“Let’s Talk Business” Series Focuses on How to Fund Quality Journalism

  • By Melissa DiPento

In a series of four events at the Newmark J-School over the coming months, media leaders will offer their solutions to the paramount problem plaguing our industry today: how to pay for quality journalism.

Sponsored by the J-School’s new Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership and publishing-data analytics company Chartbeat, the “Let’s Talk Business” sessions will make the case for building financial success through new and innovative ways of reaching audiences.

“As journalists, we need to talk about how to finance journalism in the future, whether that’s through subscriptions, advertising, monetizing events, and more,” said Anita Zielina, director of News Innovation and Leadership at the Newmark J-School.

In the first of the sessions, the school brought together 75 journalists and industry leaders on November 6 around the theme of monetizing user engagement. 

The audience heard from Chartbeat CEO John Saroff; Ariel Zirulnick from the Membership Puzzle Project, a research organization that examines ways to sustain public-service journalism; and Alison Go, head of growth at the non-profit education news organization Chalkbeat. The event kicked off with a brief conversation with Zielina and Ken Doctor, author of Newsonomics: Twelve Trends That Will Shape the News You Get

What follows are excerpts from the key presentations:

John Saroff, Chartbeat

“The one thing we’re sure of at Chartbeat is that there will be meaningful stories in 50 years,” he said. He then dug into what he dubbed “the subscription revolution” as a means for paying for those stories.

Newsrooms are experimenting with different subscription models. With a “hard paywall,” only the homepage is available to non-subscribers. On one hand, readers know exactly what to expect with this model. The downside is that the content reaches far fewer readers.

The freemium model offers a large selection of free articles, but gives subscribers access to premium content. This has the advantage of maintaining the “free access” reputation. But it can be difficult and time consuming for editors to decide what content should be premium and what should be free. 

The third primary subscription plan is the metered model, where the number of articles a visitor can read is limited to a specific period of time, likely monthly. This option is customizable for editors, and allows newsrooms to maintain a revenue stream from advertising. But, he said Chartbeat found in their research that 90 percent of users don’t come more than one time a month, likely because readers who consume news for free may not be willing to pay later for content. 

“It’s a very personal decision for each organization, and there are lots of tradeoffs,” Saroff said. 

Ariel Zirulnick, Membership Puzzle Project

 Zirulnick kicked off her presentation by establishing the difference between subscriptions and membership. 

“In a subscription model, audiences pay money to get access to a product or service—it’s transactional. This model works well for many businesses,” she said. “But with membership, members give not just their money, but time, connections, experience, and expertise to support a cause they believe in.” 

Zirulnick told the audience that there is a lot to learn from other member-driven movements. “Successful membership organizations have developed ways of listening, fresh thinking about what their members actually want, and strong feedback loops to get it right,” she said.

She took the audience through several examples of membership-based news organizations, including the Devil Strip, an arts and culture publication in Akron, Ohio that is one of the first local news cooperatives in the U.S. It began as an arts and culture magazine celebrating civic life in Akron, but as it built readership, civic culture became part of the mix, she said. 

For five years, it operated as a for-profit advertising-based newsroom. “On Friday they launched their member-owner drive, inviting their community members to have a share,” she said. “And a large part of the success will be determined by how successfully they’re able to demonstrate that supporting The Devil Strip is akin to supporting Akron, and understanding why people love their city and connecting to that larger cause.” 

Alison Go, Chalkbeat

Go took the position that newsrooms need philanthropists. “There’s been a negative stigma, but every revenue source has its pros and cons. You can work your way around it,” she said. “Subscriptions leave out poor and low-income people. If you want to have an impact, you’re going to need to give it out for free.” 

Philanthropic revenue is not worse or better than advertising or subscriptions. It’s different, with different risks, she said. 

Go said Chalkbeat’s strategy is simple: Invest in impact. “Philanthropists, they want to change the world. They invest in organizations that have a theory of change and can execute against that theory,” she said.” 

Chalkbeat aims to create high-quality knowledge reporting with impact and share it with its devoted, trusting, and diverse community of readers. But these readers also help shape what content is created. “There is not philanthropy without audience engagement,” Go said. 

Click here for more information about the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership. Stay up-to-date about program news and events by signing up for our mailing list

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Photo above: Left to right: Ariel Zirulnick, John Saroff, Alison Go, and Anita Zielina field questions from the audience at the first “Let’s Talk Business” event.