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The Forward

‘Beyond our wildest dreams’: How the Forward removed its paywall – and generated 37% more revenue

By Katie Hawkins-Gaar

The Forward has a storied history. Founded in 1897 as a Yiddish-language daily, it soon became a national publication — and the most widely read Jewish newspaper in the world. In 1990, the English version of the Forward launched as a weekly publication. In 2019, the Forward went fully digital.

And on December 5, 2023, the Forward marked its latest milestone: The publication removed the paywall for all of its coverage.

“That means that for the first time in our 126-year history, Forward journalism is now free and available to everyone, everywhere,” Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Forward’s CEO & publisher, and Jodi Rudoren, editor-in-chief, co-wrote in an open letter to readers. “We are taking this step because during this chaotic moment of war, disinformation and rising antisemitism, open access to our independent Jewish journalism is essential.”

A decision grounded in research

The decision to remove the Forward’s paywall was a long time coming, according to Jay Ehrlich, Forward’s VP and general manager. Three years ago, Ehrlich and his coworkers began discussing what it would take to remove the Forward’s paywall so everyone could read and share their content for free. They partnered with the News Revenue Hub, a nonprofit that’s helped over 100 newsrooms raise more than $100 million in volunteer donations, to strategize and help with research and financial modeling. Mary Walter-Brown, the Hub’s founder and chief executive officer, also recommended they hire nonprofit news consultant Steve Sachs to help put together a business plan. Together, the team set out to closely analyze the opportunities and risks of removing the paywall.

“A lot of important research needs to happen before a news organization can be ready to take down its paywall,” Walter-Brown explained. In particular, the Hub helped the Forward with deep audience analysis, surveying each audience and donor segment to gauge their feelings about removing the paywall and moving to a volunteer donor model.

“The response we’ve gotten from our new readers and legacy readers is beyond our wildest dreams”
— Jay Ehrlich

“We learned a lot from those surveys,” Walter-Brown said. “For example, we found that the Forward’s older demographic was motivated by making content available for future generations.” Survey results also showed that most Forward readers were willing to convert their paid subscriptions to donations and consider increasing their gift amount to fund more reporting.

“The overwhelming response we received was that readers wanted the Forward to take down the paywall, and didn’t want or expect any special perks in return,” Walter-Brown said. “Most people simply wanted to help make the Forward’s journalism available to all.”

“The survey insights gave us confidence that removing the paywall wouldn’t jeopardize existing revenue,” Ehrlich said. From there, the Hub provided benchmarking against peer newsrooms to show potential revenue after removing the paywall. This research informed the Forward’s financial modeling and business plan.

By the end of 2022, Ehrlich, Sachs, and Feddersen, the Forward’s CEO & publisher, presented the business plan to remove the paywall to the Forward’s Board of Directors, who approved it unanimously.

Aligning mission and business objectives

Will Warren, senior project manager at the News Revenue Hub, says there are two big reasons to take down a paywall: because it aligns with a news organization’s mission and because it is a smart financial move.

“High-quality information is essential for communities to thrive,” Warren said. “Making that information free and accessible to everyone is important from a mission perspective.”

This is particularly important during periods of crisis. On October 8, 2023 — the day Israel formally declared war on Hamas after the Palestinian terrorist group launched a deadly surprise attack — the Forward staff removed their paywall to make all content related to the war available to readers, whether they were paid subscribers or not. Walter-Brown, who called the Forward team to discuss this strategy, applauded the quick response. 

“As much work as we put into research and planning, there are some instances that require immediate action to best serve audiences,” she said. Removing paywalls during crises is a best practice that the Hub encourages all newsrooms to follow.”

On December 5, the Forward removed its paywall for good — and announced that change to its readers.

And among the Forward’s 17,000 existing subscribers, who were currently paying to read stories behind the paywall, only three readers complained and asked for their money back.

“We know from research that a growing number of people simply aren’t willing to be forced to pay for news,” said Walter-Brown. “Many will, however, give voluntarily once they’ve had a chance to build habit and loyalty. A paywall keeps newsrooms from building that relationship with would-be supporters.”

The Forward found this to be the case. In the first three months since dropping the paywall, the newsroom welcomed 1,254 new donors who hadn’t previously paid to access their coverage. From December 5, 2023 to March 15, 2024, the Forward received nearly $583,000 in donations under $5,000 — a 37% increase over paid subscription revenue during the same time frame the previous year.

In December, the month the Forward removed the paywall, the nonprofit saw a 103% increase in reader revenue under $5,000, compared to the same time last year. That includes 176 new monthly recurring donors, averaging $16/month. Previously, an annual digital subscription brought in $51.21, just over $4/month.

And among the Forward’s 17,000 existing subscribers, who were currently paying to read stories behind the paywall, only three readers complained and asked for their money back. “Three! It’s amazing,” Ehrlich laughed.

“The response we’ve gotten from our new readers and legacy readers is beyond our wildest dreams,” he added.

Deciding whether or not to take down their paywall wasn’t the hard part, Ehrlich said. The hard part was identifying and completing all the necessary tasks before removing the paywall.

One of the biggest tasks was to move all of their supporter data to a unified CRM, or customer relationship management platform, a software tool that centralizes contact management, sales, and marketing. Previously, that data was located in three separate places; the Hub’s technical team helped the Forward consolidate that information.

The process of migrating, testing, and verifying that data took several months, said Warren. “Now they use News Revenue Hub’s portal to manage donations, which allows them to access donor information more easily,” he explained. “It also opens up a lot of new abilities that they have to engage with those donors and track donor trends.”

Communication and stewardship

When the paywall was removed, the Forward communicated that change with a launch email to existing donors, an email to subscribers, an email to supporters (people who were both donors and subscribers), and an email to non-supporters. As part of the shift, current subscribers and donors automatically became founding members, with access to member-only communications and events, Forward store discounts, and other special content.

That messaging, which went through several iterations, was well received, Ehrlich said. He keeps a list of some of his favorite responses from readers.

“I wish to congratulate you, and show my support, on your BOLD decision to remove the paywall,” one new donor wrote. “Thank you for taking down the paywall. Your stories need to be read,” shared another.

“When I saw that you had eliminated subscriptions, I felt moved to provide a higher level of support than I had done in the past,” an existing subscriber wrote. “Making your content free is a big step in fighting antisemitism. We need all hands on deck. Thank you.”

Between data migration, website updates, and messaging work, preparing to take down the Forward paywall took the majority of 2023. But by the time December rolled around, the organization was poised for success.

Ehrlich, who has worked at the Forward for nearly six years, said he was amazed at how smoothly the process went. “We put in a tremendous amount of work across all departments, working hand in hand with the News Revenue Hub,” he said. “And when we finally launched, it went great.”

Maybe the biggest unexpected perk of removing the paywall is that customer service calls at the Forward have gone down 60%. “Now that we don’t have subscriptions, our readers don’t have a login,” Ehrlich explained. The vast majority of their readers previously called for help with forgotten passwords.

“We believe the decision to remove a paywall should help newsrooms achieve both their mission and business objectives,” Walter-Brown said. “Making news and information more equitable and accessible is mission-critical work but it also allows a newsroom to broaden its audience and increase potential advertising and reader revenue streams.” 

“It’s been wonderful to see the overwhelming, positive response from Forward readers,” she added. “I hope it encourages other newsrooms to make the same decision.”

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