The Digital Revenue Playbook for Local News Publishers
Welcome! This playbook explores digital revenue opportunities for local publishers, whether you represent a legacy print newspaper looking to generate more digital revenue or startup digital-only news outlet trying to build a sustainable business.
The content is based on my experience as a local publisher, digital transformation coach, lab director of the GNI Transformation Tech program and executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.
I'm publishing in this format to offer a living playbook that features foundational building blocks, strategies to take you closer to sustainability, and tactics to help you build your publication's revenue so you can pay your people and serve your local community with quality news and information. I'm also embedding and linking content from experts, vendors and thought leaders in the local news ecosystem.
Please let me know if you have any questions, find anything missing or out-of-date, or if there's a topic you'd like me to explore in more detail.

by Todd Stauffer

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Print Dollars and Digital Dimes
Not everyone reading this playbook will be from a print media background, but that's my background. In 2002, I co-founded the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss. with Donna Ladd and Stephen Barnette. I served as its publisher and president for nearly 20 years until 2023, when its journalism assets were bought by the non-profit, statewide Mississippi Free Press, co-founded by Donna Ladd and Kimberly Griffin in 2021.
The JFP launched as an alternative newsweekly to serve Jacksonians in a way that the local daily newspaper didn't, with important stories and context about the state of the city, the people who run it, and the powers that be. We also sought to be an organizing and informational source for rallying people to local arts and music, events, locally-owned businesses and important causes. As time passed and the daily shrunk, sometimes JFP reporters were the only reporters in city and county meetings, following important stories for our readers.
(Oh, and we had epic Best of Jackson awards ceremonies and dance parties every year.)
Today, the staff members of local weeklies (or bi-weeklies or monthlies) are doggedly attending city council meetings and providing calendars of upcoming concerts and festivals. At the same time, a whole generation of online-only publications have come along to serve similar roles at the neighborhood, town, city, regional or state level.
For revenue, our newspaper did the same thing that social media companies do today: We curated a loyal audience and then rented access to them to local businesses and organizations. That's essentially what advertising is. And, in print, that could generate a sustaining amount of revenue.
Our publication had to change with the digital times as much as possible. When we launched in 2002, we did have a website, but we generally posted new stories weekly. (We did some blogging more frequently.) Later, we moved to a daily cadence of web-first reporting and listings, a daily email newsletter, digital ad and sponsorship packages for local organizations, and eventually, even the Best of Jackson balloting was all done online. In many ways, publishing digitally was more convenient and affordable.
But compared to print, it was much more difficult to monetize. At that time, a common refrain in the news publishing business was "we're trading print dollars for digital dimes." And "dimes" might have been optimistic.
For publishers today, whether you come from a print background or you launched straight to digital, your strategy will most likely involve cobbling together a few different stacks of "digital dimes" to make your publication sustainable.
My goal is to see if I can help you and your team make a good living while fulfilling the role of local publisher. I believe in the free press—our work is so important to democracy in the United States (and worldwide) that the press' role is codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Now, that's all well and good. (I sound like my grandmother.) But if we're going to keep serving democracy and our readers, we've got to make enough money to pay the bills, our team, and ourselves.
Two Definitions for this Playbook
Before we discuss revenue, I need to define some basic terms.
Even if you're not into math or finance, I promise this won't hurt.
Let's start with two definitions I repeatedly refer to when thinking about revenue from publishing. They are:
  • eCPM - Effective Cost Per Thousand
  • ROI - Return on Investment
Defining eCPM
eCPM is based on the concept of CPM, cost per thousand (the M comes from mille in Latin), which is a common way to price advertising. The idea is that there's a certain dollar amount that you can attach to reaching an audience of 1,000 people.
For example, you might decide to charge a $10 CPM for a banner advertisement on your website. If the buyer agrees to buy 50,000 impressions of that ad, then you'd charge them $10 × 50 = $500.
You'll then manage and track the ad on your website using ad manager tools. You'll report success in displaying the ad at least 50,000 times (I encourage a little over-delivery) and you'll you send the invoice at the end of the month That's how it works when you charge based on CPM.
Effective CPM (eCPM) is the revenue you're generating per thousand readers when you're charging a flat rate for something. It's good for comparison purposes. Say I charge $500 for an ad to run on my website for a month — but instead of 50,000 impressions, I deliver 100,000 impressions of that ad. The eCPM for that sale is $5.
Knowing the eCPM may help me decide if my monthly fixed price is too low or if I might want to figure out how to switch things up and charge based on CPM.
Defining ROI
Return on Investment is easy to figure out: it's net profit divided by what it costs to generate that profit (and then multiplied by 100 to get a percentage).
Say you make $500 by selling five days worth of digital advertising in your daily newsletter, and it costs you $400 to produce that newsletter. In that case, your net profit is $100. Divide that $100 by $400 and you get 0.25. Multiply by 100 and you've got 25% ROI.
A 25% ROI might be a healthy return on investment for a given publication (trust me, I've seen much lower) or for a given revenue project, like a newsletter.
More importantly, it's useful when planning your revenue initiatives because you can compare the projected ROI on your different ideas for generating digital revenue.
These two numbers - eCPM and ROI - can go a long way toward helping you decide how much time and energy to spend on your publication's digital revenue strategy and which "legs of the stool" you'll focus more of your time on as you build out that revenue.
"Legs of the Stool"
I say this a lot when I'm coaching publishers. What I mean by "legs of the stool" is that any revenue strategy—if it's meant to lead to sustainability for your organization— will require more than one tactic.
For instance, legacy for-profit media might have these six tactics as part of their overall revenue strategy:
  • print advertising
  • digital display (web and newsletter) advertising
  • paid content
  • reader revenue
  • events revenue
  • grants to pay for reporting projects
A non-profit media startup might focus on a different mix of revenues such as:
  • digital display ads
  • newsletter advertising
  • reader donations and VIP membership
  • grants and philanthropy for staff and operations
  • grants for reporting projects
If your goal is sustainability, you should think in terms of multiple streams of revenue (tactics or legs) as you build our your revenue plan (strategy or stool).
'True Fans': A Unifying Theory for Monetizing Local Media Web Traffic
There was a time when a primary revenue goal of a news-focused site was to create a gazillion pageviews in order to increase the amount of digital advertise you could sell. If you had enough traffic, you could sell advertising directly to clients or agencies, or you could use automated "real-time-bidding" services to fill the inventory, pocketing millions.
For independent local media outlets, however, this never really did succeed. (These days, it really doesn't work for national media, either, although programmatic can be a leg of the stool for the largest properties.)
And even if the "tons-of-traffic" strategy worked in the past, it relied on referral traffic from social media and search engines that simply doesn't happen these days at the same volume it once did.
1,000 True Fans
Today, successful local media outlets are better served by the 1,000 True Fans principle first articulated by Kevin Kelly.
Put simply, this principle allows a creator to think in terms of building a fan base of 1,000 people who each pay you $100 a year in revenue, resulting in $100,000, which might be a decent living for an individual professional.
As Kelly notes, "1,000 fans" isn't an absolute, but more of an order-of-magnitude calculation. (And it doesn't have to be exactly $100/year, obviously. I like $120/year or $10/month as a baseline.) The number of True Fans your publication has might depend on how much revenue you can honestly average per fan and how much of your organization's overall revenues you want to generate from digital sources.
Let's take a look at this by doing a little more math. What I want to do is very broadly (and with some simple examples) talk about what sort of money you can make from the people who visit your site, and why the True Fan concept is huge part of that.
Digital Advertising Math: Value of a "Visitor"
We'll start by taking a look at digital advertising revenue for the visitors to your site.
In this example we're looking at a website that has five ads on every page that are sold at a $10 CPM. That's $50 in revenue per thousand pageviews, or about $.05 per pageview. If our analytics tell us that we get 1.2 pageviews per session, that makes a session worth $0.06. If we have 1 million sessions per year from 375,000 users, then the value of a user is $0.12 per year.
Now the $45,000 that we generated in this scenario is nothing to sneeze at—it's worth doing, and we can call that a leg of our revenue stool. But it's likely not enough to make the venture worthwhile. Plus, the numbers get more interesting as we get these users closer to True Fans.
Newsletter Math: Value of a "Subscriber"
Now let's assume that we've turned about 2% of those annual sessions into newsletter subscribers. (Not an easy feat or something that will happen overnight.) We've got 10,000 newsletter subscribers and we make $1,000 per month off our newsletter by selling five ad slots for $200 per week each.
Here's that math:
Wow. So just by getting someone to subscribe to a newsletter, and then successfully meeting our ad sales goal, we see the value of that subscriber jump up from cents to dollars.
Oh, and in this scenario, we're making $52,000 in annual revenue from our newsletter, adding that to the $45,000 we made from web advertising.
Reader Revenue: Value of a "True Fan"
So, for a news publisher, what's a True Fan? I'm going to say a True Fan is a donor or paid subscriber who meets an annual minimum amount of $120. They may pay $120 a year in December during NewsMatch or $10/month starting the moment they sign up. This could be a subscription that gets them full access to your site, or maybe it's a donor category that gives the the right to call themselves a VIP. (We've explore types of reader revenue in detail later.)
Either way, what we know is they're giving us money. So what might that look like?
That one was easy. We're getting $120,000 from 1,000 True Fans which, as Kevin Kelly noted, isn't a bad living for a content creator.
Let's total everything up.
When we add up all three levels of revenue, we're making $217,000 per year in digital revenue for our local publication. That's decent revenue for at 2-4 person shop doing good work and enjoying their role in democratic society.
And for a growing media outlet that aspires to a larger newsroom, this digital revenue represents a solid "leg of the stool."

