Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
8 mins read

Reasons for optimism: Journalists discover marketing (finally)

If you build it, they won’t come; you have to persuade them why your work has value

When I started working at a newspaper, we journalists considered marketing to be tainted with the whiff of filthy lucre. We would proudly proclaim our ethical purity by noting that there was an impenetrable wall between the editorial department and the marketing/sales operations. It was a way of saying that we would never stoop to writing something to please advertisers. We saw ourselves as pure, impartial, objective, dedicated to seeking the truth, whatever that was.

How arrogant.

But the collapse of the old business model has made journalists recognize that marketing is really about serving the most important audience — the readers, viewers, and listeners. Now that advertisers have fled print and broadcast for digital, publications need to seek financial support from users.

We have to understand and satisfy users’ needs and help them solve their everyday problems. We have to show the value of journalism to society as a whole. Marketers can help us do that. The new slogans and promotional campaigns for newspapers reflect this new mentality.

Selling ‘quality’ and ‘independence’ in the UK

Journalists and publishers are discovering that their product won’t sell itself. They have to remind people of its value. And its value is not just to a user personally, but to society as a whole. Given all the propaganda, misinformation, and outright lies that we are flooded with, pitching social value looks like a good marketing strategy.

The Guardian newspaper in the UK has taken to promoting itself as a public service that provides trustworthy news. It is a hybrid — both a commercial enterprise and a charity. The Guardian asks people to donate to the cause of providing quality journalism — or, by the way, to buy a digital subscription (images below).

Ad for The Guardian newspaper in the UK
This message appears at the end of every article in The Guardian.

Here is part of their message: “We’d like to invite you to join more than 1.5 million people in 180 countries who have taken the step to support us financially – keeping us open to all, and fiercely independent . . . Every contribution, however big or small, powers our journalism and sustains our future. Support the Guardian from as little as €1 – it only takes a minute. Thank you.

The message is working. The publication is still free online and has acquired 1 million paying readers, including 580,000 who are simply donating to the cause. A version of this marketing message is attached to the end of every article. They also offer several easy online payment options.

In France, selling independence

I also like the slogan of Mediapart, the investigative news site in France, which doesn’t accept any advertising in order to preserve its independence. “Subscribe to Mediapart,” it says. “The courage to investigate, the duty to expose.”

“Subscribe to Mediapart: The courage to investigate, the duty to expose”

For Mediapart, this marketing campaign is not just a sales pitch; it delivers on the promise of quality. And the public has responded. Mediapart finished 2020 with 218,000 digital members, revenues of 20 million euros, and earnings before tax of 6 million euros. Members can share some articles with non-members and some content is outside of its paywall.

In Poland, investigating the president

Independent media have been under attack in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe. Right-wing political movements have been capitalizing on anti-immigration sentiment to promote nationalist agendas and vilify critical media voices.

To counter that trend in Poland, the country’s largest newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, has combined aggressive marketing with a focus on the value of its editorial quality.

The publication’s year-end message (in English) celebrated its “many journalistic successes . . . including the Journalist of the Year title for Andrzej Poczobut, imprisoned in Belarus.” Wyborcza‘s journalists, it said, “tracked the abuses of Wroclaw policemen who tortured the young Ukrainian, and the heartlessness of the border services that threw refugees into the forest. They unmasked the career of the President of the Management Board of PKN Orlen S.A. Daniel Obajtek and revealed the fraud of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who made a fortune in the sale of church real estate.”

A notable trend in successful independent media is their focus on local journalism, which covers issues relevant to people in those communities. Wyborcza noted that it has 33 local websites around the country. Everywhere in its message, the publication emphasized its focus on making news and information accessible, usable, and relevant through new technology and formats.

In Spain, quality digital startups

In Spain, where I worked for the past seven years, two digital news startups — El Confidencial and elDiario.es — have taken their place among the most popular and trustworthy websites, according to the Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Report.

El Confidencial’s marketing message: we defend the right of citizens to know the truth.

If you go to El Confidencial’s “who we are” section (in Spanish), it describes its founding principle 20 years ago as “to defend the right of citizens to know the truth, which is more necessary today than ever.” It then declares its mission: “To contribute to building a freer and better informed society“. The page details El Confidencial’s values, the impact of its major stories, and the names of its editorial and business leadership teams.

Make no mistake. El Confidencial is a commercial enterprise. It has always focused mainly on financial and economic news, with its other coverage helping boost its reach. It boasts of 21 million monthly unique visitors. While its main revenue source has been advertising, two years ago it added a premium service that now has 20,000 subscribers at 59 euros ($67) annually.

