Daily newspaper drops paywall, moves to reader patronage, generates 37% more revenue

The problems and unfairness of the copyright system are so manifest that many would like to adopt alternative approaches. But that’s a big step, and one that undoubtedly requires a certain courage. Every example that shows how the move worked for others is important, since it not only demonstrates that alternatives exist, but that they work. Here’s another data point, reported by the News Revenue Hub:

The Forward has a storied history. Founded in 1897 as a Yiddish-language daily, it soon became a national publication — and the most widely read Jewish newspaper in the world. In 1990, the English version of the Forward launched as a weekly publication. In 2019, the Forward went fully digital.

And on December 5, 2023, the Forward marked its latest milestone: The publication removed the paywall for all of its coverage.

The results have been amazing:

In the first three months since dropping the paywall, the newsroom welcomed 1,254 new donors who hadn’t previously paid to access their coverage. From December 5, 2023 to March 15, 2024, the Forward received nearly $583,000 in donations under $5,000 — a 37% increase over paid subscription revenue during the same time frame the previous year.

In December, the month the Forward removed the paywall, the nonprofit saw a 103% increase in reader revenue under $5,000, compared to the same time last year. That includes 176 new monthly recurring donors, averaging $16/month. Previously, an annual digital subscription brought in $51.21, just over $4/month.

It’s great to have those figures showing how trusting your readers to support you can work. Too often sceptics claim that people are only too happy to get something for nothing, and to access online material without ever giving back. The experience of The Forward is an excellent counterexample to that. Another crucial point to emerge from the News Revenue Hub post is the importance of preparing thoroughly for the paywall removal, not least by carrying out research among current readers and supporters:

“A lot of important research needs to happen before a news organization can be ready to take down its paywall,” [Mary Walter-Brown, the News Revenue Hub’s founder and chief executive officer] explained. In particular, the Hub helped the Forward with deep audience analysis, surveying each audience and donor segment to gauge their feelings about removing the paywall and moving to a volunteer donor model.

We learned a lot from those surveys,” Walter-Brown said. “For example, we found that the Forward’s older demographic was motivated by making content available for future generations.” Survey results also showed that most Forward readers were willing to convert their paid subscriptions to donations and consider increasing their gift amount to fund more reporting.”

The report about The Forward moving away from paywalls to donations makes clear how important the support of the News Revenue Hub was in this case. The latter describes itself as “a nonprofit B2B that helps news organizations build membership and crowdfunding programs.” The News Revenue Hub is itself funded by “individual donations, member fees, and foundation grants.” The latter include support from Democracy Fund, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, The Granada Fund, Google News Initiative, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and The John and Florence Newman Foundation. In other words, an organisation that helps news publishers move to what is effectively a patronage model, is itself funded in the same way. That’s interesting to see, since Walled Culture the book (free digital versions available) also suggested that a shift back to this tried and tested funding approach could offer a viable alternative to today’s dysfunctional copyright system.

Featured image by Stable Diffusion.

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