What are "Table Stakes" in Journalism?

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Filling the (Reader Revenue) Funnel
The sample math in the previous section shows the funnel in action.





Web Visitors


Newsletter Subscribers


Paid Members or Subscribers
In our scenario, hundreds of thousands of people pour into the top of the funnel because they come to read something interesting. They're shown some ads, and each visitor is worth a few cents to our operations.
A percentage of those visitors decide to subscribe to our newsletter. If we do a good job, they stick with us and become regular readers, which means they see our newsletter ads on a regular basis and start to make up our local subscriber audience. Now they're worth a few dollars to our publication over time. But they're also part of a more "captive" audience—we have their email address—that we can try to entice into being True Fans.
Finally, an even smaller percentage of all those original visitors (probably something like 0.1-0.2%) become True Fans by signing up as donors or paid subscribers. They love what we do, they want us to continue doing it, and they're willing to pay for it. What journalist doesn't love that idea?
In chart form, it looks something like this:
This can clearly get a little more nuanced, but hopefully it shows the value of the funnel.
Yes, your news and information website is there primarily to publish news and information. But from a revenue perspective, it's important to realize that your website is the top of your funnel. Part of building an effective local media website is making sure you craft a compelling argument for your visitors to subscribe to your newsletter and your newsletter subscribers to become paid donors or subscribers.
You're building (a.) a strong audience and (b.) a devoted tribe of True Fans, both of which can significantly improve the sustainability of your news operation.
Building your funnel should be the centerpiece of your revenue strategy as a local publication. You want to fill the funnel and you want to monetize readers at each level.
But perhaps even more important is to move as many down the funnel as possible, get them to True Fan status—and then keep them there. (More on that in the Readers Pay section.)

Owned vs. Rented Audiences

I had a great question while leading a Transformation Tech session that lead me to write an article on LinkedIn focusing on the idea of what you can do with a "rented" audience (like your followers on Facebook) vs. an "owned" audience (like the people in your email database). Here's that piece.The Importance of 'Owned' Audiences for Local Publishers

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Selling Display Ads on Your Site
Selling advertising isn't required of today's digital publisher. I know non-profit digital publications that sell zero advertising and have seven-figure budgets for their newsrooms.
But if you're a legacy print publisher in a local market, you're probably used to the idea of selling ads. You've got a sales staff and everything.
If you're a startup publisher without that sort of experience, you may be wary of the idea of selling advertising.
Let's start with the basics and see if and how selling digital advertising could work for you.
Display is a Small Part of the Revenue Plan
Let's start with something obvious—wild success with digital advertising requires a large audience. In fact, it really doesn't happen much anymore that even national or international publications survive on digital advertising alone, because (as we've seen) the revenues per reader are so low.
That said, it's still an important revenue tactic for many publishers. First, it does represent some revenue you could take advantage of. Second, local advertising can help communicate to your readers your relevance to the community, and be a win-win for the advertiser and the publication. Third, niche and local publications can often charge a premium for local advertising that general news publications can't.

Do you feel confident in your ability to sell digital advertising? In this article by Richard E. Brown he outlines why confidence in what you're selling is more important than getting your rate card perfect.

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It’s not your rate card; it’s your confidence - Editor and Publisher

In news media advertising, organizations often spend too much time analyzing rates and comparing them to similar-sized outlets. It’s important, but sometimes, focusing too much on rate hinders the ability to assess an opportunity directly. Before immediately delving into pricing considerations, it’s crucial first to identify opportunities aligned with your organization’s goals.

Your Primary Display Ad Revenue: Direct-Sold
For most local publishers, if you decide to sell display advertising on your website (or mobile app or anywhere else in a digital format) the vast majority of what you sell should be direct-sold advertising.
With direct-sold display ads, it's a lot like selling print advertising. You choose a eCPM, set a price and frequency and go out and sell it to a local business or organization.

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One thing to remember about digital display advertising is that it's really more like radio advertising than print—you've got a limited inventory and it's hard to create a whole lot more.
If you've got five ad slots on a page, 100,000 pageviews per month and you sell at a $10 eCPM, that's $5,000 in revenue per month or $60,000 per year. And that's if you're really efficient with your sales. Of course, if you sell out consistently, you can raise your rates, or charge for premium placement.

How to Price and Sell Display Ads

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Use Ad Management Software
Another note about digital advertising—I strongly suggest you have an ad management tool that helps you rotate your ads on the site and that helps you distribute ad impressions so you can fulfill what you sell. If you don't use a tools such as Google Ad Manager, Broadstreet Ads or AdButler, then you can't be as efficient with the delivery of your ads. That software is designed to track impressions and deliver ads over time so that you fulfill what you agreed to do for the advertiser.
Here's a simple example. I sell you an ad on my website for $100 for a week. I can fulfill that one of two ways:
1.) I place the ad on my website so that it appears every time someone loads a page to view a story, or
2.) I place the ad using ad management software, telling it to display the ad 10,000 times over the next week.
In the first example, if I have 20,000 pageviews where that ad is displayed, I'll show that same ad 20,000 times, resulting in an eCPM of $5 and total revenue of $100.
In the second example, if I have 20,000 pageviews on my site and I deliver 10,000 impressions for $100, and then I'm free to deliver 10,000 impressions of another ad in that same ad slot, making my total revenue $200. Because I'm using software to help me manage ad delivery, I can squeeze more productivity and revenue out of each ad slot. Plus, with the ad management software I've also got a nice report I can show both advertisers to prove I displayed the ad at least as much as I promised.

