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July 22, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:10am

Novara Media hits 10,000 monthly donors with ‘sky the limit’

By Bron Maher

Un-paywalled Novara Media has hit 10,000 monthly donors following a fundraising drive.

The left-wing, non-profit opinion and news project that came to prominence in the Corbyn era is much larger now than it was during the Labour leader’s tenure.

Its next plans involve taking its flagship Youtube show Tysky Sour daily, investing in social-first content and building more of an industrial reporting beat.

Press Gazette spoke with the organisation’s head of operations, Craig Gent, about how it managed to outlive the Corbyn moment.

What is Novara Media?

In 2017 Novara Media co-founder Aaron Bastani told Press Gazette’s sister title the New Statesman: “In five years we want a space, we want a bar, we want a three- or four-storey building, we want 15 paid employees, we want international bureaus.”

Five years on it has hit, exceeded or is near to achieving all but one of those goals.

“Before we can do the bar we need to perfect the Novara cocktail,” Gent told Press Gazette on Wednesday. 

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Despite being the namesake for its longstanding show, the Novara cocktail is apparently not the Tysky Sour. “If it is an actual thing, it’s not one that I would like to try,” Gent said.

Founded as Novara FM in 2011 in the wake of the student protests, in 2022 Novara Media’s output spans three Youtube shows, three ongoing podcasts and a limited series, and a steady flow of originally-reported articles.

It is a horizontal organisation: all staff are paid the same wage of £18 an hour – just shy of £30,000 a year for its full-time employees, who work four-day weeks.

The growing popularity of Novara Media

The organisation enjoyed a surge in prominence alongside other new left media after Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership in 2015. But Gent said the Novara Media’s good fortunes have continued past the Corbyn era.

“A really big year for us was 2020. Our supporter base and our income more than doubled. It’s kind of interesting, because since the pandemic and our turn towards coverage of the pandemic, health issues, et cetera, our readership, viewership, everything has gone way off the chart compared with anything [we were] experiencing through the Labour [and] Corbyn-type years.”

Today Novara Media has 24 paid staff, with two more due to join in August, and offices in London and Leeds.

In the four weeks to 20 July 2022, Gent said, the Novara Media site received 400,000 unique visitors and its Youtube channel received just shy of one million. It added 4,000 of its 10,000 paying supporters in the past two months, after a concerted fundraising effort was launched in May.

And when its Youtube channel was mysteriously deleted for a day last year it prompted outrage from public figures across the political spectrum.

Despite the post-Corbyn success, a brief Twitter search indicates that at least in some eyes, Novara is still associated with the socialist from Islington.

"Through the Corbyn years we got pegged as Corbynistas or whatever, but Novara in some form or another has been around since 2011," said Gent.

"It far preceded the Corbyn moment. We're leftist, but we're pluralist within that. We have a different range of opinions in the organisation, we try to reflect that in our content. And you know, those values have always kind of been the same and will continue to be so."

Getting Novara Media supporters to pay

Novara is one of a growing group of news operations that have boosted donor income while avoiding erecting a paywall.

The most prominent of the group is The Guardian, which began asking readers to volunteer their cash in March 2016. By coincidence, the same day Novara hit 10,000 donors, The Guardian announced its first cash surplus in a generation.

Asked what had made Novara's strategy successful, Gent said: "The one thing that we hear the most from people, who feel compelled when they sign up to support us to send us an email as well, is that they feel dissatisfied with the media at large.

"Which is obviously a bit of a cliche, and it's not something that legacy media journalists like to reel out. But it's definitely something that we hear a lot.

"And also just that there's a big appetite for our work. People often express to us the value that we add to their understanding of the world... that we kind of give them a value that they're not getting elsewhere."

He said the non-profit had benefited from having a lengthy period in which it made a little funding go a long way.

"We always tried to do a lot on quite few resources. And so when our resources have increased, we've been able to be very strategic.

"And I guess... we're just never quite willing to stand still. We're always moving on to the next thing.

"I always think Novara's best when you can see it creaking under the weight of its ambitions."

Asked where Novara picks up its audiences, Gent said: "It's a tricky one to monitor, but Youtube and Instagram were quite big for us over the last couple of years in particular. Twitter, I guess, used to be before that. Facebook, for example, has never been our main driver...

"It's interesting to note that, as well as the Corbynista thing, people often assume that our audience is very young.

"We did a big audience survey last year with about 5,000 respondents. And we were as surprised as anyone, but about a third of our audience was over 50. And so it's not solely a millennial or Gen Z demographic that we're appealing to."

100,000 Novara Media supporters?

Gent was optimistic about Novara's prospects for growth.

"One thing we've learned is that it is definitely, within a few years, within our grasp to more than double year-on-year. Not every year, but some years, you know, you can pick up a bit of momentum.

"I mean, personally, I don't see why we shouldn't have 100,000 people supporting us. You know, millions of people are coming to us saying that we're giving them sort of different value... the sky's the limit really."

Asked what this growth could entail, Gent added: "Taking the live show [Tysky Sour] to five nights a week is going to be a big operation. It's going from three nights a week, expanding what we're doing by 60-odd-percent.

"Making [interview show] Downstream weekly. Expanding our capacity for original reporting. Doing a lot more digital-first content, gonna be relaunching Novara FM, hopefully in September. More newsletters.

"Once we've got the new space sorted out, we should have some new settings for interviews and so on.

"And a massive one this summer, and running to the end of the year I suspect, will be a lot more industrial reporting.

"Between now and autumn I think that's probably enough to be going on with for the moment."

Press Gazette is hosting the Future of Media Technology Conference. For more information, visit NSMG.live

[Read more: How the News Revenue Hub used blood bank donor expertise to help local US publishers raise $61m]

Picture: Novara Media Youtube screenshot

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