The financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic for news media has made one thing clear: Readers are ready to support vital reporting they need and trust. And when a newsroom makes the case for that support swiftly and thoughtfully, readers respond generously.
The 45-plus newsrooms we work with in the Hub took advantage of increased traffic and reader interest they saw in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. They quickly launched campaigns showcasing their crisis reporting efforts and the need to financially support that work in the midst of an economic crash. Since the beginning of March, Hub member newsrooms have raised more than $3.8 million from donors across the world. And the donations continue to come in.
Having the Hub’s technology infrastructure already in place, our members were able to seize an opportunity to turn new readers into donors—and ultimately long-term sustaining members. Trying to be sensitive to member newsrooms’ limited bandwidth, the Hub provided a crisis response guide and a campaign toolkit with COVID-19-specific copy that they could easily customize and send. Those who quickly took advantage of Hub tools saw a rapid return that will continue to fund essential reporting as the crisis unfolds.
Hub newsrooms’ remarkable fundraising efforts these past two months helped reinforce the fundamentals of turning regular readers into paying supporters. It all boils down to one strategy: in plain language, help readers connect the necessity and impact of quality reporting to their role as news consumers. This crisis was a moment to make that vital connection.
It starts where it always does: With the journalism itself.
Readers are desperately seeking high-quality news during a time of confusion and concern. Since breaking news of Berkeley’s first confirmed COVID-19 case in early March, Berkeleyside shifted all of its reporting resources to help residents understand and navigate the outbreak.
“At the same time,” says Berkeleyside publisher Lance Knobel, “we went to our readers with a simple message: you’re relying on trusted, independent local news more than ever, and now is the moment when we need your support. We’ve sent emails out every week along this theme, and the response has been clamorous,” Knobel reports. Berkeleyside has grown its member ranks by 33% since the beginning of March.
Key takeaway: Many small- and medium-sized publishers put fundraising efforts on pause during crises. Ironically, it may be time to accelerate as readers become more aware (and appreciative) of your role in gathering, vetting and distributing reliable information.
It necessitates transparency.
Many local and state newsrooms are suffering acute losses in revenue from online advertising and event sponsorship. The Nevada Independent turned that vulnerability into powerful messaging for a membership campaign.
“We realized that our donor base would evaporate and our bank account would go to zero,” says The Nevada Independent’s CEO Jon Ralston, “So we gambled that our readers would step up and support us if we were transparent about our situation. We were, and hundreds upon hundreds of readers have stepped up with donations and supportive messages. If there’s a silver lining, it is how gratified we are that people recognize the quality of this team’s work and don’t want to lose it.” The Nevada Independent has raised more than $200,000 from readers so far to support its crisis reporting efforts.
Key takeaway: Bold and successful membership campaigns like The NVIndy’s reinforce to readers that they have a role in supporting news they value and trust—but they need to understand the business model and why an outlet needs their support. Explain, in clear terms, that donations sustain the public service your newsroom provides.
It requires coordination across audience, editorial and business.
Bridge Michigan had a system in place to ensure they were ready for traffic spikes before the crisis began. From search-engine-optimized headlines to easily-customizable onsite email acquisition features, to thoughtfully-curated newsletters that meet readers’ information needs, they’re thinking about audience engagement at every turn. Moreover, they’re thinking about how to turn loyal readers into paying members at every turn. And it’s working. The newsroom has grown its count of newsletter subscribers 48% and its member roster 52% since the beginning of March.
“We were ready,” says Bridge’s membership director Amber DeLind. “We have worked hard with the Hub to build a robust membership program and the infrastructure that allows us to react quickly to any traffic spike. When readership exploded after Michigan’s first COVID-19 cases were reported, Bridge’s reporting team continued to provide the fact-based content that Michigan residents were searching for and we used our spike-readiness tools to inform these new readers about our nonprofit news model.”
Key takeaway: Understanding each reader’s journey upon visiting your site is good, acting on that knowledge is better. And that’s what we’re seeing newsrooms with top membership programs do. They have cultivated their own reader-first, test-and-iterate cultures that span editorial, audience and business, allowing them to quickly mobilize in breaking news situations and build the case for financial support.
The past two months have taught us this: membership—not unique visitors, not pageviews or time on site—is the highest measure of success and the ultimate sign of an engaged reader community. Newsrooms fulfilling their public-service missions should make a compelling case for it. We’ll keep beating that drum here at the Hub, not just at crisis times but at all times, when the Legislature is in session and when it’s not, in election years and off years. As we say, we should always be in campaign mode.