Partners, not subscribers. elDiario.es, founded in 2012, is totally owned by its journalists. It accepts advertising, but it supplements that with voluntary contributions from “partners” (socios) who, like The Guardian‘s donors, can pay any amount.

elDiario.es asks partners to pay 80 euros ($90) a year. During the covid pandemic it launched a marketing campaign that increased the number of paying partners by more than 40% to 61,000 (in Spanish). Its slogan, in the graphic below, reads, “We need your financial support in order to do rigorous journalism with social values.”

elDiario.es asks support for “vigorous journalism with social values”

Revenue from partners now exceeds that from advertising. I have been a paying partner for three years.

Not news, but understanding the news

All of the examples so far remind readers of the importance of a free and independent press in democracies. A successful digital startup in the Netherlands, De Correspondent, puts a different twist on that. De Correspondent has thrived on its deep exploration of issues that come up in the news. There are only 23 million Dutch speakers in the world, but De Correspondent has managed to persuade 70,000 people to pay 70 euros ($80) a year for a “membership”.

De Correspondent’s main page describes itself as “a daily medicine against the delusions of the day” and “ad-free journalism that helps you better understand the world . . . [W]e stand for a new kind of journalism. We create engaging, in-depth stories that help you better understand the news.”

Although content is behind a paywall, members can share a limited number of articles free with friends and followers.

The organization damaged its reputation with its bungled launch of an English language edition aimed at capturing a larger international audience. Two of the leaders of this project, which closed in 2020, described the reasons for its failure in Nieman Lab. However, the Dutch edition continues to thrive.

In the US, trust and democracy

Much has been written about the ambitious push by the New York Times to reach 10 million digital subscribers and become an international publication. Its subscription marketing campaigns appeal to users worried about finding trustworthy news amid a flood of misinformation. But it also sells separate subscriptions to its famously challenging crosswords and a vast historical archive of recipes.

On their podcast, The Daily, commercial breaks include promotions in which various Times reporters remind listeners that paid subscriptions help finance the costly investigations that the paper is known for.

The Times promotions emphasize the value of trustworthy journalism: “The truth is worth it” and “Your subscription helps our journalists seek the truth.” My digital subscription costs $17 a month, or $204 a year. Is it worth it? I ask myself that question every month. So far, the answer is yes.

Defending democracy

Jeff Bezos, co-founder and former chief executive of Amazon, bought the Washington Post nine years ago and has invested millions in hiring new staff and upgrading its technology. It competes with The Times for that same English-speaking national and international audience.

It was Bezos who recommended that The Post make its subscription price low enough to attract as large an audience as possible. I have been paying $60 a year for several years. At last count, The Post had an estimated 3 million paid subscriptions, but there was no breakdown of how many of them were digital.

The Post’s marketing slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, strikes me as a bit too abstract to be very effective and engaging. It also seems a bit self-important, even if I agree with the premise behind the statement. But the campaign must be effective. The Post had only 1 million paid digital subscriptions in 2017.

Loyal users and revenue

For small independent publishers, the success stories listed above send a clear message: editorial staffs have to work closely with marketing staffs in order to build a loyal audience. Why? Marketers know how to collect and analyze the data about the needs, wants, and problems of users.

Marketers can help editors attract users and increase their the frequency and length of their visits — their engagement. Loyal, engaged users are inclined to paying for the products and services offered by an organization. Today, when digital advertising revenue is being gobbled up by technology platforms, user revenue is the best long-term option for news entrepreneurs.

The for-profit model for quality news is being supplemented and sometimes replaced by the public-service model. At the moment, the revenue generated by the public-service model is small. However, it is growing. Hybrid models involving public-private collaborations are emerging.

And the new marketing messages that resonate with people who care about democracy promote the value of public-service journalism. So, we journalists need to change our attitude about marketers. They could become our best friends.

Subscriptions I won’t pay for

Lots of for-profit publishers have come to the subscription party out of desperation as the trickle of advertising revenue has dried up. They have to generate revenue from users now, but these same publishers had ruthlesslly cut staff and quality to preserve profit margins.

The Columbus Dispatch, where I worked for 11 years, has been laying off veteran journalists for years to reduce costs. The local news coverage has been gutted to a superficial level.

The Dispatch has lately been sending ads that ask me to “support local journalism” with a digital subscription. The for-profit owners who cynically profited from layoffs are now trying to convince me that they are interested in public service. Will I pay to support their inferior news product?

Not a chance. But there is a small silver lining in the decline of metropolitan dailies like The Dispatch. It is creating opportunities for local news entrepreneurs.

James Breiner

This article was originally published on Entrepreneurial Journalism, and is republished with permission.
You can connect with James Breiner on LinkedIn here.