That first case is really more of a "sponsored" model, where you sell a limited number of sponsors to your website per week or month. If you don't have a lot of web traffic, or you have only very limited bandwidth for ad sales, then the sponsored model is a good start. You can sell five sponsors per week or month or whatever works for you. Just make sure you do that eCPM calculation to make sure you're not leaving revenue on the table.
Need some encouragement to get out there and sell? Kenny Katzgrau of Broadstreet Ads recorded this webinar (complete with a roleplay exercise with Annette Batson of Monclair Local) that walks you through some solid suggestions for avoiding friction in your sales conversations with potential advertisers:

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How to Sell Digital Advertising in 30 Minutes

Hyperlocal news publisher and creator of Broadstreet Kenny Katzgrau teamed up with Montclair Local's Annette Batson to deliver a highly polished and tactical webinar on achieving same-day closes with digital advertisers.

What about 'Programmatic' Advertising?
Let's start with a definition. In the broadest sense, "programmatic advertising" in the process of using automation to buy and sell digital advertising. Using algorithms and technology, an advertising buyer can target specific audiences, optimize their ad placements or pricing and deliver personalized ads in real-time. For publishers, programmatic advertising gives you the opportunity to take the "highest bid" for a given ad slot and deliver the ad in real-time to an ad slot on your site.
That said, what we often are thinking when we say "programmatic advertising" is one aspect of it: real-time bidding. That's what Adsense, AdX or a host of third-party vendors can offer to your publishing website—the opportunity to sell an ad slot on your website to the highest bidder (done automatically in fractions of a second) without you needing to go out into your community and sell an ad agreement directly to an advertiser.
In reality, real-time bidding for most local publishers doesn't generate a lot of revenue. (In fact, it doesn't generate enough revenue to keep some big publishers afloat.) That's because the price you can get for a programmatic ad is almost always a lot lower than what you can get for direct-sold advertising.
Where your local advertisers might pay you a $10-30 CPM for an attractive, effective ad your website (particularly if it's part of a package with your newsletter and some other perks), you're likely to get less than a $1 CPM via Adsense, or up to a few dollars per thousand from other programmatic channels.
It's not that you shouldn't consider programmatic, it's just not going to a strong leg of your revenue stool.
Want to do some quick math? Let's say you have 100,000 pageviews this month and I let Adsense manage that revenue, and it delivers $1 RPM (Revenue per thousand) for those pageviews. That's $100. For publishers who get hundreds of thousands (but not millions) of pageviews per month, AdSense can represent hundreds of dollars in revenue (but not millions ;).
Instead, for most publishers I encourage you to think of programmatic advertising (on your website) the way print publishers used to think of remnant space in print. It's a way to make a little bit of money when you don't otherwise have an ad sold for an impression on your website. The easiest way to do this is to sign up for AdSense (which you need to do if you want a new Google Ad Manager account anyway) and then you turn on Adsense fulfillment for ad units on your site, as shown here in Google Ad Manager:
While you can actually serve AdSense advertising without using Google Ad Manager or similar software, I don't recommend it. (It's called AutoAds, if you want to check it out.) In most cases, if you want to work with programmatic advertising, you'll need ad server software. Google Ad Manager works, and you'll have various levels of success with software such as Advanced Ads (for WordPress) or services such as Broadstreet Ads or AdButler. (Revive, which I've never used, is an open-source solution.)
Beyond AdSense, you can often get better CPMs when you use Google AdX for real-time bidding ads, but as a smaller publisher you'll probably need a go-between to help you access AdX—for instance, Newspack, the CMS for news publishers from the company that developed WordPress, offers AdX access for publishers using that platform. (If you're not on Newspack, you can ask Google for AdX access and see if it works out.)
If you can't get direct AdX access, you can also look for third-party solutions that give you backfill options for unsold digital revenue. MyCode Media, for instance, offer this service in particular to publishers who serve audience of color and LGBTQ+ communities with their publications. Others, such as EmpowerLocal and InfoLinks, offer programmatic revenue solutions for publishers who meet their content and audience criteria.

If there's anything else to say about programmatic advertising for local publishers, it's that having the capacity to serve programmatic advertising can be important when you're working with regional or national advertising agencies. When the agencies representing Nissan and Wells Fargo come calling and want to run on your website (maybe because of a buy through your state's press association or the national publisher's association you belong to) you'll be best served by already having Google Ad Manager or a similar solution in place.
My Video Advertising 'Hack'
Easily my favorite digital ad slot when I ran the Jackson Free Press was provided by a company called Teads. Using their software, I could have a video ad appear between paragraphs of text in the middle of stories in both the desktop and mobile display of stories on the site. (We called this "InReads" because that's what Teads calls it; the industry calls them "in-article" video ads.)
This was a very effective and very lucrative ad slot both for local sales and for remnant revenue when I hadn't made a local sale.
In our case, a local car dealership bought a lot of this advertising inventory, because (a.) it was an effective ad position that reached an audience the car dealer wanted to reach and (b.) the dealer was proud of their locally produced TV ads, which often featured a local comedian who was very familiar to many of our readers.
In the example pictured, which was part of our sales one-sheet, the video opens up between two paragraphs of text once the reader scrolls to that position in the story.
Other advertisers who liked that slot included a local jeweler, a gregarious local restaurant owner and, of course, politicians.
These ads were popular with folks who already had TV commercials (or other video ads) that we could repurpose for our website, and those same people were used to what TV advertising costs. I would price video ads at $25-$30 per thousand with a plan to deliver about 20-25k impressions of the ad per week. That would mean $3000 per month in additional digital ad revenue that didn't touch the other ads slots on the page.
Teads has their own ad manager tool for place and pacing your direct-sold ads, and then they fill in with remnant digital ads (in my experience they were national food and cleaning brands, etc.) that would pay the publication a rate much better than ad sense.
Probably my favorite thing about offering in-article video advertising is that your publication doesn't have to produce any editorial video in order to justify running video ads. That's why I call it a "hack." You can benefit from the higher CPM and visibility of video ads without trying to become what I used to joke would be "the fifth worst TV newscast in town."
Now, if you want to produce video… and you're good at it… and you can stick to a regular schedule… and you think there's ROI in the costs to produce that video vs. the ads you can sell against it… go ahead. (Or, if original video feeds in your publication's overall editorial mission, that's a good reason too.) But if your number one goal is to enjoy higher video CPMs and deliver them on your local site with about the same effort it takes to distribute a display ad campaign, this approach works.
Newsletter Advertising: Good Money in the Middle of Your Funnel
One of my favorite thing about digital newsletters is that selling advertising in newsletters can be very similar to selling local print advertising. A lot of the metrics are similar. You can tell your advertisers that we have X number of subscribers, that we send the newsletter Y times per week and that the cost of the ad is Z over a given period of time.
In the above example, which came from a Jackson Free Press sales sheet, we sold ads on our daily newsletter (we published Mon-Fri) for $500 per week. We'd offer discounts for a longer-term agreement—a month or more. If you just wanted a day or two it could be a little more expensive, like $150 per day.
Let's do a little math: 16,000 subscribers * five days = 80,000 readers so the potential eCPM on a $500 weekly buy is about $6.25 per thousand subscribers. However, since our open rates were around 25%, real readership each week was closer to 20,000, meaning an eCPM of about $25.
So if our weekly newsletter had four ad slots and we sold them all at this price, that's $8,660 per month or almost $104k per year. The JFP Daily newsletter didn't feature any full stories — it was designed to get people to click through to the stories online. So that meant the newsletter both generated revenue and boosted our online traffic on a daily basis. While it took a little effort to produce and send, the real effort was the daily reporting and editing that generating the online stories in the first place.
We didn't sell out all four ads often—one was usually reserved for a house ad. But if we did sell out, guess what the plan would have been? Add another ad slot. Unlike Web display advertising, you can easily add more inventory (within reason) by creating another ad position in your newsletter, by publishing more frequently or by starting additional, more specialized newsletters.

