How the bloodbank-inspired, anti-paywall nonprofit News Revenue Hub helped publishers raise $61m

How the News Revenue Hub used blood bank donor expertise to help local US publishers raise $61m

News Revenue Hub founder Mary Walter Brown

When Mary Walter-Brown founded the News Revenue Hub in November 2016, few people in the media industry would have bet on a financially sustainable future for non-profit local publishers.

Nearly six years on, the News Revenue Hub – born out of the Voice of San Diego, an early pioneer of non-profit local publishing – has helped 69 clients raise approximately $61m.

Walter-Brown (pictured) told Press Gazette: “It’s evolved into this real-time learning laboratory where we not only help them build membership programmes… we help them optimise their site so that it’s a lead generation engine. And they’re getting more and more people into their email list because that’s the engine through which they convert to membership.”

Press Gazette spoke with Walter-Brown about how the News Revenue Hub, her consultancy non-profit, coached newsrooms on how to build trust and revenue at the same time.

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California scheming: Bringing blood bank donor expertise to journalism

Walter-Brown is a former reporter and NBC producer. She quit journalism in 2002 to work as marketing manager for the San Diego Blood Bank.

In 2011, she returned to journalism as publisher and chief operating officer of the Voice of San Diego, a non-profit news organisation that first launched back in 2005. It relied on reader donations for funding.

“They sort of accidentally became this new business model for journalism,” says Walter-Brown. “By 2007, when this implosion began of the news model of newspapers, they were already well positioned to have created this alternative – which was strictly digital, non-profit, and they were fundraising, really from the outset, from the community.”

At the San Diego Blood Bank, a key part of Walter-Brown’s role was to build a “loyalty programme”, enhancing relationships between the organisation and donors – and “helping people understand the need to donate on a regular basis”.

She found that this work had set her up perfectly to help the Voice of San Diego build a more loyal, paying readership.

“At that point, anybody who had ever given them $10 was considered a member. But there was no ongoing expectation to give every year or even every month.

“So I really took the framework and the loyalty programme that I built at the blood bank to Voice of San Diego, and recreated both the technology infrastructure needed to do targeted, automated conversations with their subscribers, along with a donation platform that made it really easy and frictionless to donate.”

The News Revenue Hub launch

As the Voice of San Diego grew, Walter-Brown found its success was attracting interest from other non-profit local news publishers across the US.

“So we ultimately decided that the industry could really benefit from having a centralised hub that provided this service, and hands-on support, and this tech… And so we created the News Revenue Hub as a project under the Voice of San Diego umbrella in 2016.”

The first campaign – encompassing the Honolulu Civil Beat, New Jersey Spotlight, The Lens in New Orleans and fact-checker Politifact – launched around the 2016 US presidential election.

Walter-Brown says the pilot program “erupted”. “Within six months those newsrooms had brought in a million dollars in brand-new revenue from people just voluntarily giving them $10 a month.”

The success led to a waiting list of other newsrooms wanting to join, prompting the News Revenue Hub to spin off from VOSD as a dedicated non-profit consultancy in June 2017. “We went from five to 10 to 30, to now 70 newsrooms that have worked with us since we launched.”

The Hub started with three staff and now employs 20 people, split into dedicated teams working with publishers on different aspects of growing revenue.

How it works

Member newsrooms pay $500 a month for access to the Hub’s technology stack, and they can pay more – up to $100,000 – for extra consultancy work. Some 91% of members are non-profit organisations.

Walter-Brown says the Hub runs a “pretty lengthy discovery process and vetting process” before working with a news organisation. “We want to make sure that they understand what it entails and are really ready for it.”

“For many newsrooms, we’re sort of their marketing and fundraising team,” she adds. “So from an economy of scale [perspective], it makes a lot of sense.”

She adds: “It’s evolved into this real-time learning laboratory where we not only help them build membership programmes, but we help them write their copy, we help them do top of the funnel audience development, we help them optimise their site so that it’s a lead generation engine, and that they’re getting more and more people into their email list because that’s the engine through which they convert to membership.”

Last year, the Hub says its average member generated revenues of $334,000. The Voice of San Diego, which has been operating under the scheme the longest, had revenue of approximately $500,000.

“So it can be a very significant leg of the stool for many of our newsrooms. And what I love about it is there’s no ceiling to it – with a paid subscription, it’s a transaction, it’s $7.99 a month or whatever. With a donation, it’s as much as that person wants to invest…

“And they do. Once they’re bought in and once they’re stewarded and thanked and they really understand the true impact of supporting journalism, there is no ceiling to what people are going to be willing to give.”

The Hub says it plans to roll out a streamlined version of its donation management system in the summer, and to make it available to newsrooms in Europe and the UK this year.

‘The alternative to a paywall’

None of the News Revenue Hub members have a paywall.

“And in fact,” Walter-Brown says, “I think we’re really, at this point in our evolution, and in this point in time in our world, we really are seeing ourselves as the alternative to a paywall…

“Any news organisation that wants to take down a paywall, or just forego a paywall, and make their information free and accessible, can work with us to build an equally robust, if not more robust, reader revenue programme for people who just value and support your work.”

And according to Walter-Brown, finding those people has gotten easier.

“It’s much easier now. I mean, it took a lot longer in the early days to help people see journalism as a cause because it was just something that was provided and you pay for it.”

She adds: “Journalists are great at telling other people’s stories, but we're not really very good at telling our own story because we were taught to remove ourselves from that story.

“We have large, national, single-subject clients like PolitiFact and the Marshall Project and the Centre for Public Integrity, who have amazing stories to tell. They just never, you know, actually told anyone. So it’s been a wild ride. But it’s been a lot of fun.”

Walter-Brown’s top-level tip for publishers seeking to raise money is to be transparent with their readers.

“I would encourage them to start sharing their story more openly with their audiences – how are they funded, what more do they need, and what is the reader’s role in supporting their reporting?

“And, most importantly, make it easy for readers to make a donation. Adding a simple ‘Donate’ to ‘Support Our Reporting’ button can go a long way.”

[Read more: Paywalls, micropayments and donations - How regional press giants are trying to make news pay]

This article was updated shortly after publication to provide a more recent figure for the amount the News Revenue Hub has raised - $61m, up from $54m. It was also updated to make clear that while Mary Walter-Brown was a reporter, she was not one at NBC; that the Hub's employee number had grown from 18 to 20 in the time since Press Gazette interviewed her; and that she said "it took a lot longer in the early days to help people see journalism as a cause", not a "cost". 

Picture: News Revenue Hub screenshot

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