Should local news publishers ask for donations or require subscriptions?

A Continuing Conversation with Tyler Channell

Weigh the pros and cons of two different revenue models for local publishers–subscriptions v. donations–in this continuing conversation with Pete and Tyler Channell. Tyler, the founder of Paywall Project and also head of Success here at Leaky Paywall, helps small, local news publishers survive and thrive in the new digital world. With abundant publisher examples and great insight into choosing a model and selling it, Tyler and Pete offer good tips on choosing the model for your publication. Watch the whole video, listen via our Paywall Podcast, or skip down to the highlights below.

The Highlights

  • There are two revenue models a local publisher can follow: asking for donations or selling memberships/subscriptions.
    • Donations: The content is free and the publisher requests voluntary contributions to support the mission.
    • Memberships/Subscriptions: Access to the content requires payment. (“Memberships” is a more community-oriented word for this model, and may include access to community features like a Facebook group or Slack channel.)
  • Both models can be successful. If at all possible, incorporate both donations and memberships into your publication’s revenue. You can switch from one to the other.
  • Four main factors determine what kind of local news publisher you are and which model might work best for you:
    • Are you a startup?
    • Who is your audience? Do you serve a niche within your location?
    • Are you mission-based?
    • What kind of community-building are you interested in doing? Are you transactional or in-depth?
  • Start-ups may want to begin a new digital publication with free registrations and donations until you build up your email list and then switch to a membership model with a few free articles up front.
  • If you favor in-depth reporting and a lot of original content, your overhead may require the more steady source of income that comes with subscriptions over more sporadic donations.
  • A heavily mission-based publication–like an environmental news group–may wish to rely entirely on donations, but offer only monthly donation options. Thus while the content is free, those who do choose to donate are encouraged to do so steadily.
  • On knowing your audience: generally, millennials are more likely to donate/support a mission; boomers are more likely to purchase a subscription as a transaction. Pick your model and draft your messaging accordingly.
  • Messaging is the key to selling either model to either audience. Emphasize community to sell memberships to millennials and the financial reality of publishing if requesting regular donations or switching to memberships.
  • Be transparent. It’s very important to tell people what you need and why you need support. Offer them options. People will pay what they can, if they value your content and/or your mission.
  • We live in an era of subscriptions and there is value for a local news subscription in people’s lives. It’s a market you can corner that the big names can’t.
  • In conclusion: the best possible option is to sell memberships/subscriptions but to take donations as well.
  • Sneak peak: a membership-driven local publication can be highly successful, especially with built-in perks and additional value to encourage people to subscribe. Techniques to come, next time.

More questions to ask or success stories to share? Get in touch.


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