One note about the example image above of the JFP's newsletter—in that sample image, you'll see that it's a desktop version that isn't mobile responsive. These days I wouldn't advise that. We loved those big 300×600 pixel ads down the side of the newsletter, but the truth is that most people read the news on mobile devices. So your email newsletter should be designed with inline mobile ads—most likely 300×250 pixel ads—that show up between sections and stories. For instance, Arkansas Times has attractive display ads in their mobile-friendly newsletter, shown below. Note the local credit union ad (man, do I love credit unions that advertise) and then the headlines from the newsletter.
Another bonus: The advertising you place in newsletters can be very effective for your local advertisers, especially for those advertisers with upcoming events. At the JFP, I loved selling newsletter ads to local nonprofits who had fundraising events coming up, or to the local theater for the opening of a new play.
Promoters, museums, politicians, environmental activists, restaurants for holidays, the bakery for Mardi Gras, the candy shop for Valentine's Day—everybody can come up with a time-based Call to Action (CTA) for their advertising, and while those can be effective in display ads, I think they really shine in local newsletters.

I think one other thing to remember is that newsletter advertising can be part of a smart mix for your advertisers. A package of advertising that includes display ads, newsletter ads, social media advertising—plus paid content and print (if you offer either of those)—can be a good way for them to make sure they reach all the different ways readers engage with your publication. You can always offer a "multichannel" discount—say, 20% off everything when you buy ads in two or more channels (web, newsletter and print) for instance.

What about programmatic ad serving for newsletters?

This is absolutely a thing. The two benefits to this are you can traffic and track your newsletter advertising in whatever tool you use for the display advertising—Google Ad Manager, Broadstreet, AdButler, etc. and you can automate the display of newsletter ads so they start on stop when they're supposed to. When you set up your ads this way, you should be able to get good metrics on when the ads are viewed and clicked, and, depending on your setup, you can use your ad server to optimize the ads that are shown in your newsletter. (In fact, you may even be able to pull programmatic or remnant advertising into your newsletter.) The bad news? It can get a lot more complicated than just dragging the ad image into your newsletter layout. You'll need to check the documentation for your ad manager (ex: Broadstreet), your Email Service Provider (Mailchimp, Active Campaign, etc.) and whatever tools you're using to produce your newsletter.

Want a little inspiration for selling local advertising and building your newsletter? Check out this story and podcast about the Naptown Scoop, a local daily newsletter with $200k in annual revenues on 18,000 subscribers.
Plus, the money tip: Start with live music listings.

The Creator Spotlight Podcast - Ep. 6: Ryan Sneddon, creator of Naptown Scoop |

Ryan Sneddon runs Naptown Scoop, a local newsletter serving Annapolis, Maryland. In three-and-a-half years, he’s built an audience of over 18,000 (nearly half the town’s population), and last year the business generated around $200,000 in revenue.In this episode, we discuss:🏘️ How Ryan got half the town to sign up for the Scoop👩 Exactly how Ryan defined his core reader 💲 How Ryan prices the newsletter’s ad spots👀 The Scoop’s simple and incredibly effective referral system📈 Ryan’s plans to increase revenue by 175% this year

ToddTip: The Sticky on the Wall
I encourage publishers to think about your revenue in terms of what you need to bring in weekly and monthly. If you want to make $240,000 next year, you plan for $20,000 per month. Since there are 52 weeks per year, that's $4,600 per week.
How do you get to $4,600? Ideally, you start with a baseline. That's your recurring revenue from VIP donors, monthly subscribers, or advertisers you have on contract. (If you offer agency services and that's part of your regular revenue, that also goes here.)
Let's say you can count on getting $2,000 each week in recurring revenue. That's $2,600 per week you've got to generate in advertising and sponsorship sales. How do you do that?
One of my coaching suggestions is what I cleverly call "The Sticky on the Wall."
At the JFP, we regularly got one of those wall-sized sticky notes and wrote the issue date (of our weekly publication) at the top, along with a monetary goal.
We then stuck it up on the wall and started listing the clients we would contact. Next to each, we put an educated guess of the dollar amount of advertising we could sell them. It served to do two things — it visually showed that we had a set of prospects that would help us meet our goal, and it reminded us who they were so we could gauge whether we were succeeding.
If someone said no, we struck them from the list. If they said yes, we wrote in the actual dollar amount and substracted it from the goal.
Two other hints here -- you'll probably want more than one week's goal on the sticky at a time, and you'll probably never hit your goal if you don't start working on it about a month in advance. Always plan ahead and reach out to clients weeks before you think their ads will run.
So, let's put up four weeks on our sticky: June 5, June 12, June 17 and June 26. Under each, we'll write a goal of $2,600. Under June 5, we'll list everyone we're going after for advertising sales. If you have other revenue programs, you could list those here (such as "10 new donors at an average of $50 each).
Add everything up, and we're targeting about $4,000 in potential new revenue for the week of June 5th. Now, we get started reaching out to set some appointments, make some sales and sign some agreements. If someone says no, we replace them with another prospect on the sticky.
Here are a few other tips:
  • The revenue you go after should exceed the weekly goal because you're unlikely to sell to everyone you talk to or even be able to reach everyone you hope to.
  • If you sell an agreement you will deliver over multiple weeks, divide it so it's proportionately meeting your goals.
  • You can put clients onto future weeks (like I did with the Ballet and the 4th of July event) if you have a sales promotion—or editorial content—that particular week that will appeal to them.
  • Keep it up! You've got to brainstorm each week's "hit list" of potential clients and work them a few weeks ahead of each goal to meet (or exceed) those goals.
  • Always be working on contracts and long-term agreements. They make life in sales much more manageable.
Of course, this isn't the only way to track prospects and sales. I suggest having CRM software to track interactions with specific clients. I'd also suggest using QuickBooks or some other inventory management system for invoicing ads and making sure that they run. But the "Sticky on the Wall" gives you a visual of your progress and can serve as a reminder when you get stuck trying to remember who to call next.
Building Your Email List
In order to sell some lucrative newsletter advertising, you're going to need a nice-sized email list. Plus, a large list of engaged readers can be valuable for other reasons, as well:
  1. Your email list is the middle of your funnel—email subscribers can be enticed into becoming donors, VIP members or subscribers.
  1. Your list allows you to a lot of other interesting things, such as selling sponsored content, throwing in-person events (or marketing other people's events effectively), contesting, surveying and implementing other calls-to-action that reach thousands of people in your local area at once.
So how do you build the list? Here are some quick ideas, and I'll reference some others I'll go into more depth on in later sections.
  • CTAs and pop-ups. On your website, make sure you have very obvious subscription buttons and pop-ups. You might consider a subscription box inline for every story or at least at the bottom of every post.


