It’s an understatement to say that 2020 was an unpredictable year. The COVID-19 pandemic upended practically everything, and the News Revenue Hub, like most businesses, had to quickly adapt. 

“While 2020 was an incredibly difficult year for everyone, it allowed us to focus more deeply on the service itself and the success of our member newsrooms,” said Chief Executive Officer Mary Walter-Brown. The end result, she added, was “a lot less travel and a lot more work!”

That work paid off. Last year, the Hub helped its members raise a record $16.5 million for journalism—matching the amount raised in the past three years combined. 

“I don’t think we expected to raise as much in 2020 as we did in 2017, 2018, and 2019, but we did,” said Tristan Loper, Chief Operating Officer. “There were a lot of reasons last year to support journalism that informs the public and holds leaders accountable. We’re proud of our members, the donors who support their work, and our staff who make so much happen,” he added.

In November—before most end-of-year fundraising—the Hub calculated participating newsrooms’ 2020 growth as follows:

  • Increased number of new members by 120%
  • Increased member revenue by 165%
  • Increased email list size by 27%
  • Increased member conversion rate by 65%
  • Increased donors under $5K by 89%
  • Increased donors over $5K by 34%

Responding to crisis

Part of Hub members’ financial success was due to crisis fundraising efforts. “When the COVID pandemic began, we weren’t sure if it would be appropriate to fundraise off of it, but things escalated quickly,” said Loper. “As lockdowns hit and many revenue streams dried up, our newsrooms faced budget deficits, possible layoffs, and cuts. At the same time, many had pivoted to meaningful, informative coverage of the pandemic.” 

The Hub responded by creating a toolkit for organizations that were producing coverage around the COVID crisis. The toolkit included best practices for highlighting their reporting, taking advantage of traffic spikes, increasing email subscriptions, and appealing for support. Between March and June, Hub member organizations raised $4 million—at a time when they needed their readers’ support more than ever. 

Building audience services

Another highlight for the Hub was the design and rollout of new audience development services. Between 2019 and 2020, the Hub worked with 25 different news organizations on audience development—an ambitious undertaking, according to Evan Mackinder, Vice President of Member Development. What emerged is the Hub’s full-scale approach to audience, plus a suite of products and services to aid that work.

This service includes ‘North Star’ goal setting: helping newsrooms develop top-level annual goals, and providing the resources and coaching to meet them. Other audience products now offered to Hub member organizations include a loyalty analytics tracker and dashboards, bespoke newsletter products, customized editorial approaches for SEO, and product sprints designed to move newsrooms through audience tasks and deliver results.

“Looking at it from a distance, I’m incredibly proud of the breadth of the work we undertook and the services that emerged,” said Mackinder.

Consolidations and new hires

The success of Hub’s new audience offerings led to some internal staffing changes, including merging audience and membership into one team, and making some key hires. 

“Once we developed the new audience services and saw how instrumental that top-of-the-funnel work was to membership, it became clear that we needed to consolidate our teams and our approach,” explained Walter-Brown. “It’s critical that news organizations see the connection between audience development and reader revenue and take a holistic, top to bottom, approach to implementing a loyalty strategy.”

Mackinder oversees the Hub’s member development team, which added several new full-time employees and part-time contractors in 2020.

“None of our success was possible without them,” Mackinder said. “We’ve added even more capacity for 2021 and beyond, with three new project managers, Stacy Fernández, Abbey Gingras, and Kerrie Vila, and a new senior director in Graham Watson-Ringo,” he added. The Hub also added contractors Arjuna Soriano, Eba Hamid-Rivera, Chad Lorenz, and Anika Gupta in 2020. “There’s decades of real-world newsroom experience in that team, alone.”

In early 2020, the Hub hired Daniel Craigmile as its Vice President of Technology. Formerly at The Texas Tribune, Craigmile hit the ground running, making meaningful improvements to the Hub’s tech products and processes. “I used to work with one newsroom, so getting a chance to understand and help solve the challenges faced by multiple organizations in a variety of locations and circumstances has been really rewarding,” said Craigmile. He is now busy assembling a team that will scale the Hub’s technology infrastructure to serve hundreds of news organizations.

Christina Shih, Senior Vice President of Business Development, points to the Hub’s newest team members as a highlight of last year. “I feel energized,” she said. “Our new hires all have tremendous talent and experience that will help the industry move forward together.”

Looking ahead

While the Hub has plenty of quantitative successes to point to, Shih’s most proud of “a more quiet, intangible accomplishment.” 

“I’m happy that our team and leadership has built a work environment that has allowed us to survive everything that 2020 gave us and emerge stronger in 2021,” she said. “This includes being transparent and open with our staff about our budget, creating flexibility for working parents, and increasing our health benefit offerings during a global pandemic.” 

Shih added that she’s also encouraged by the ongoing ways that Hub staff responded to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest. “I am grateful for the thoughtfulness and intention that our Board and staff has brought to these discussions, especially around how we can prioritize diversity and equity across the fabric of our organization,” she said.

That thoughtfulness will carry on this year. Walter-Brown shared that Hub’s 2021 goals include rolling out a new affordable but feature-rich donation and marketing platform for news organizations, helping existing member newsrooms increase and achieve their audience and membership goals, and providing additional support to newsrooms that serve communities of color. 

Walter-Brown, like the rest of the Hub staff, is feeling optimistic about the year ahead. “We’ve identified some lofty goals, but I have no doubt we’ll achieve them—and be able to help more new organizations as a result.”