Digital Publishing Reader Revenue Top Stories
11 mins read

50 ways to make media pay: Content

This is an excerpt from our free-to-download report, 50 Ways To Make Media Pay

1. Partnerships with platforms

Given the power of platforms as go-to content sources for many audiences, it’s no surprise that many publishers have sought to harness the reach (and pockets) of these tech titans as part of the solution to their revenue challenges. 

This has taken a number of forms, from ad revenue splits – depending on who has sold the adverting (e.g. Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News), through to examples of publishers being paid to pilot new services (such as Facebook Live) or producing premium content (or cuts of existing material) which is exclusive to specific platforms like Snapchat Discover, Facebook Watch, Apple News Plus.

The French daily newspaper Le Parisien harnessed Facebook Watch, and a new strategy for video on the platform, to grow from 5 million video views per month in 2019 to 50 million in 2021. Revenues also grew by more than 100%, Facebook reports (presumably just on their platform, but this is unclear). 

Image: Le Parisien on Facebook Watch, via Facebook

Alongside these efforts, publishers have also participated in initiatives designed to harness various products owned by specific platforms, as well as innovation challenges (Facebook Journalism Project, Google News Initiative) and emergency relief funding during the coronavirus crisis. 

Analysis by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism in late-2020 identified that $816 million had been committed to support publishers and journalism by the Facebook-Google duopoly.

Publisher-Platform relationships are not without their tensions, but they’re an established revenue source for many publishers and a mutually beneficial relationship that both sides will continue to need to navigate. 

2. Newsletters

The latest Digital News Report (2021) highlights how multiple subscriptions – including to paid newsletters – are becoming more common in mature markets. Their previous report showed that, on average, digital news consumers in the U.S. and Germany receive the news via email newsletters – or alerts – from four different organisations each week.

Email newsletters can be a key tool in reducing churn among subscribers, by promoting engagement with other content, as well as being editorially valuable in their own right. 

One role they can play is to remind users of how valuable their wider subscription is. In Japan, the daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun has featured articles in newsletters ahead of publication elsewhere. 

Image: Proportion of paid subscribers and non-payers that accessed news via email in the last week, via Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Newsletters also offer other monetisation opportunities for publishers. This includes sponsorship, selling ads and making newsletters subscriber-only (e.g. New York Times, Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce Membership Program).

Individual journalists and analysts are also monetising newsletters on Substack and other platforms, while successful standalone newsletter brands like Morning Brew and The Skimm are valued as multi-million dollar businesses. Insider acquired a majority stake in Morning Brew last year in a deal that valued the company at $75 million.

The analyst Benedict Evans sends a weekly newsletter covering mobile, media and tech issues to 160,000 subscribers. To encourage subscriptions, premium subscribers receive the newsletter two days before subscribers to the free edition. Paying consumers also get access to an exclusive weekly column. 

Image: Extract from the free edition of Benedict Evans’ newsletter, showing a preview from the premium edition and a call to subscribe.

Ben Thompson, the author of Stratechery, offers something similar. Thompson’s expert take on the strategy and business side of technology and media, and the impact of technology on society, is available via a free Weekly Article, while subscribers get three Daily Updates a week.

3. Podcasts 

Like newsletters, podcasts are another old format enjoying a creative and financial renaissance. WARC reports that 37% of Americans listen to podcasts each month and daily average consumption is at almost an hour. Data in the 2020 Digital News Report, covering media habits across 20 countries, showed that a third of internet users (31%) listen to podcasts each month.

According to IAB’s 2021 U.S. Podcast Advertising Revenue Study, ad revenues in the States grew by 19% last year, with the market expected to top $1 billion for the first time in 2021. Its value is anticipated to grow to $2 billion by 2023. Pre-pandemic predictions from WARC suggested that global audio advertising spend on podcasts will reach $1.6 billion by 2022, as revenues for the medium grew rapidly. 

