On the money: diversifying income for community news

This summer Isabelle Green joined Social Spider CIC to work as a researcher, providing us with incredibly useful insights into potential income streams for our community news operations. Here she gives a summary of her findings so far:

As we prepared for the launch of Enfield Dispatch at the Social Spider office last autumn, we decided it was time to take stock of our model for community news. We are thrilled that the success of our first paper, Waltham Forest Echo, has lead to the launch of Tottenham Community Press and Enfield Dispatch all within four years. Our goal for our newspapers has been to create a social enterprise model for community news that can be sustainable and replicable for ourselves and for other community media ventures. While planning the launch of our third paper, we decided it was time for us to review our progress and research our next moves with regard to this goal.

The realities of financing community news is not the most glamorous side of our operations, but in order to ensure we can keep bringing quality independent journalism to the communities we serve, it is important to think carefully about our revenue streams, and how to build on them.

I carried out research into the current media revenue landscape, and compiled a report from this research to help guide our thinking about our business model, and make some recommendations relating to our revenue streams. As well as surveying recent literature on the topic (a short selection of interesting pieces is included below), I interviewed a range of industry insiders — from ads sales professionals to local blog owners — to gain an overview of how the people involved in the UK local media sector are thinking and feeling about money.

In order to discuss revenue in the news sector today, there are some difficult truths to confront.

According to the 2018 Expenditure Report produced by the Advertising Association/ WARC, the 16% market share that digital advertising accumulated in 2007 has grown to 52% by 2017. Print newspapers’ share has dropped, in parallel, from 24% to 6%. Unfortunately, this is not indicative of a pie that is getting larger: print advertising expenditure has ‘declined across the national and regional/local press by 70% in the last 10 years, from £4.6bn in 2007 to an estimated £1.4bn in 2017’ (Mediatique, 2018).

This presents a clear path for publishers to follow: in order to succeed in this climate they must put more focus into, and pour more resources into, doing digital better.

Analytics-rich digital-first strategies such as interactive or audio-visual content presents a multitude of opportunities to learn about our audiences and engage new ones, and online advertising contains a wide breadth of options from standard display ads to sponsored newsletters — but all of this can present a massive time and resource distraction for small teams like ours, taking valuable attention away from doing what we do best: printing newspapers. We are keen to engage with other community news organisations to discuss how we can work together to create the tools which would streamline a better, and more monetizable, digital presence.

Alternatively, our sector is increasingly tackling the decline of traditional business models by returning to our raison d’etre — our readers. Placing our readers, our communities, at the centre of our publications has always been our driving principle. Through membership programmes, our core value can also become a source of revenue. There is much debate to be had about the ways in which we can and should engage our readers in such schemes: the use of the term ‘subscriber’, which invokes the corporate faces of Netflix or Spotify, versus ‘member’; the employment of paywalls; the general reliance on some exclusivity being offered to those who pay, and how that might impact the ways in which we serve our communities.

At Social Spider, we have launched a new membership scheme following this research. We have focused on the strengthening of the two-way relationship we have with our most engaged readers, who we already relied upon to provide editorial contributions and guidance. We have been so grateful for every reader who has signed-up to support our work, and we believe that recognising the importance of such contributions is key to running a successful membership scheme. We hope that membership can come to represent 10% of our revenue, which will then support us in expanding our digital content and reader engagement further. Ultimately, this will establish a set of diverse but symbiotic revenue streams, coming together into a sustainable and resilient financial model supporting our thriving community news projects.

Some useful pieces on community news revenue:

Doctor, K. (2013) The newsonomics of value exchange and Google Surveys. Nieman Lab.

Goligoski, E. (2018) When membership might not be your publication’s best path forward. The Membership Puzzle Project.

Hu, C. (2018) News organizations are looking to Spotify and Netflix as models. Is that really a good idea? The Membership Puzzle Project.

Jenkins, J. and Kleis Nielsen, R. (2018) The Digital Transition of Local News. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Mediatique Ltd. (2018) Overview of the recent dynamics in the UK Press Market. London: Mediatique Ltd.

Rosen, J. and del Peon, G. (2017) What your site can learn from 100 news organizations with robust membership programs. The Membership Puzzle Project.

Williams, A.T. (2016a) How digital subscriptions work at newspapers today. American Press Institute.

Start Spreading the News is a place to find out about Social Spider CIC’s community newspapers: Waltham Forest Echo; Tottenham Community Press; Enfield Dispatch