Deepen the impact of newsletter CTAs

A few wording, colors, style changes to increase subscribers through PublicSource newsletters.

  • QR codes. Put them on your business cards, leave-behinds, apparel, cars—anything that represents your publication in public. (Get some great ideas from Local News Blues​.)
  • In-person. Sign people up at the table you place at outdoor events and festivals. At JFP, we would sign people up then give them a chance to spin our wheel (we had a table-top wooden wheel a little like Wheel of Fortune) for free movie passes, gift cards and other small merch.
  • Contesting. One of the big ways (discussed later as well) that weeklies across of the country add to their email lists is by requesting an email when they give something away. Free concert tickets, restaurant gift cards and so on can be promotions with advertising partners where you both get the emails that sign up to win. (This is also a way you can use your email list to help a local business or partner build their list… for a price.)
  • Balloting. Start a "Best of" contest and use the balloting software to request an email address with an "opt-out" option for the newsletter. You can add thousands of emails per year this week. (More on that in the contesting section.)

I've also got one "don't." Don't buy an email list. You want, at a minimum, someone to have expressed at least some interest in your publication before you send them your newsletter or any other folks in town. After all, you've got a publication with the ability to reach people. Use it!
Sponsored Content: Is It For You and Your Publication?
When the concept of sponsored content or "native content" (advertising that looks like it's "native" to your site instead of a visual ads that stands apart from your stories) first came on the scene, there was a great deal of skepticism. The idea of ads that work like stories sounds like "advertorial" to a lot of long-time journalists, and it seemed like a major breech of trust with readers, who expect us to tell the truth about something regardless of who is paying us to reach them with an advertising message.
While some of that skepticism remains, sponsored content has proven to be a very popular way for local publishers to generate revenue from local, regional and national advertisers.
Sponsored content offers a few advantages for the advertiser:
1.) It allows advertisers to engage with the audience in a more authentic and less intrusive manner, as the content seamlessly integrates with the rest of the site's material.
2.) it provides an opportunity for advertisers to tap into the trust and credibility of the publication, enhancing their brand image.
3.) It lets the advertiser (or your team, writing on their behalf) explain their offering better in a combination of photos and story-length content.
From the newspaper's perspective, sponsored content allows publications to diversify their revenue streams and maintain financial independence while—ideally—offering content about local businesses, organizations and brands that actually is relevant and beneficial for readers.
So how do you do it? First, you'll want to set some pricing. Broadstreet offers some recommendations where the price for a sponsored content article ranges from $250-$1,500 or more depending on how much work your team has to put into it and how prominently you display the article. (You might also have discounts for packages of articles or special pricing for entire sections of your website if they're sponsored by one company.)
Next, you'll want to make sure your CMS will help you mark the content as SPONSORED or PAID. Triad City Beat in Greensboro, N.C. makes it pretty clear:
Once you've got the price worked out and you know your site is set up for sponsored content, the rest of the task is to produce a good story in conjunction with that sponsor.
You want content that is compelling, honest and valuable to the reader, both so that it's effective as a marketing piece and so it doesn't make the reader think any less of your publication. Avoid content that is spammy, cheerleading or overly press release-y.

Actually, a section of your website where local businesses and organizations can pay you to post a press release isn't a bad idea, as long as you label it as paid content.
Offer to help your advertiser produce content that your readers will appreciate, that informed the reader about the organization and makes a geniune valuable offer for their time and/or money.
This works really well for newsletter advertising, too! You shouldn't be afraid of paid content that is well-marked, useful to your reader but appears in story format. Here's a great example from Jessica Yellin's "News Not Noise" newsletter. The sponsored content has a logo and is visually offset from the editorial content, but it's still effective for the advertiser:

Linking to Advertisers via Sponsored Content

When you publish sponsored content on your site, you will likely need to decide whether or not links back to the sponsoring company's website—and how many of those you want to do on a regular basis. Links from a news website (particularly if you do great content, are popular and have been around for a while) can confer SEO authority to the sites that are linked from it. For paid content, you can use the rel=sponsored tag in the link's anchor tag so that the link doesn't confer any special SEO authority to the sponsoring site because it's on your website. For example: <a href="" rel="sponsored">See Local Co's website</a> Many of the businesses or organizations buying sponsored content what may you to link without the sponsored tag, but enough of those could eventually cause your site to be penalized by Google in search results. So be careful. The content and exposure are still very valuable to local business and hopefully the ones you want to work with understand it's important to play by the rules.

Another place where you can place sponsored content for your advertisers is in your social media feeds. As a media outlet, you may have a larger or different reach than the advertiser. Selling them a "sponsored" social media post (or, more likely, a series of posts, along with some boosting to make sure it gets traction) can help then generate awareness of an upcoming event, ticket sales, a holiday promotion or the contest you're helping them run to get more followers or email subscribers. (See the Contests for Advertisers section later in the playbook.)
Podcast: Michael Grant - 'Three Things for Updating or Changing Your Website'
In this episode of the Digital Revenue Playbook for Local New Publisher's "Three Things" podcast. New episodes appear in video on YouTube and you can subscribe to the audio on Spotify.
If you think you need some changes on the web, check out Michael's tips on what to think about before, during and after the changeover.
Great stuff, right? Subscribe!
Click to register for the newsletter and receive updates when new items are published as part of the Digital Revenue Playbook for Local News Publishers.
When Your Readers Pay, Part One: Donations
When I ran a local "free-on-the-streets" weekly, the idea of charging readers seemed like a mortal sin. (It was right up there with paid content.) While paid subscriptions have been common for local daily papers for a long, long time, we in the industry knew that having readers "pay for the paper" wasn't the main revenue stream for a newspaper; at best, those subscriptions fees offset some of the printing and distributions costs. It was the ads that made money.
10 years ago we couldn't even fathom the idea of asking readers to donate to the newspaper. We weren't a charity. Sure, we'd heard of the public radio model, but it didn't occur to many of us to simply ask our readers for money—or that we even could.

Editor and Publisher

Honolulu Civil Beat now thriving as a nonprofit - E&P

Honolulu City Beat, now a non-profit, has over 7,500 donors averaging $12/month bringing in over $1 million a year in recurring revenue.

For many local non-daily publishers, the idea of generating either reader donations or subscriptions started hitting its stride as the newspaper industry went through the major economic challenges that started with the collapse of classifieds (thanks Craig!) and accelerated during and after the Great Recession of 2008.
For a lot more publishers, the pandemic years of 2020-21 were when we first really started dabbling in donations, memberships and reader revenues—and, in many cases, had some success doing it.
Now that we're past the crisis days of the pandemic, reader revenue is here to stay as a significant "leg of the stool" of local media revenue. If you read the earlier section on True Fans, you'll note that getting those fans to pay you directly is key to that strategy's success.
So, how do you do it? Let's look at donations, memberships and paywalls.

Folks are doing hard work in local media ecosystem to develop software and strategies that work well together for growing digital publications and revenues. In this story, a number of legacy African American newspapers got help from the Knight Foundation, Get Current Studios and Newspack to move forward with impressive digital revenue tools—and results.

