These online publications are not free ... and readers don’t mind

You had to pay to get in.

>> Marc TracyThe New York Times
Published : 5 Oct 2021, 05:03 AM
Updated : 5 Oct 2021, 05:03 AM

Roughly 250 people paid $15 or $20 apiece to attend a party hosted by the staff of Defector, a subscription website started a year ago by journalists who had quit (or were fired from) the sports news site Deadspin after refusing to heed a request from their bosses that they “stick to sports.”

The party guests were accustomed to paying. They were Defector subscribers, for the most part, meaning they had paid $79 for a year’s subscription, allowing them to get past a strict paywall to read articles like “What 1993 Video Game Tony La Russa Taught Me About Baseball” and “Please, I Am Begging You, Stop Putting the Giants in Primetime.” (Subscribers also received the discounted $15 ticket price.)

In charging for access to its website, Defector differs from its predecessor, Deadspin, which belongs to a digital-media generation that gives readers free access and tries to make money by selling ads.

It remains a challenge for online publications to persuade readers to pay, and it’s perhaps more difficult to get them to pay again after the initial subscription. Defector is optimistic that it will hang on to its fan base as it heads into its second year.

In an annual report sent to subscribers Monday, Defector, which is owned by its employees, reported that nearly all of its $3.2 million in revenue had come from its more than 36,000 subscribers. Roughly 85% have renewed for a second year, according to the report, suggesting that the site will pass the do-or-die test.

“This is the math problem now, for the rest of eternity,” Tom Ley, the editor-in-chief, said in an interview last week. “We’ve got to keep this number about where it is, or else we’re in trouble.”

Print newspapers charged readers for a century, and readers never questioned the idea that they would have to pay for journalism. The first generations of online-only news sites, eager to build their audiences by pulling readers away from old habits, offered up their work free of charge.

Defector and digital newsletter platform Substack are part of a wider shift, one made possible by readers who have come to see paying for journalism as the right thing to do, rather than an annoyance.

The Daily Memphian, a nonprofit news site in Memphis, Tennessee, is also part of the wave, with readers contributing the bulk of its revenue. It started in 2018 in response to the shrinking of the local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. Nearly 17,000 subscribers pay $99 per year (or $12.99 per month) for The Memphian, and they have renewed their subscriptions at a rate of 90%, said Eric Barnes, the publication’s CEO. Ad sales, sponsorships and donations cover the rest of a $5 million annual budget that supports a newsroom of 38.

“People paid for news for decades,” Barnes said. “Why can’t they pay for it now?”

The imperative to hold on to subscribers has influenced The Memphian’s journalism, he added, bringing an emphasis on straightforward articles on local issues. The publication connected with readers, for instance, through its coverage of the replacement of East Memphis’ elegant Century Building with a Woodie’s Wash Shack convenience store and car wash.

Barnes added that he was against offering discounts to subscribers, a strategy that is backed by Matt Lindsay, president of subscription consultant Mather Economics, who said the price of a subscription was not the main factor for readers who declined to renew.

“Usually, it’s some other reason,” said Lindsay, whose clients include The New York Times. “They lose the habit of reading every day, there’s other competition for their entertainment, someone else has attracted their attention.”

Business news site Quartz started in the days of giveaway journalism and made the shift to asking readers to pay in 2018. In addition to 1.3 million regular readers of its newsletters, which are still offered free of charge, it has 27,000 subscribers who pay $99.99 a year (or $14.99 a month), a Quartz spokesperson said, and the renewal rate is 97%. “Listening and responding to readers is what’s necessary for retention,” said Katherine Bell, the editor-in-chief.

Writers who have a significant number of loyal readers have had success on Substack. Heather Havrilesky started publishing extra bits of her advice column for New York magazine, “Ask Polly,” on Substack in 2020 before moving the column there full-time. That newsletter — and another, “Ask Molly,” which she described in an email as “written by Polly’s evil twin” — have more than 30,000 subscribers and a paying list above 3,000. The figures have grown every month and especially in recent months, Havrilesky said.

Substack also hosts news outlets run not by solo practitioners like Havrilesky, but by staffs of journalists. The Dispatch, started in 2019 by conservative journalists opposed to Donald Trump, has a newsroom of 17, nine newsletters and four podcasts. With 150,000 readers signed up for free newsletters and nearly 30,000 paying subscribers — at $10 per month, or $100 a year — The Dispatch has reached the conclusion of its “startup phase,” said CEO Stephen F. Hayes.

He added that the publication had a 91% retention rate, and that the reason was simple: “I still think the first and most important aspect of mitigating churn is making sure your stuff is good.”

Still, The Dispatch has recently hired a publishing executive, Justin Fritz, who most recently worked on — what else? — subscriber retention at sports news site The Athletic.

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Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher