Will people pay for independent local and community news?
Cornwall Reports has been behind a hard paywall since it launched in 2016. It has 600 subscribers mostly paying £30. Alongside the use of casual payments — which contribute 1% of total income — it presents growing evidence that in the right environment, it’s possible to get people to pay for independent local and community news.
Graham Smith, who runs CornwallReports.co.uk, started with a clear business case. He calculated there were 570,000 in Cornwall and around two thirds of them were people of voting age and of those 15% were reasonably engaged, enough to turn out on a rainy day to vote. This calculation allowed him to anticipate a possible 80–90,000 target audience and working on just 1% of them becoming a paying subscriber would return his annual income target of around £30,000. “ I would not have been able to start off this business model in my early 20s but I can keep things cheap to run and no big bills and also the tech came right at just that right moment with fibre broadband. I’ve still not hit my target but it’s growing.”
Just over a year ago, he started using casual payment provider Axate which allows visitors to his site to pay very small amounts for individual articles using a digital wallet. “It started earning extra revenue. It gives people the choice if they don’t want to subscribe they can pick and chose as you go. My Axate readers probably are interested in one particular thing. There has been a big spike in new readers interested in Covid 19. If there is a particularly strong story about local health etc then while that is playing out they will come to me for that.”
The benefits of offering casual payments include marketing and analytics, as Graham can see micro interactions and understand more about what is working than he would have done with Google analytics alone. It is also building, so it offers a way of attracting and possibly converting them. While it is better value to subscribe, casual payments can be capped. He now has 130 Axate users.
Tristan Leaver, from Axate casual payment technology, said: “There’s little commonality about what works for one news media and another which is interesting. You have to iterate and work out best product market fit.”
Dominic Young is Axate’s Founder and CEO situates the shift to paid for models in a broader change in entrepreneurial strategy. He said: “Independent and new news organisations can take advantage of not needing large infrastructures to be successful. The internet has liberated them from the need for offices, printing presses, large teams. When that liberation is matched to a sustainable and scalable source of revenue, the opportunity for entrepreneurialism and innovation is thrilling.
“Small independents are able to move much faster and can respond almost instantly to ideas and opportunities. They can make nothing into something and something into something else.
“The biggest challenge — and this is true in lots of industries — is mindset. To create and drive the change you need, you have to believe in your ability to make it happen. On the internet, most of the change that has happened to newspapers has been substantially out of their control. They have adapted again and again to environment they have found themselves in online, but for many, they have still failed to thrive. For some businesses, waiting for change to happen instead of seeing themselves as actors in that change can result. That can certainly feel like a safe option, particularly if your past efforts have failed, but it hands your strategic direction to someone else. In the case of the news industry, their fate has largely been in the hands of big internet platforms, and the result to date is grim.”