Supporter-funded Novara Media is closing in on 15,000 monthly donors, its new North of England editor has said.
Craig Gent told Press Gazette on Monday that despite the cost of living crisis, 2023 was “the strongest year that we’ve had in terms of supporter funding”.
Press Gazette last spoke to Gent when he was head of operations in July 2022, shortly after the left-wing news and opinion non-profit hit 10,000 paying supporters.
Following a fundraising drive at the end of last year, Gent says Impress-regulated Novara is now a few hundred people away from the 15,000 milestone. Readers are invited to make a monthly donation ranging from £3 per month upwards.
And while some paywalled publishers have faced headwinds in the cost of living crisis, Gent said Novara has seen average monthly donation sizes increase.
As a result, Gent said the publication has fulfilled the ambitions he outlined to Press Gazette in 2022: it has hired a dedicated operations manager, a labour movement correspondent and a social media editor and it has brought its live Youtube show up to five days a week and added new email newsletters.
The staff headcount is now 25, one person more than in July 2022. All staff are paid £19 per hour regardless of role (due to increase in spring), and full-time staff work 32 hours per week, which adds up to a pre-tax salary of just over £31,600. This equates to wages costs (including employers’ NI) of around £800,000 per year.
Making a donation model work with a social media ‘ecology’
Thursday 1 February will mark five years since Novara incorporated, having previously been a purely voluntary outfit. Its traffic today sits at approximately 500,000 monthly visits, according to Similarweb, compared with 300,000 for The Canary, another publisher that was previously a staple of left-wing media during Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership.
Social media has been a particular area of growth for Novara Media recently, Gent said, with Youtube watch time doubling in 2023 and its subscriber count up 300% to 666,000. Its Instagram following tripled over the year, he added.
With Facebook referral traffic plunging for publishers and Google potentially poised to remake search with generative AI, many publishers have recently become more cautious with the tech platforms, prioritising direct distribution channels like newsletters and home pages.
But Gent said the creation of a broad Novara Media “ecology” across social media had served it well.
“What we do see when we survey our supporters when they join is that people who are joining do have quite a wide understanding of the Novara offering.
“So they will follow the Youtube, but they’re also engaging with our social-first stuff on Instagram, they’re also engaging with the articles on the website and with the podcasts.”
Youtube was “special” for driving paying supporters, Gent said, “in that you can speak with a voice directly to the audience when we’re doing Novara Live [formerly Tysky Sour] five nights a week. Michael [Walker, the host] can speak to the audience directly and say: ‘Look, this is possible because of your donations.’ And it continues to be small donations that drive us…
“We’re really focused on building a relationship. I think, by the time people become supporters, they really feel not just that we’re a reliable source of news, but they have an affinity for what we’re trying to do overall.”
Gent was raised in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, and is today based in Leeds, where he works alongside Novara’s merchandiser Thomas Clements. In an article announcing his appointment, Gent said his remit would be to “make visible the connections between the organisation of life, work and politics across the north of England, and to find stories and connect them to important questions for the left”.
He told Press Gazette that from outside London, “it was completely obvious to me that Labour were going to crash” in the 2019 election – a defeat often attributed in part to the defection from Labour of Leave-voting, so-called “red wall” constituencies in the North.
“Although obviously London is the biggest city, and it’s incredibly important to study and understand, it’s not necessarily the best lens onto the big picture in British politics,” Gent said.
In part his new job will see him working with Novara Media’s Scottish writers “to ensure that our coverage there is more than commentary on the SNP and Labour”.
Gent said he was interested in stories like the Teesside Freeport, why so many ex-miners who would have previously fought the Thatcher government now support Nigel Farage-backed Reform Party and, closer to home for Gent, “why the water in East Leeds tastes and smells like bleach”.
Novara Media, coming soon to a town near you
Looking ahead, Novara hopes to revive its events operation, which has been largely dormant since the first lockdown.
Gent said the publisher easily sold out a 600-capacity talk with former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis set to take place next month, and saw success with a Christmas party and an end of year discussion late in 2023.
“I think there’s a real appetite, basically, for people to meet up and be in a space. So the Yanis event will be a talk, but it will also have a kind of afterparty as well for people to socialise. And it’s long been our ambition that we can have regular events – and also events around the country.”
They may have a chance to run those events outside London when the next general election, expected this year, is eventually called.
But as far as longer-term goals, Novara Media has still failed to establish the bar that its co-founder Aaron Bastani said he wanted in 2017.
“We still want that bar,” Gent said. “I think I said before that we need to get the right cocktail. I’m working on a twist on the Dark and Stormy – I’m going to call it the Grey and Windy. It’d be the North of England cocktail. I just need to make sure I get the quantity of Henderson’s Relish right.”
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