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50 ways to make media pay: Other established and emerging ideas

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

In this final section, we explore examples of well worn wider business practices that can support revenue growth and new income streams, as well as look at areas that are growing in popularity. 

Some of these emerging ideas are newer than others, but as publishers look to reduce advertising dependency, so a number of older ideas are being looked at again, or benefitting from more effort and resources being allocated to them. 

1. Identifying new markets

Moving into new markets requires a lot of work, and can be especially difficult given the challenges of the COVID-era, but it’s an approach some publishers continue to pursue. 

It’s also a content space that platforms are also eyeing up. 

Scroll was founded on the principle of offering subscribers an ad-free experience (and one which also promised publishers that they would make more money than by delivering ads). Acquired by Twitter in May 2021, following in the footsteps of newsletter platform Revue which joined the micro-blogging platform earlier in the year. Twitter plans “to include Scroll as part of an upcoming subscription offering we’re currently exploring.” 

In terms of more traditional types of expansion, Quartz moved into the Indian market in 2014, an early mover into one of the fastest-growing markets in the world. 

Closer to home, Axios is bringing its distinctive style to local news, offering daily newsletters for six cities in the U.S., with another eight already announced. 

Axios, like Vice and Vox, has also looked to TV as a space to grow its brand, with Axios on HBO, “Explained” by Vox for Netflix (mini-documentaries building on Vox’s popular explainer journalism format) and Viceland, all hitting our screens in the past few years. 

2. Expansion through acquisition

Acquisitions, partnerships and mergers can also support strategic goals to grow your business. Or to save it. 

In November 2020, BuzzFeed acquired HuffPost in a deal with Verizon Media, the latest in a series of mergers among digital-born players. Both companies had previously scaled back their international editions and made cuts to their staffing.

Reflecting on this shifting digital landscape, Mark Sweney, the Guardian’s media business correspondent explained: “Vice, which has a more male-focused audience, acquired Refinery29, which targets millennial females, to create a $4bn publishing group. Vox bought New York Media, which owns sites including Vulture and The Cut, to build scale.”

Another company looking to expand is Axios. As part of their efforts to develop Axios Local, the company acquired The Charlotte Agenda in late-2020, a digital site covering North Carolina’s largest city.

Image via Axios

3. Launching new products 

Last year, as COVID kept more than 1 billion children around the world from going to school, TIME broadened its in-school offering, TIME for Kids, making it available outside of the classroom via a digital subscription for the first time (the title launched in 1995). Available in four different editions – based on the ages of its prospective readers – the company also expanded its offering to include Spanish and Chinese language editions too. 

Image: Example cover of an edition for TIME for Kids via Language Magazine

SKIFT also chose the pandemic to launch a new product, Skift Pro, its new membership scheme. Offering quarterly, annual, and two-year memberships, the primary perk is unlimited access to the website (the site publishes around 150 articles a month, and you can only access three every thirty days if you’re not a member). 

Alongside this, you can also access subscriber-only online briefings, as well as discounts and pre-sale tickets for Skift events. Membership confers “guaranteed access” to events, even if they have sold out. 

Image: Tweet from Rafat Ali, CEO and Founder of Skift, via Twitter

4. Leveraging your skills through spin-off businesses

Publishers and media companies have a wide variety of in-house skills which can be leveraged to create new and fresh revenue streams. 

One of the most obvious ways in which this has manifested itself is in the volume of businesses setting up their own content studios. Examples of this include: T-Brand (The New York Times), Reuters Plus, Studio B (Boston Globe), Bonnier News Brand Studio (Sweden) and the recently announced studio from School Road Publishing (New Zealand).

Image: Publisher Content Studio Directory, shared by IAB in 2018, via IAB

Established in 1887, Hearst is among the oldest media companies in the United States. Alongside its magazines and newspaper products, it has diversified across a range of other businesses, including Hearst DMS (digital marketing services). This division of Hearst employs c.700 employees across 37 locations, providing a range of online services ranging from display advertising to email marketing, SEO and Search Engine Marketing, as well as web design and mobile optimisation. They have 17,000 clients across the United States. 

