Faced with limited control and scope to generate revenues from advertising, local news media are increasingly experimenting with direct pay models. These come in two main forms: subscription and membership models. In the years following 2010, there was a wave of ill-fated experimentation into user payments. In the Netherlands, the Frisian service WâldNet experimented with a metered paid content some years ago but ditched the model because it became too complicated to maintain and resulted in little revenue. Johnston Press in the UK dismantled paywalls at six local titles following an experimental trial after negligible take-up from readers, despite the rate being far lower than average price today (£5 for a three-month subscription).
But driven in part by a renewed understanding of the need to pay for, or donate to, quality news, notable successes are emerging. In December 2015, Dutch national journalism platform De Correspondent reached a milestone of 40,000 paying members and sparked a new wave of interest in membership models. The site was launched in 2013 after €1.3 million was raised through crowdfunding and donations in support of a mission to produce in-depth journalism using an ad-free platform that actively engages readers. They have monetised reporting with and for readers, pushing the boundaries of engaged journalism by writing such tasks into reporter’s contracts. Of course an expansion West has received mixed reports.
While larger newsrooms are using dynamic and highly customizable tools (such as Piano Media and Poool) smaller newsrooms are turning to wordpress plugins for subscriptions (such as Restrict Content Pro) and for membership (such as SteadyHQ). Here are a few examples:
In the UK
The Bristol Cable in the UK runs as a membership model. Membership is £1 per month minimum, but members tend to pay an average of £3 per month. Membership is founded on a principle that people get something back for their money ‘to create commonly owned public-interest journalism, produced by a wide range of people’. It is unique as these members make up its cooperative, who jointly make big decisions. In 2018 the media co-operative received a grant of £100,000 a year for two years from the Omidyar Network, to expand its approach to community-driven journalism and work towards developing a sustainable model with membership at its core. The Cable’s almost 1,900 members, who contribute an average of £2.50 a month is a quarterly print magazine with a circulation of around 30,000 and a website that publishes around five pieces a week, both of which are free for anyone to read. Apart from membership fees, the Cable is supported through grant funding, print advertising, and workshop commissions.
Bitternepark.info appeals for a monthly subscription of £1 per month, with options up to £25. Founder Guy Phillips, is aiming to encourage subscription donations closer to £5 and is looking at offering some benefits to tie in with this. One-off donations are also accepted via PayPal, bank transfer and standing order.
2019 JPI Media has revealed plans for a paywall trial at two of its regional daily titles. Blackpool Gazette and Portsmouth News are the first two to trial the new subscription model, which will offer readers five free articles per week before prompting them to subscribe. The metered paywalls would launch with a trial offer of £1 per month for three months, rising to £8 per month thereafter.
Lessons from further afield
Mediacites launched in 2016 in Lille, then Toulouse, Lyon and Nantes. It does local investigations without local reporting teams by using deep user-engagement strategies to capture story ideas from communities which it then investigates. In 2019, it had 2,500 subscribers, 16% of whom are from local businesses or associations. Five newsletters are the key driver to subscription, with free access to content on site limited to 24 hours. Rates are €6,90 a month or a one off €59 for a year. There are less than 500 subscribers, on an average of 5€ per month price and the rates — like many publishers — were not based on user testing but isomorphic mimetics. And it is very hard to get people to pay. It is very hard to change people’s habits from free. “People just don’t do it, even people close to me or the media”. They are working now on a clearer value proposition, a better payment funnel and advocating the system to many people in as many ways as possible.
Mars Actu The French pure player Marsactu was set up in 2010 to cover the city of Marseille. Pierre Boucaud, who directed a local TV company previously, created it to take advantage of low entry costs and the opportunity to develop in a flexible model. They experimented with an annual subscription of €500 for Marséco, launched in 2014, a paid weekly online newsletter for economic decision-makers. Marsactu relaunched in the final quarter of 2015 with a business model based on online subscriptions. Three packages are available following a €1 month trial from: €6.99 (monthly), €17.99 (three-monthly), €59.99 (annual). Subscribers benefit from all the content in real time, with no limits. They can join ‘L’Agora’, a space dedicated to paid members where they can comment, write or share. They also have ways to steer and support the independence of the organisation — for example, subscribers can create a blog to initiate debates and share updates. On the website, free content is mainly from external contributors while a high proportion of premium content is reserved for subscribers. The professional offer (for institutions mainly) also works well. The subscription model is considered an option for Marsactu for a number of reasons, including the size of the geographic coverage of Marseille, the editorial focus — being independent from local authorities and very committed to the interaction with citizens, i.e. via L’Agora, and being in line with Mediapart, the French success story in terms of independent, investigative press. Since the beginning of 2016, Marsactu gives subscribers the opportunity to invest funds as part of the united news organisation status ‘entreprise solidaire de presse’, a new French status that is formed specifically for the financial backing of news enterprises. This innovative social enterprise framework provides tax incentives for those wishing to become a shareholder of a new newspaper. They work constantly on marketing including #quivousdit (#whotellsyou), automated emails and reminders, and careful personalisation and monitoring of the payment funnel.
Mediapart is an independent French online investigative and opinion journal created in 2008 by Edwy Plenel formerly editor-in-chief of Le Monde. Now with 120,000 subscribers, it has increased its fee to 1€ for the first 15 days, €11 a month €110 for a year. It first made a profit in 2011 with many members paying out of support
In France, the association ‘Les Amis d’Aqui’ (Aqui’s friends) welcomes supporters for a €25 or €50 annual donation. Its goal is to create links between Aqui.fr and its readers. These members are invited to an annual seminar about new trends in communication, such as open data.
From Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, developed out of a printed newsletter e52, Innovation Origins is an independent journalistic platform that focuses on innovation, the business of innovation and the people behind it. Innovation Origins tells the relevant stories from this sector, highlighting the people, products and companies that determine tomorrow’s society. It is sponsored by companies that want to support the mission, and by individual donations.
Angers Mag has a business club with two kinds of participation routes: membership and donations. Memberships only generate marginal revenues. Donations are more interesting and are exempt from tax for organisations with IPG (general political information) status.
Terri(s)toires membership is considered a ‘subscription of support’ and gives the reader certain privileges such as the possibility to comment on articles without preliminary moderation and to have photography considered for the website.
Rue89 Strasbourg service asks for €5 a month to support the media’s independence, yearly at €50, 10 access accounts €500.
What happens to civic discourse?
There has only been one academic study comparing audience metrics on a sample of eight local news websites (four Norwegian, four Danish) for 52 weeks before and after paywall introduction. They find the numbers of both pageviews and unique visitors decrease upon the transition from free to fee-based access to the news, equalising over time. With less traffic the authors posit that while paywalls may constitute a new revenue stream for local news media under financial pressure, they also challenge the civic function of the local news media since fewer people consult them.
More questions unanswered.
However there are many known unknowns.
What are the key channels and touchpoints to drive local subscribers?What role can local media leverage to generate more business to business revenues, without compromising editorial independence? Which digital innovations are best at supporting direct-pay models? What are users shifting motivations of paying for local news. How does the saturation for local news payment differ from other media and/or services? How can local direct-pay models grow once geographic saturation is reached?
Across Europe and beyond — who is doing what and what is working: mapping and shared best practice of independent local community news subscription models? What technical tools for direct-pay models are most commonly used, and what are their strengths and weaknesses?
How can we move beyond normative and mimetic isomorphism on paid content models?
Is the story different when the payment emerges as a symbiotic relation with the audience, rather than a move from free to pay?