Digital Publishing
3 mins read

3 years to a million paying supporters: Guardian’s alternative model of growth without paywalls

With revenues from print circulation and advertising in steep decline, and the duopoly gobbling up most of what comes from digital advertising, news outlets are increasingly being forced to go behind a paywall to sustain themselves.

In this scenario, the news that The Guardian has become sustainable with the help of its reader-supported business model comes as a welcome surprise.

A million paying supporters

Around three years back, the publisher was in a pretty bad shape after having lost around 100 million pounds that year; it had been losing money for quite a long time. Many believed that the nearly 200-year-old newspaper was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Fast forward to the present: The Guardian has grown from 15,000 members in 2016 to a million paying supporters (including subscribers and contributors). Some loyalists have even left money in their will for the newspaper as ‘legacy contributions’.

The counterintuitive path

We knew we wanted all of our journalism to remain global, free and accessible for our readers – and not restrict it only to those who could afford to pay for it.

Katharine Viner, Editor-in-Chief, The Guardian

When others were putting up paywalls, The Guardian chose the counterintuitive path. It reaffirmed its commitment to keeping independent, investigative journalism open to everyone, and decided to directly ask readers for their support. The premise being that those who valued it would come forward to support it.

“We’ve moved away from the traditional transactional model to a more emotional one that’s rooted in our journalism,” says Amanda Michel, Global Contributions Director and Project Manager at The Guardian.

Surprising success

The idea was met with scepticism, but slowly began taking hold and readers responded in such a way that even the advocates of the idea where left surprised by its success. The company that was “dying” less than three years back, is on track to breaking even by April 2019.

A lot more went into the process than simply asking readers for their support. The publisher had a cross-disciplinary team with people from marketing, editorial UX and engineering departments to collaborate, test and fine-tune all aspects of the campaign.

These included the pitch (it was unusually long but that’s what made it work); it’s placement (came after the story, rather than in front of it like a barrier); the ease of making contributions (regardless of where supporters lived and how much they wanted to pay); and effectiveness of membership programs.

The current appeal on The Guardian’s website.

They were highly focused on getting the details right, and according to Chief Customer Officer, Anna Bateson, “We’ve learnt so much and I feel we are just beginning to build the science of a really supporter-led organization.”

A triumph of ideals

While the New York Times and other stalwarts of the publishing industry continue to post impressive numbers, The Guardian’s success story is different because its campaign was built around an idealistic idea of journalism.

The paper stayed committed to its stated purpose of keeping its journalism freely accessible even when it was in the red. It provides other publishers looking for a sustainable business model an option worth considering.

Resigned cynicism to daring hope

Community ownership expert Dave Boyle—who has worked on a crowdfunding project for Positive News raising £250,000, and with the New Internationalist which raised £750,000 against a target of £500,000—sums up how “resigned cynicism” turned into daring hope.

“There was a kind of resigned cynicism about the idea that people would actually pay for journalism, after a long period where advertising had been doing much of the heavy lifting.

It turns out that in fact readers will pay, and they will pay more than most editors ever dared hope.”

Discover the different ways publishers have worked to develop reader revenue streams this year and where this could head in the future in our Media Moments 2018 report. Download it here.