Local Media Association + Local Media Foundation

How a new CMS changed audience and revenue outcomes for small publishers: Knight report update

Progress ushered in after a new CMS launch takes time to show.  When we first published the report, “Digital content platform upgrades for small media outlets,” data from the four news companies — New York Amsterdam News, Houston Defender Network, The Atlanta Voice and Washington Informer — was insufficient to demonstrate the breadth and depth […]

Reader Donations
Asking readers to donate to your publication has become very common for media of all sizes, worldwide. The idea that readers would support local news publications the same way they support public radio in the U.S.—or, for that matter, the way they support local museums, arts organizations or other public-service charities—has become a common a critical revenue stream for many news publishers.
The way I'm defining it, a donation is a one-time thing, at least in the sense that it's something the reader decides to do, does, and then moves on. They may donate again in the future, but to do so they need to go through the donation process again. That's as opposed to some sort of recurring payment they set up—we'll call those either memberships or subscriptions.

In the parlance of this revenue playbook, recurring donors and True Fans are basically the same thing. I love a good one-time donation, but what we're ultimately working toward is getting someone to set up a regular payment, either monthly or annually. In some ways, one-time donors are "jumping the funnel" because they go straight from being a visitor to being a supporter. But, if we thank them for the donation, collect their email address (if they'll give permission) and keep them engaged through our email newsletter and occasion appeal, it's likely you'll turn some of them into True Fans.
A donation may be an impulse purchase for the reader—like buying a candy bar while waiting in line at the grocery store. (You know… that one line that still has a human checker.) For instance, a reader decides to give you a few bucks after reading a story they appreciate. Or they decide to give during your pledge drive because there's a matching gift they want to help you take advantage of.
For that reason, we need to focus on making it easy for the reader to make that donation. We want to avoid friction in the transaction—and usually, that has to do with how we write the appeal and configure the software that accepts the money.
The Donation Appeal
If you plan to accept donations, you'll need some appeal or calls to action (CTAs) on your website and in your email newsletters. These should be visually prominent in places where a reader will see them while they're reading a story on your website. Again, it's like those shelves of candy at the grocery story checkout line—they make an impulse purchase easier.
Here's an example—I'm always impressed with how the Guardian, based out of the UK (although I'm looking at the US version here) shapes their appeals and makes it easy to donate. This box appeared at the bottom of a story I read this morning.
The tools for donating are right there in the appeal box. You can even choose monthly or annual. This creates very little friction for a reader who is ready to give some money to a publication they visit frequently or otherwise appreciate.

Deep Dive: Marketing Your Publication

To get people to "buy what you're selling," you're going to need to do some marketing of your publication. Linked below is an interview by the American Press Institute with Tim Griggs, CEO of Blue Engine Collaborative and a long-time coach and thought-leader in the journalism ecosystem. I particularly like his answers about how to engage your readers and community your publication's value proposition beyond platitudes such as "support local journalism." You've got to make it more personal and meaningful—and you'll do that by testing and measuring results.Driving revenue and sustainability

Donation Software
The other part of accepting donations is having the software that can do it. The software that the Guardian uses for collecting donations looks pretty sophisticated with those options designed to make the donation easy. They probably had somebody write it for them, which could be expensive. Fortunately, there's plenty of software out there designed to make donations easy on the web.
When I first started accepting donations at the Jackson Free Press, it was actually about six months before the pandemic set in. We accepted one-time donations was via Paypal, which offers a very simple tool for Paypal account holders.
The Mississippi Free Press currently uses software called Givebutter, which isn't specifically designed for news publications, but does give them tools that make it easy to accept donations and track those donations for sending "thank you" messages and receipts (particularly important if you're non-profit).

Mississippi Journalism and Education Group

Give Now to Grow MFP Journalism in 2023!

Help us grow our newsroom in Mississippi and our systemic reporting to make a difference for our home state and beyond.

One thing the MFP team likes about Givebutter is that each campaign page has a place where donors can say why they're donating. From the perspective of the publication, it's nice to get these messages, and they're probably also good marketing when others land on the page and see great things being said about the publication.
Other popular tools for collecting donations include DonorBox and News Revenue Hub's RevEngine. My recommendation is that you use something that collects names and email addresses, works with multiple payment options (Venmo, Google Pay, Apple Pay, etc.) and helps you send thank you notes and receipts for those donations.

I'm not an accountant or attorney so you should consult one (or both) when it comes to how you account for donations at your organization. If you're a for-profit media outlet, you probably can't offer any tax benefits to your donors, unless you have a non-profit organization or a fiscally-sponsored fund for accepting tax-deductible donations. (The Alternative Newsweekly Foundation, which we work with on various projects at AAN, can offer local publications fiscal sponsorship for reporting or other projects.)
I will also note that if the software you use for donations allows you to ask your donors to join your email or SMS newsletter, I'd highly encourage that. Once they're engaged as one-time donors, it much more likely they could become recurring donors or "members" down the road.
Donor Campaigns
I'm talking about campaigns in this "Donors" section instead of later in the "Members" section, because what I've seen first-hand is that you get more one-time donors during one of two events:
  1. A story that goes viral with big traffic, or
  1. during major giving campaigns such as NewsMatch in Nov-December, #GivingNewsDay on Tuesday after Thanksgiving in the US, and then whatever other campaigns you decide to throw throughout the year.
First, let's talk about NewsMatch. Proctored and promoted by the Institute for Nonprofit News, the program provides matching dollars for non-profit members of INN who qualify under the guidelines. The amount that they'll match for your non-profit newsroom will vary based on your size, how many publications participate in NewsMatch and how much money they raise—but that amount is almost secondary to the campaign itself.
NewsMatch is a wonderful opportunity for any local publication to focus on new donors (and new members) during the holiday season each year, and to campaign not just for donations, but to also come up with your own local matches (from local philanthropy, big donors, businesses, professionals or other supporters) to encourage small donors during the "match."

If you're a non-profit news outlet, you should definitely participate in NewsMatch AND develop local matches so that you can get more than just the amount in your official NewsMatch each year. (The Mississippi Free Press takes in hundreds of thousands of dollars during NewsMatch, even though the INN-provided match is around $10-12k.)
If you're a for-profit news outlet, you should work on potential supporters and sponsors earlier in the year and see if they'll donate a match during NewsMatch. Part of the pitch to those partners is all of the marketing promotion they'll get during the matching period and the goodwill that can go along with being a local corporate match.
"PetPals on Main is matching the next $1,000 in donations to OurTown Independent" is a great way for the partner to be a part of the solution, double your impact and make a little noise about themselves; the same can work for attorneys, accountants, lawyers and so on.
#GivingNewsDay is that same energy focused on a single national day of non-profit giving called GivingTuesday. Basically it's a clever hashtag and campaign to get a little steam for your donor campaign while folks are thinking along the lines of charitable and non-profit giving.
Whenever you decide to run your campaigns, realize that it's during that time that you'll likely get the bulk of your donors and members. Come up with excuses to start (and stop) these campaigns so that you can focus your marketing and efforts on (1.) asking for money and (2.) thanking your donors in ways that make them feel like they're appreciated.
That puts them on the road to being True Fans.

Here's a tip—at the Mississippi Free Press, they make a point of calling every donor, even if the donor only gives a few dollars. 95% of the time the person is surprised and happy to hear from the MFP. This is a wonderful way to say thank you, but it also can help develop the relationship so that the reader donates again in the future or signs up as a recurring donor.
It's certainly a nice way to stand out from the crowd.

How do you land big donors?