Image: Podcast ad spend, globally 2013-2022, via WARC and What’s New In Publishing

Podcasts are an attractive format that offers a range of advertising opportunities, as well as limited spots, making for a relatively exclusive medium. Perhaps surprisingly, in the U.S. mid-roll spot placements account for three-quarters (76%) of revenues.

Alongside harnessing advertising networks and platforms like Acast and Libysn – which can sell and insert ads on behalf of content creators – marketers and advertisers can also tap into opportunities for sponsorship and dynamically inserted ads, a practice which places ads at the point of listener download. 

Recorded ads (Mailchimp, Squarespace et al) and presenter reads – a method which shows like Pod Save America often use to feature trackable podcast promo codes – offer further flexibility for publishers and advertisers alike. 

Publishers can further use podcasts as a gateway to wider subscriptions, or as a way to reward subscribers. Slate Plus, Slate’s membership programme, for example, offers both bonus podcasts and an ad-free listening experience for its members.

Meanwhile, the launch of paid-for podcasts on the medium’s two biggest platforms, Apple and Spotify, enables users to subscribe to individual shows, the latest in a series of innovations for this time-honoured medium. 

Image: How podcast subscriptions on Spotify work, via Spotify

4. Obituaries

The move to digital has created new revenue opportunities around obituaries, a former content staple at both local and national newspapers. Although some digital providers offer obituaries for free as a service to their community, others find it a valuable income source. 

Image: Rate Card for Obituaries across the Bay Area News Group, via their website (September 2021)

Over 1,200 newspapers in the U.S. partner with Legacy.com as the vendor for the obituaries that they publish. They also partner with newspapers in Australia, Bermuda, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

The company offers other paid services too, such as Sympathy Flowers, Memorial Trees, Sympathy Cards and Printed Guest Books. By 2015, Legacy’s e-commerce revenue had been growing at more than 40% a year for the past five years. 

Its Funeral Home Local Spotlight programme, launched in July 2013. One early adopter of this service, the Chicago Tribune generated $49,000 of revenue from 1,983 Funeral Home Local Spotlight notices on the paper’s obituary pages in 2016. 

Image: Mock-up of the Funeral Home Local Spotlight service, via Legacy 

5. eBooks

eBooks can serve multiple functions for publishers. 

They can be sold as standalone products, like the Londonist’s book of London Pub Crawls Volume 1 and the history of the three occasions London has hosted the Olympics, which are available to purchase – and view – on Kindle and other platforms. 

Image via Londonist

TechRepublic uses eBooks in the form of free PDFs – such as How to Guides, hiring guides and white papers exploring industry hot topics – for premium subscribers ($299 p.a.). 

eBooks can also be a means to showcase some of your best work. 

Like a number of sites, Prospect requires readers to register on the site to unlock the content. However, this registration does more than open the paywall, it is also used to automatically introduce prospective subscribers to other content, via an eBook and newsletter. 

Image: Pop-up encouraging registration, via Prospect (August 2021)

6. Events

Events are another format that continues to offer a plethora of revenue opportunities for publishers. COVID has taken some of the shine off this, but the pandemic has also encouraged publishers to pivot to digital events, a model that is likely to continue, even when large-scale in-person events return. 

One benefit of online-only, and hybrid events, are the larger audiences they can potentially unlock. That won’t work for everyone, but it’s a good strategy for larger marquee brands, like The Atlantic. More country-focussed brands can also successfully deploy this approach: Polish-based Outriders hosted a two-night festival in April 2020 which featured 15 speakers and attracted 40,000 viewers across their different live streams. 

Image: Promotional image for the 2020 Outriders Festiwal, via ​​Outriders Mixer.

More generally, events offer publishers revenue opportunities through ticket and sponsorship sales. There’s a vast array of potential types of events that can be organised. Last year, I identified – and linked to – 29 of them. 

