in one day.” “I am your voice.” “Leave it all to me.”

By focusing on Trump’s rantings and ignoring Biden’s steady hand, the mainstream media is playing directly into Trump’s neo-fascist hands.

I’m sticking with democracy, and the Guardian.

The Guardian tried to send appeals that speak to the interests and commitments its columnists and readers share.

“The editorial relationship we have is really fundamental,” Sturm noted. “It’s a very collaborative process, definitely not done in isolation.”

Beyond “total dollars raised”

A record-breaking amount of dollars raised is a sign that things are going well, obviously, but The Guardian keeps a close eye on other metrics to gauge the success of its campaigns. Among the most important? The number of recurring supporters. (The Guardian U.S. passed 250,000 recurring supporters shortly before starting its year-end campaign.)

“That’s the highest level of commitment that someone could give us,” Sturm noted. “Getting someone to give you support on an annual or a monthly basis — that’s a huge ask for us. We treat that with a lot of respect.”

The Guardian’s work is free to read but donors are promised “far fewer asks for support” and “ad-free reading,” among other perks.

Sturm also keeps a close eye on conversation rates, or how reader revenue is going relative to the site’s traffic.

“We can’t always control what’s happening in the news — although we tried to complement it the best that we can,” she said. “Conversion rates will always be a strong indicator.”

Be thoughtful about timing

New Year’s Eve (December 31, 2023) was the single best day for reader donations in Guardian U.S. history with 3,119 separate acts of support. (The last day of the year marked a new daily record for U.S. reader revenue, which the company calculated as $167,000 annualized value.)

That capstone to a successful campaign — the team had already raised its funding goal after meeting $1.5 million midway through December — came after Sturm noted that many major fundraising days were taking place on weekends in 2023.

“One of the biggest challenges — and everyone internally has heard me say this — but all of our big days were on weekends. New Year’s Eve is Sunday. Christmas is a Monday,” she said. ‘We’ve had to be extra thoughtful about how we structure our own efforts. We can’t control when our readers are going to be on site, when they’re reading, and the news has its own agenda, so we’ve had to put a lot of pre-effort into how we wanted to phase our efforts.”

Put simply: that means starting the asking earlier. Appeals for Giving Tuesday, one of the most successful days of the year for reader revenue, began the Friday before in 2023. The Guardian also started its year-end campaign earlier. And that über successful New Year’s Eve day? A countdown-to-2024 email appeared in inboxes more than a week before any fireworks were lit.

Illustrated by The Guardian.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Jan. 18, 2024, 1:11 p.m.
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