In my experience, every once in a while you'll get a big donation for your media enterprise — $500, $1,000, maybe even $5,000—through your online donation tool. In most cases, that's probably the limit. If you want larger donations, then you need to meet with people and make the ask. How? Your existing e-mail subscribers and donors are a good start. Using non-profit CRM software, you can access wealth-screening tools (DonorSearch is popular and sometimes intergrated with non-profit CRM tools) to let you know when a given donor is worth more money and when they're known for giving to causes. Then, you reach out to set up a meeting. Remember when I mentioned that the Mississippi Free Press calls all their donors? That habit can make it easier to reach out to the big donors, as well, because, in one way, you're treating them like everyone else—showing appreciation at the outset. The process is really like any sales call, except the pitch is generally more about helping people (your readers and their communities) than it is about making money. You should have donor materials that discuss how you spend your donor's money and perhaps projects that might interest the donor. But remember this. Your goal is to build a relationship with the donor, not just get the donation. Once you get on the phone or in person with a potential big donor, you need to listen to them. Sit back with your coffee or lunch and ask good questions (you're a journalist — or journalist-adjacent — right?) to get them talking about what's important to them. Ask how they make the decision to support causes. Brent Weaver at uGurus teaches the concept (he's a nerdy-ish web developer teaching others to have web development agencies) that "relationships = interactions over time." One recommendation is to keep your meetings short as a rule—30-minute calls or 50-minute in-person meetings—and plan more of them with a potential donor (or a sales prospect). The argument is that meeting more often for shorter amounts of time builds a relationship faster than meeting fewer times for hours-and-hours. Even if it feels like you're "really hitting it off" and have a three-hour happy hour with a donor, the next call or meeting may be tougher to set up than it would be if you still have a lot to discuss after 50 minutes. Once you know more about what the donor wants, you can pitch your idea for how they can help. It may even be a later meeting. The pitch should include a discussion of their priorities, how your organization's goals address those priorities, and how their donation is going to help you with your organization's goals. Note that it can be tempting to craft a project or suggest that you "hire a reporter" in order to land that whopping $50,000 or $100,000 from a new donor. Fight that temptation. Instead, focus on the synergies between the donor and your organization and do what you can to ask for funds that are unrestricted and can be used for your general operations. One other note on big donors—having some can make it easier to get more. In The Raising of Money by Jim Lord (a great book to read if you're getting into the donations game), one of his suggestions revolves around the idea of the "peer ask." The principle here is that if one of your big donors goes to a wealthy friend saying "Cynthia, I think the Sidewalk Free Press is something you should look into, I'm giving $50,000 this year, and if you kick in they can do a lot more environmental coverage," that's a much easier way to get the donation. If you can get your existing supporters, donors or board members to help you make the ask—or make the introduction and/or go on the meeting with you—that can be a big boost. I'd say you're probably more likely to get big donors when you're a non-profit, just because the tax implications are more significant at that level, and, frankly, many big donors are specifically looking for tax benefits when they donate. That said, if you're a for-profit and you're going after big donors, these days it's fairly easy to set up fiscally-sponsored non-profit fund that you can use to fund investigations, reporters and other parts of your operation. The Alternative Newsweekly Foundation is a sister organization to AAN that can help you get started. You could also look to your local community foundation or a similar organization to be a fiscal sponsor, which could also confer some credibility for local donors. Setting up fiscal agency shows you're serious about the way donated money is handled, and your fiscal agent will know the lingo and be able to help with things like donor-assisted funds, family foundations and other inside baseball comes up in the donations game. (And they can give you better advice than me on the tax front—I'm not an accountant or lawyer!)

When Your Readers Pay, Part Deux: Memberships
Ah, we've finally gotten to those True Fans.
While one-time donors are lovely, lovely people, a lot of those one-time donations come as a result of viral stories or giving campaigns.
Memberships might come as a result of campaigns as well, but the recurring revenue they represent—along with the long-term relationship with a reader—are why I think that in order to call someone a True Fan they need to be a recurring-revenue member and not a one-time donor. I like to call them VIPs.
VIPs represent recurring revenue, and recurring revenue is great for a few reasons:
  1. Gives a consistent baseline revenues for budgeting. If you build up your membership, you can start to budget against those anticipated revenues and feel good about your spending. (That generally helps the founder or CEO sleep at night.)
  1. Helps sell advertising and sponsorship. A based of paid subscribers is "social proof" for your publication that can go in your media kit and help encourage advertisers that there's a loyal audience they can tap into. Likewise those True Fans might represent a group of folks you can activate to help you impress advertisers and sponsors because you can "influence" them to show up, buy tickets, attend the talk, cash bomb a local business, and so on.
  1. Looks good for grants and project dollars. Recurring revenue from readers can help you get other revenue for your organization, including from grantors and philanthropy. Big supporters love to know that you've got the basics covered with "earned revenue" like reader memberships, because it means the money they invest in your reporting goes directly to editorial impact.
So how do you get readers to sign up as members? Most of the time, the journey is the one defined in the funnel back in the True Fans section. You get Web Visitors to sign up as Newsletter Subscribers, then you encourage your Newsletter Subscribers to become VIPs.
To do that, you need a program.
Design Your VIP Reader Program
Let's be clear—your True Fans support you because they're fans, not because they want another t-shirt. Especially at the outset, I discourage you from creating physical merchandise that you hand out in exchange for memberships—that tends to make things a little too transactional. Instead, I'd recommend starting with recognition and access for your reader membership program, and then you can play with other ideas as they come up.
Here are a few ideas:
1.) Name them. I like to call members something like "VIPs." If your readers are the Main Street Gazette VIPs ("Become an MSG VIP today and support our work"), then they will stand out from other readers on the site, and they know what they're signing up for.
2.) Give recognition. All of your VIP members can show up on your website somewhere on a thank you page, and you can consider rotating them through other places. New VIPs can show up in your newsletter once per week, or you can list all your VIPs quarterly in a special newsletter edition. Thank them on social media as they come in, as they renew or hit milestones. You might even take a few VIPs every day or week and make them "sponsors" or "patrons" of the newsletter right at the top of the page.
3.) Offer virtual access. It's possible that some of your True Fans became VIPs because they like you or they follow members of your team. A quarterly ZOOM call with your investigative reporter or your local government reporting team could go a long way with them. You can also have your staff interview newsmakers or bring recognizable local celebrities and leaders into a ZOOM room with your VIPs.

