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3 Success Stories in Revenue Model Strategies 

25 June 2024
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There’s good and bad news (according to the 2024 Digital News Report).  

The good news: “A sizeable minority has been convinced to pay significant sums for current online news offers”.  

The bad: “Most people are not willing to pay for what is currently on offer.”   

So how are publishers creating offers that continuously attract paying readers? The Daily Maverick, Denník N, and Zetland shared how they’re building their membership at the WAN-IFRA 2024 Congress on News Media. This article shares their insights from the panel discussion and explores how they are growing their operations in the face of industry upheavals. 

The Daily Maverick’s focus on community 

Founded in 2009, The Daily Maverick is a South African newspaper with online distribution and a weekly printed paper. It offers free articles and a paid membership called Maverick Insider, launched in 2019. This membership currently has 30,000 active members, generating 40% of their revenue. Their membership churn rate stands impressively at 4.5% after five years. Over the past two years, they’ve seen a 75% growth in membership which has allowed for a newsroom expansion of 200%.  

Key stat: 30,000 active members with a 4.5% churn rate after five years.

The key to their membership success lies in fostering a sense of community among their readers. Rather than building a traditional paywall, they focus on creating an inclusive environment where readers feel they belong. 

Fran Beighton, General Manager of Reader Revenue & Grant Funding at The Daily Maverick (center)

Fran Beighton, General Manager of Reader Revenue & Grant Funding, explains, “If we look historically how paywalls have treated their readers, they’ve treated them as consumers, and not very valued consumers at that.” Instead, The Daily Maverick builds on emotional connection, similar to brands like Patagonia or Apple, which fosters a deep sense of belonging. 

This approach translates into a stronger, longer-lasting relationship with readers. Beighton elaborates, 

“Members are paying for a free service [since all articles are offered freely]. And so, the emotional connection is very, very hard to break. Before they put in their credit card details, they already decided in their hearts and their minds that they’re going to support your journalism. And what that does for us is it allows us to retain them for so much longer. So, when external factors come into play, we have a very solid foundation of members who are going to stick with us.” 

Ultimately, it’s engagement and community that set The Daily Maverick apart. They offer an experience worth paying for, beyond the mere consumption of information. 

Denník N’s data-driven subscription model 

Founded in 2014, Denník N is a daily newspaper in Slovakia funded and owned by its journalists. Subscriptions account for 80% of their revenue, with over 70,000 subscribers. They operate a freemium model, where shorter articles are free and longer ones are paid for.  

Key stat: 70,000 subscribers representing 80% of Denník N’s revenue.

Denník N’s focus on subscriptions is what makes them particularly interesting. Indeed, their newsroom focuses intensely on the net number of subscribers, driven by the principle that the content must be compelling enough for readers to subscribe. Tomas Bella, Chief Digital Officer, states, “Either we write something that people want to buy or we will not exist in three months.” 

They employ a data-driven approach. Journalists receive a daily email with information on subscriptions sold the previous day and a weekly email detailing the performance of their articles, including the number of new subscriptions generated. The concept of showcasing data on article performance is similar to what Twipe does with the EngageReaders product. This data is mandatory for journalists to review, although how they use it is up to them. 

The impact of this data-centric approach has been significant. The average length of articles doubled, and the total number of articles published decreased, reflecting a reader preference for in-depth content. Bella notes, “Incentives align very well with what journalists want to do. What people want to buy, what people are telling us with their data, is so close to what we think is good journalism.” 

Zetland’s road to membership 

Zetland is a Danish news media company, founded in 2012, with a significant relaunch in 2016. With 16 employees, they rely on membership for 85% of their revenue, boasting 40,000 members. Currently, their website is free, and their app is exclusive to members, but this will soon change to a freemium model in their app.  

Key stat: Zetland’s annual ambassador revenue campaign now brings in 25% of its yearly revenue.

Zetland initially struggled to grow its membership through traditional advertising. They found it difficult to explain their value proposition in a 30-second TV advertisement and it was a costly marketing channel. They then moved on and tried to offer all their content for free. However, when it came time to put some of their content behind a paywall and ask for a subscription to access it, they saw a high churn rate.  

Lea Korsgaard, Editor-in-Chief, Zetland

That’s when they turned to a membership-based model. In 2019, they launched a successful ambassador campaign, appealing directly to readers for their support to enable Zetland to grow faster. This transparency resonated with their audience, making the campaign a massive success. They now repeat this campaign annually, contributing 25% of their yearly revenue. 

Their focus on community aligns with The Daily Maverick’s philosophy to build on the relationship with your members. Lea Korsgaard, Editor-in-Chief, says, “We are here to serve our members. Always start with their needs, their reason to be with us.” This approach emphasizes that members are not just paying for news but for a sense of community and belonging. 

On donations 

When it comes to different revenue models, there was consensus around Korsgaard’s statement to “try everything”. Indeed, donations and crowdfunding are two important and successful sources of revenue for The Daily Maverick and Denník N.  

For instance, The Daily Maverick wanted to get their sports editor to the Rugby World Cup in France. So, they turned to their members who were already paying to ask for more, as it wouldn’t be fair to ask for more from their readers who are already struggling financially. They added in a few more benefits (Slack channel, live webinars), and “within 10 days, 720 members contributed to the fund, and we reached 250 000 Rand [approx. 12 800 Euro]. And what was incredible about it is that our sports editor brought these readers on the journey with him. They felt connected to a part of it.” 

While Bella from Denník N finds that donations are unsustainable because they’re linked to emotions that are themselves unstable, he also encourages publishers to go after extra funding from their members: “Most publishers are afraid to ask more money from people who already give money, but those are your best customers. It’s much easier to ask them for more money than get new subscribers”. Denník N, for example, runs a donation campaign and asks members whether they would be willing to donate to a fund that offers subscriptions to students, who typically don’t have the means to pay. 

Takeaways for publishers:  

  1. Prioritize Community Engagement Over Paywalls: The Daily Maverick’s success highlights the importance of fostering a sense of community among readers rather than simply gating content with paywalls. Publishers should consider building relationships through member-only events, engaging discussions, and exclusive content that adds value, enhancing the emotional connection that makes memberships more appealing and less likely to be canceled. 
  1. Leverage Data to Enhance Content Strategy: Denník N demonstrates the power of a data-driven approach where content strategy is directly informed by subscriber feedback and behavior. Publishers should implement systems to regularly analyze which articles drive subscriptions and adjust their content accordingly. This ensures that the output not only aligns with journalistic integrity but also resonates with what readers are willing to pay for, thus sustaining the publication financially. 
  1. Innovate with Transparent Funding Campaigns: Zetland’s approach to running transparent funding campaigns such as asking for donations for specific projects or additional content offerings shows how direct engagement and clear communication with readers can lead to financial support. Publishers should not shy away from asking loyal readers for support beyond the subscription, especially when they can clearly see where their money is going and how it contributes to the value they receive. 

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