Image: List of potential services offered by the Boston Globe’s Studio B, via their website, August 2021

5. Memberships

A number of different publishers around the world are exploring the potential afforded by different types of membership models

The Membership Puzzle Project (MPP) which was founded in 2017 and closed at the end of August 2021, offers a raft of resources for publishers looking to learn more about this arena. This includes the Membership Guide, a playbook that features “37 case studies and step-by-step processes for the stickiest parts of the membership journey.” The handbook is also available in Spanish, Portuguese, and French.

Image: Screenshot from membershipguide.org, October 2021

As the MPP’s Ariel Zirulnick and Jay Rosen note, unlike subscriptions, “in membership, you join the cause because you believe in the work…”

To help deepen the relationship with their members, publishers have utilised efforts such as access to member-only content, fewer ads – or an ad-free experience, as well as early-bird tickets for public events, partner products and other perks, and members-only events. 

Elements of this can be seen at the slow news website Tortoise, where members get access to their “ThinkIns,” editorial discussions and conferences on given topics, as well as The Slow Newscast, a weekly investigative podcast of “the stories that really matter.” Members get access to the show on Mondays, ahead of wider dissemination (complete with adverts) on other platforms later on Thursday. 

Reflecting on the experience of The Texas Tribune, James Breiner – a bilingual consultant (English-Spanish) on digital journalism and newsroom leadership – has argued that: “By offering not just a product but access, privileges, and opportunities to mix with the community, Texas Tribune is able to charge far more for a membership than it might get from a subscription.” “Think about that,” he adds.

Image: Tortoise Media partnered with the Future Leaders Network for a series of online events, starting with this Digital ThinkIn exploring the lessons that could be learned from the death of George Floyd

6. Donations

Although some membership programmes have specific paid membership tiers, others are more flexible, encouraging members to pay – or donate – as much as they want (or can). 

Image: Landing page for the Daily Maverick in South Africa, where contribution amounts – and their frequency – are determined by each reader

The Resilience Report 2020 from The European Journalism Centre (EJC) identified how at the start of the pandemic, “experiments involving reader revenue models, such as donations and membership schemes (some of which were more subscription orientated), were quickly adopted in response to the collapse of the online advertising business.”

Donations might be in the form of one-offs or regular (e.g. monthly) payments. The rationale for this support can be driven by a myriad of motives, with donors motivated by philanthropic and philosophical goals (supporting freely available content, a free press etc.) as well as a recognition that journalism needs to be funded to survive. 

Image: Banner encouraging donations for Stuff, “New Zealand’s largest and most popular news site.” Screenshot from their website, October 2021

The Ukrainian investigative media outlets, Slidtsvo.info, “boosted donations by two-thirds while facing a campaign of online bullying allegedly orchestrated by a member of parliament,” The Fix reported last year, as the site turned attacks on it to its advantage.

The Guardian, perhaps the most prominent poster-child for this revenue model, aims to have 2 million paying supporters by 2022. Alongside digital subscriptions (401,000) and recurring contributions (560,000), in the summer the company also revealed that it had also received 585,000 single contributions globally in 2021. That particular revenue stream was up 83% year-on-year.

Image: Screenshot from the Guardian US, summer 2021

7. Audience-led lead generation

Acquiring subscribers can be an expensive business. So, what better way to do this than to let your existing audience do some of the heavy lifting for you!

The Telegraph (UK) offers “a bonus Telegraph Digital Subscription to share with anyone you like,” if you sign up for their Digital Plus subscription ($199 for your first year, $249 per year thereafter). 

The hope here, no doubt, is that the recipient will renew their subscription once the one they’ve been gifted comes to an end. (That most subscriptions also automatically auto-renew may also make that outcome more likely).

A shorter iteration of this, a 30-day Guest Pass, is offered by The Athletic. 

Image: Example of a Guest Pass, via The Athletic

Each subscriber gets 5 Guest Passes to share with friends, enabling them to access the site (and app) for free. 

As with most trials, users still need to provide payment information for a full (annual) subscription, but this won’t be billed if you cancel up to 24 hours before the trial ends.

8. Rewarding referrals

At The Dallas Morning News, one approach they’ve recently been testing features reporter-specific promo codes. These can then be passed on, for example via social media, to encourage followers/fans to subscribe. 

Tweet (no longer available) via Mallorie Sullivan, social @jenisicecreams and former Audience Engagement Producer at The Dallas Morning News

Axios has taken a different approach, through a “refer-a-friend” programme, which puts the emphasis on readers encouraging their peers to subscribe. 

