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May 16, 2024, 11:55 a.m.
Business Models

Increasingly stress-inducing subject lines helped The Intercept surpass its fundraising goal

“We feel like we really owe it to our readers to be honest about the stakes and to let them know that we truly cannot do this work without them.”

“We’re not exaggerating. If people don’t pay for it, journalism will die,” read the subject line of fundraising email from The Intercept on April 28.

The subject lines over the course of a two-week campaign in April became increasingly more urgent:

  • “These are tough times for journalism. Your $5 monthly donation will ensure our Gaza reporting can continue” (April 17)
  • “To continue covering Gaza — as others look away — we need your help” (April 20)
  • “No one reads The Intercept for our fundraising emails” (April 22)
  • “An urgent deadline is looming, and we’re short” (April 25)
  • “I’m nervous about reaching this all-important goal” (April 26)
  • “Today’s the final day. Don’t let us fall short.” (April 30)

This fundraising style, popular for political campaigns and organizations, doesn’t move all readers to open up their wallets.

For enough of The Intercept’s readers, though, it did work. The April campaign, focused on the dire state of the news industry, aimed to add 3,000 new recurring monthly donors in two weeks. The most effective email, April 24’s “Cutbacks, layoffs, and shutdowns,” led to 525 new donors, 400 of whom became recurring donors; the second most effective was April 28’s “journalism will die” email. The Intercept ended up adding 3,500 new recurring donors by the end of the month, including 1,500 in the last three days of the campaign.

The fundraising emails go to a list of 325,000 “active” subscribers, which the organization defines as those who’ve interacted with its emails in the past.

“What works is flagging the urgency, the goal, and the deadline,” chief digital officer Michael Sherrard told me. “We announced the goal of adding 3,000 monthly donors on April 16. Fast forward to April 27, we were still almost 1,000 short of that goal. That’s probably when you started noticing some pretty punchy subject lines, but that’s because it works.”

A shorter, two-week campaign with direct language is less likely to spam subscribers and turn off potential donors, in the organization’s view. Donating also comes with a perk: no more emails.

“If you value The Intercept’s reporting but would rather avoid the extra fundraising emails, then we would like to let you in on a little secret: The minute you sign up as a monthly donor, you’re automatically excluded from the rest of this fundraising campaign,” the April 22 email reads.

The emails were written in the Intercept’s familiar editorial voice because it would be “disingenuous to have a different approach in our fundraising emails than in the rest of our work,” CEO Annie Chabel told me.

“We don’t view [urgent language] as negative pressure,” Chabel said. “We had our best first quarter fundraising this year and this was our best spring campaign, so we view that as an optimistic sign that people want to step in and help. If we were seeing the campaign not be successful, it might be a different conversation, but because there’s such a tremendous passion and response, we feel like we really owe it to our readers to be honest about the stakes and to let them know that we truly cannot do this work without them.”

She added, “Because of the just absolutely horrific layoffs that we’ve seen this year, because we haven’t been immune from these pressures, it just felt like that had to be a critical part of our story.”

Over the last year, 55,000 Intercept readers have donated to the publication, Sherrard said, and of those, 18,000 became recurring monthly donors, contributing $3.5 million in membership revenue. The publication has seen an increase in small-dollar support from readers for its extensive coverage about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the Israel-Hamas war, and the U.S. media’s coverage of it all. The Intercept has published more than 200 stories about the war since October 7.

The Intercept, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in February, spun off from its former parent company First Look Media to become its own nonprofit in January 2023. Its business model is made up of “a modest grants and major donor portfolio,” Chabel told me, along with transition funding from First Look Media, membership, donations, and earned revenue from podcast sponsorship and licensing fees.

The organization laid off 15 staffers and its editor-in-chief in February, citing “significant financial challenges,” according to an internal memo shared with New York Times media reporter Benjamin Mullin. In March, The Intercept’s union said in a statement that Chabel had “[taken] a hammer to one of the last reliably functional sources of independent journalism in the country.” Last month, Semafor reported that the organization “could be completely out of cash by May 2025, according to data shared internally in March.”

“We are ahead of our fundraising projects in both major donor and small dollar donations,” Chabel said when I asked her about that story and The Intercept’s current finances. “We feel optimistic about our efforts to become a sustainable organization. We’ve made a dent in closing our fundraising gap and expect to see this momentum continue.”

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     May 16, 2024, 11:55 a.m.
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