Some of the most popular examples include: industry-focused conferences  (Recode), “Idea” festivals (Texas Tribune, Atlantic, New Yorker), local business roundtables (Central Maine Business Breakfast Forum, organised by the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal), as well as local business showcases (such as Like A Boss, 1-1 Q&A with local CEOs produced by the Portland Press Herald) and award shows ( GeekWire, Technical.ly and Billy Penn).

To this, we can also add emerging formats such as audio-only events, like Splice Lo-Fi, “a quick, weekly audio check-in,” hosted by the Singapore-based Splice Media. Sessions take place on the messaging app Telegram and are then converted into a podcast. 

Image: Promo banner for the Portland Press Herald’s “Like A Boss” series, via their website.

Consumer-focused shows can also be aligned with your brand. Examples in this space include ELLE Weekender (fashion, beauty, wellness, talks), professional networking events (Marie Claire’s invite-only Power Trip conference) as well as wedding fairs ( Chattanooga Times Free Press, Brooklyn Based) and social events such as happy hours and game nights (City Lab and MinnPost, Geekwire).

Events might also feature subscriber-only sessions, or solely be open to subscribers, offering another plank in publisher’s reader revenue strategies. 

Image: Example of an online event available only to New York Times subscribers, via NYT website, September 2021

7. eCommerce

eCommerce is a growing area of interest for publishers. (And a topic What’s New In Publishing has published two free reports on – The Publisher’s Guide to eCommerce and The Publisher’s Guide to eCommerce: Case Studies – in the past few years.)

COVID’s lockdowns and quarantines have speeded up both the consumer adoption of eCommerce and interest among publishers in its revenue potential. 

By 2024, eCommerce will account for $7 trillion in annual revenue, equaling 25% of the world’s retail sales at that time, WPP’s GroupM predicted last year. As a result, eCommerce is “an increasingly important channel for marketers in almost all parts of the economy.”

A December 2020 survey found that a majority of publishers in the USA (62%) predicted that eCommerce would be in their three biggest revenue sources for Q1 2021—with 36% indicating it would be their leading revenue source. 

Image: Projected growth of eCommerce, via Group M, December 2020

As with events, there are many different ways in which publishers can tap into this consumer and brand spend. This includes efforts such as online courses, shops and subscription boxes as well as affiliate revenue

The latter is an established model of eCommerce for some publishers, and one that is growing in popularity for some outlets, with one obvious channel for this being through the  rise in review sites (e.g. NYT owned Wirecutter, Gannett’s “Reviewed” site and The Independent’s “Indy Best”). 

Perhaps the most obvious exponent of eCommerce’s potential in this space is Future Publishing, which generated nearly $1 billion in eCommerce sales last year. The company drove 13.6 million retail transitions through its portfolio of websites in 2020.

At one of Future’s titles, Marie Claire UK, eCommerce revenues now account for around 40% of its digital revenue.

Image via eMarketer 

8. Archives

Unlocking the power of their archive has long been a monetisation strategy for many publishers. As Digiday noted back in 2014, efforts in this space include resurfacing evergreen content (e.g. recipes), selling back issues, creating anthologies of past material and making parts of the archive available to advertisers. 

Publishers are also keen to emphasise access to their archives as a key benefit that they dangle in front of prospective subscribers. 

One reason for this is that archive content can be really appealing for some readers. 

As Chris Couchman, Head of Content at Readly – an app offering access to 5,000 magazines from a number of content houses – told What’s New In Publishing, 20% of their users consume back issues and “there is an increasing demand to go back in time and read historical content.”

Content creators are also able to monetise older non-print content too, including podcasts (such as Ricky Gervais’ XFM shows) and photographs. Again, these can be made available to both consumers, as well as licensed to advertisers and agencies. 

Condé Nast, whose stable includes Vogue, The New Yorker, GQ, Glamour, and Wired, inked a three-year partnership with Shutterstock in 2021, offering an image-rich archive that can be accessed by key verticals like Fashion, Design and Culture, as well as by magazine title. 