Successful referrals (i.e. which generate new subscriptions) result in users earning referral points which can be used to redeem Axios branded swag. In the event of an individual securing 1,000 referrals, they’re promised a visit to Washington D.C. and Axios HQ!

Image: Axios’ refer-a-friend award swag, via Axios

9. Patreon

Tipping culture is slowly starting to grow across a range of online platforms as audiences arguably become more accustomed to the idea of supporting content creators.

A 2019 study of “digital patronage” on the streaming platform Twitch by the New Jersey Institute of Technology concluded that “the desire to provide monetary support to the streamer,” was a key driver for many patrons. 

Podcasts like the Chapo Trap House Podcast and True Crime Obsessed are just some of the outlets leaning into this emerging philosophy. Both shows have an established presence on Patreon, a platform for creatives that allows content creators to design – and implement – their own multi-tiered membership programs.

Each tier has a different cost, and with it, creators can offer different benefits. In 2018, the platform found that “the most impactful benefits offered by creators on Patreon are bonus/exclusive content, early access, and physical goods.” 

Image: Examples of three (out of four) membership levels offered by True Crime Obsessed on Patreon, via Patreon

10. Grant funding

Grants, Investment and Donations from Foundations and NGOs is not new, but it is growing in prominence as we see an increased willingness from publishers to accept this type of funding to support journalistic work. 

Outlets have often used grant funding to cover specific verticals. 

Education Lab is a Seattle Times initiative that launched in October 2013. It “spotlights promising approaches to some of the most persistent challenges in public education.” Funding for this work comes from sources including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. 

The Guardian has also worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support a series focussed “on the surging youth population and what this means for the fight against world poverty,” as well as a website (launched in 2010) tackling Global Development issues. 

More recently, The Atlantic’s “essential” COVID-19 coverage sits outside of their paywall, as a result of grants from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Image: Homepage for The Atlantic’s paywall-friendly COVID content, summer 2021

Concerns around this type of funding in the past have focused on issues related to editorial independence (or perceptions of it) and the need for clear blue water between the business and content side (often referred to as “church and state”) of the operation. 

Of course, these concerns remain, but funding challenges may mean that more outlets are open to this type of support than in the past. Nonetheless, because of these concerns – both within the newsroom and perhaps among audiences – publishers will often publicly address this issue head on. 

Image: Extract from an FAQ provided by The Seattle Times explaining their approach to foundation funding, via their website

11. NFTs 

News publishers and journalists are already turning to NFTs (non-fungible tokens) to build new revenue streams. Whether this will be a short-term fad, or a means to offer long-term (or sporadic bursts) of revenue for publishers remains to be seen. However, the emerging NFT industry generated more than $1.5 billion in Q1 2021 alone.

This summer saw the men’s magazine brand Maxim launch its own NFT marketplace, called MaximNFT. Partnering with the blockchain R&D Lab, xSigma, MaximNFT will sell NFTs from musicians, celebrities and sports stars, as well as its own NFTs related to Maxim.com. NBA star Michael Beasley is one of the first public figures who will be selling a limited collection of NFTs on the platform. 

Image: via Instagram

Fortune took a different approach, selling 256 limited edition NFTs of its latest cover art, this August, raising 429 Ether (the basic unit of the cryptocurrency Ethereum), akin to c.$1.3 million in its first-ever NFT sale. “The lowest price at which anyone is reselling a copy is now seven times the original listing—quite a bump,” Fortune noted.

NV, a top Ukrainian media outlet, has similarly dipped a toe into NFT’s using its own art, auctioning a print cover from the magazine. The image depicts the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, as Joseph Stalin. The Fix observes that “proceeds will be sent to the Belarusian opposition.”

Image: Front cover of NV being offered as an NFT, via The Fix

The journalist Kyle Chayka, who is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, launched a campaign earlier in the year to fund the daily entertainment newsletter Dirt using NFTs. It raised just over $30,000 from 131 NFTs.
Acknowledging that “The problem with NFTs, for now, is that the barrier to entry is high,” Axios’ Sara Fischer nonetheless suggests NFTs can be used to “unlock certain perks, like exclusive articles.” “Think of NFTs as the modern version of selling tote bags or coffee mugs to subscribers,” Fischer says.


Originally published in What’s New in Publishing earlier this year. While some of the data points may have evolved, the analysis and conclusion remain highly relevant.