Image: Screenshot highlighting photo reprints, via The Denver Post, October 2021

9. Paid Research

A number of publishers, such as Skift, Economist Intelligence Unit and Business Insider Intelligence, offer paid research as one of their income streams. 

This research may be offered on a report-by-report basis, as well as wider packages. For example, in addition to their written reports, subscribers to Skift’s research also receive discounts to Skift events, as well as a chance to chat with Skift’s research analysts. 

Image: Screenshot of the Skift Research website, September 2021

Axel Springer bought Business Insider for $450 million in 2015 and eMarketer for $250 million in 2016. Their intelligence units were merged in 2019, before rebranding as a standalone subsidiary under the name “Insider Intelligence” in 2020. 

The company also acquired Politico this summer, in a deal, worth more than $1 billion. POLITICO Pro, a platform focused on policy news and analysis, offers deep-dives into 22 different verticals (ranging from agriculture to defence, energy and tax, as well as major states such as California, Florida and New York. Pricing for POLITICO Pro “typically begins in the high-four-figure range,” their website states

Image from the homepage for POLITICO Pro, September 2021

Other examples of research offered by publishers include org charts of tech companies by The Information (free to subscribers), subscriber-only newsletters focussed on research and analysis (Stratechery and many others), and the ability to conduct research and analysis on behalf of clients (HBR Analytic Services an independent commercial research unit within Harvard Business Review).

10. Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding can be used for a variety of different purposes, from attracting support for specific stories and series, dedicated roles and staff expansion as well as the launch of entire sites. 

This Land is Your Land, is a section on The Guardian’s website focusing on “the threats facing public lands in the US and Canada.” After some initial stories, a crowdfunding appeal in mid-2017 designed to expand their coverage of this issue raised $114,302. It has subsequently been supported via a grant to theguardian.org from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), through their Fund for Environmental Journalism.

Plant Based News, which describes itself as “the world’s leading award-winning vegan news media & plant-based health education platform,” is crowdfunding to expand its offering, which currently delivers 70M impressions per month with over 2.4M social media followers. Revenue increased 85% year-on-year (February 2020-2021), underpinned by its internal creative and design agency. With 24 days left on its campaign at the time of writing, the team had already smashed their £500,000 target, having attracted £891,825 from 211 investors.

Image: Screengrab of the Plant-based News website, 11 September 2021

Other sites have relied on crowdfunding to get off the ground, including Telex – a Hungarian website, which The Fix comments “was started by former employees of Index.hu, formerly Hungary’s largest independent online newspaper.” Index collapsed in summer 2020. 

Prior to launch, more than 32,000 people had already donated, including Economia – one of the biggest Czech media groups – which pledged €200,000. Support also came in the form of more informal help from other outlets too, including Helsingin Sanomatm, Finland’s biggest newspaper. Their leadership advised the Telex team on how to attract new subscribers and harness different digital technology. 

This is “information it wouldn’t normally share with other media outlets,” the International Press Institute (IPI) notes, also sharing how “after they set up a crowdfunding page, Telex gathered €1 million in just one month, under the hashtag #nehallgassunk – “do not stay silent”.

Recent analysis by the Press Gazette has uncovered that “the 30 single-biggest crowdfunded projects in journalism have raised $21 million since 2012.” These efforts can be seen across the globe, and include now established media brands like El Español (Spain), De Correspondent (Netherlands) and Tortoise (UK).  

“But pulling off a successful crowdfunding campaign involves much more than simply putting your project on a platform like Kickstarter and waiting for the money to roll in,” Press Gazette cautions. Their analysis suggests that “less than 25% of the journalism crowdfunding campaigns proposed on Kickstarter since 2009 have succeeded.” 

Image: Top 10 highest funded journalism crowdfunding projects, via Press Gazette

Excerpted from our free-to-download report, 50 Ways To Make Media Pay