Want to take the ZOOM meeting a bit further? Your editors can teach memoir-writing courses or your marketing team could teach social media principles. A local historian can come to chat about the area. A few local musicians can talk about the music scene. A museum curator could talk about fine art. And so on and so on.
4.) Meet up IRL. Grab the corner of a restaurant, coffee house or bar and invite your VIPs to visit with you. It doesn't have to be a big event: You can buy a couple of plates of appetizers and tell them to buy their drinks. The MFP holds a "VIP Lounge" whenever the management team visits a city in the state or around the country. And access isn't limited to existing recurring donors (although that's who they invite via email)—anyone is free to bring a friend. The result is often a few donations and great discussions that can also offer some insights on why people become VIPs.
5.) Partner for Perks. If you're working with local advertisers or sponsors in your market then look for ways that you can partner for discounts, deals and giveaways for you VIP readers. This might work particularly well if your VIPs can get deals for other membership around town to the art museum, local theater company or any special discounts offered by your CVB or Chamber. And if the local falafel hut (or Toyota dealer!) wants to offer discounts to your VIPs, that's another nice option. Again, I wouldn't go too far down this road, because you don't want to turn support for your publication into a transaction that feels like they're paying for a coupon book and evaluating the deals against the "cost" of their VIP membership. Keep this at the "happys" level.
Sign Up, Track and Retain VIP Readers
I believe that just offering some of these VIP items—particularly recognition and access—will help with retention. Even if a VIP reader doesn't take advantage of the quarterly meet-ups with your editorial staff or the ZOOM interview sessions with authors and former governors, the fact that they're happening will help keep them.
But, first, we've got to sign them up. How?
The Donor Platform: Recurring Payments
Before we talk about the appeal for VIPs, we need to talk about the basics. In order to sign up regular contributors, you'll need a system that accepts regular contributors and processes their payments. While a number of payment processors—Paypal, Square, Stripe, etc.—offer the ability to process recurring payments, the main issue is usually what you use for the front-end interface for your recurring payments.
Again, GiveButter can do this, as can many nonprofit-oriented donor platforms such as Donorbox, Fundly, Network for Good and Little Green Light. There are a few donor platforms that are a bit more tailored for donors to news publishers, such as News Revenue Hub, and some others that are aimed at content creators, such as Memberful and Hype. (GiveWP is an interesting tool that's not an online service as much as it is a plug-in for WordPress that connects to payment processors. Might be nice if you've got some WordPress design or developer chops on your team.)
Which tool you use is up to you. If there are a few things to consider, they would be:
1.) Multiple choice. Some tools will put one-time donations and recurring donations into the same user experience. When your user can pick a one-time donation vs. a monthly donation on the same screen you might be able to tempt them toward the monthly (or annual) recurring payment.
2.) Friction. A concept in all sorts of e-commerce and online transactions (which is what we're doing, right?) is the though out avoiding friction in the transaction which might slow things down and get your donor to bail. If a donor is faced with too many screens, or too much form-filling is required, they could give up. The answer is often to use pop-ups and short answers to move them along.
3.) Content controls. Software designed for non-profit donations probably doesn't offer special access to content on your website or elsewhere. Software designed for content creators (Memberful, GiveWP, News Revenue Engine) can help you also subscribe donors to special new newsletters, podcasts, Discord channels (for chat) or special sections of the website. If you plan VIP-only content, this might be important to you.
Customer Relationship Manager (CRM)
A Customer Relationship Manager, or CRM, tool will be important if you're going to go far with reader membership. CRM comes to us from the world of sales—it's a database that you use to track your prospects and customers. Think Salesforce.
The point is that you can track your interactions with your "customers" and learn more about them over time. In the non-profit world, CRM tools such as Virtuous, Bloomerang and DonorPerfect enable you to track the calls and appeals you send to potential donors, screen their wealth using online tools and generally strategize about how you're going to get them to donate to your organizations.
Many donor platforms offer some level of CRM tools, at least for tracking the donors, sending thank you emails, receipts and so on. Companies like BlueLena and News Revenue Hub are working to intergrate more CRM tools into their offerings, such that the database of your e-mail subscribers and donors can become a repository of first-party data that can be useful both for reader revenue and for helping you target your advertising.
For internal use, the CRM can tell you when donors are coming up for renewal, how long they've been donors, whether or not they've changed their giving level and other such tidbits of information. This allows to put some tactics in place for keeping them—birthday messages, personal VIP-only invites to events in their local area, survey for their opinion, offer a VIP-only giveaway, reminders of how important they are a few months out from their anniversary date, and so on. Software can help you track and retain these True Fans so that everyone continues to enjoy the relationship.
How Do You Get More VIPs? Ask!
So how do we get folks to sign up as VIPs? The most obvious path is via the funnel that we've discussed previously. Your email newsletter subscribers have expressed a level of interest in your content and your organization. So, when you send an email newsletter, you should include at least a casual appeal for them to become members on a regular basis, and then a more overt appeal a little lesson often. (You decide—that could be monthly, quarterly, or during a couple major VIP membership drives of the year.)

Great (great! great!!) tips from Inbox Collective on where and how to put CTAs and make the requests to turn your newsletter readers into members.

Inbox Collective

How to Convert Newsletter Readers to Supporters and Customers | Inbox Collective

Newsletters can be an incredible tool for turning readers into customers. Here’s how to get readers to support your work or buy something.

I suggest you create a landing page on your website that outlines your VIP program, offers some quotes from happy VIPs and/or your staff about the importance of the program and offers a sign-up form. You can recommend some monetary levels for VIPs—$10/mo, $25/mo, $50/mo, $100/mo—and then offer a box where they can fill in their own levels. I wouldn't worry too much about offering additional benefits for the higher amounts, although you could name them something different ("Platinum VIP") and recognize them that way on the website and in your other materials.
VIPs—True Fans—are there to support you. Most people just want recognition and thanks for the support they give to other people and organizations. When we're talking about reader donations, I truly believe that you should avoid making it transactional, and focus more on what you'd like the relationship to be: They support your journalism, which they believes improves your community. And you thank them for the support.

Remember the "swag" discussion? I actually like the idea of doing in-person swag or random giveaways more than the PBS approach of giving everybody a mug or yoga DVD. If you print up some caps or mugs, announce random winners on your VIP list, send them on donor anniversaries, or just hand them out at live events as marketing perks. (Oh, and remember that caps and visors are one-size-fits-all while t-shirts are not.)
For non-profit media (and I'm not an attorney or accountant) that might also be way to avoid having to figure out the net value of a donation (minus the swag gift) for the donor's receipt.
Once you've gotten VIP readers signed up, I think the other important thing to do is keep following up. If you're going to offer a VIP-only newsletter, then do it at the cadence you promise. (My suggestion would be as infrequently as you think is viable—maybe once every other month or once a quarter.) If you promise to have ZOOM or in-person meetups, then do them. If you're going to have special speakers or topical online webinars, make sure you get them on a calendar and produce them on a regular cadence.

I have a general tip for anyone who decides to publish something, whether you're a news outlet, a non-profit with a newsletter or a local business sending out the deals of the week. Here's the advice: Pick a cadence and stick to it. If you promise a weekly newsletter, publish it weekly. If you can't pull that off, only promise monthly. But whatever you say you're going to do, make sure it's something you can pull off… and then, pull it off!
NOW how much would you pay?
(I'm kidding. It's free.)
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When Your Readers Pay, Part Tres: Subscriptions
The paywall.
I've mentioned that I come from alt-weekly background. For most alt-weeklies, especially in the heyday of being the local "alternative" to the daily (often corporate, chain) newspaper in our towns, the idea of having a paywall was pure anathema. And I find as I talk to startup publications these days, publishers generally fall into two camps, when it comes to subscriptions:
1.) Readers should pay for the news.
2.) We can't possible force our readers to pay to read the news.
The most important thing I want to say about paywalls in this playbook is this: The difference between a paywall and a donation is that you're turning the relationship into a transaction (subscription) instead of a gift of support (donation). Both have their pros and cons, but if you're trying to make the decision of how you're going to go about developing a reader revenue program, I think you should start there. Do you want to be more transactional? And, can you justify that?

Don't skip this section just because you're Team Donor vs. Team Subscriber. As you'll see in just a few paragraphs, paywall software can actually work for both approaches.
What Makes it a Subscription?
Part of what makes a subscription "transactional" can be seen in the tools and approaches necessary to succeed with a paywall.
You'll need:
1.) Paywall software. This is sometimes easier said than done. You'll want to implement software on your website that makes it easy for you to decide what sits behind the paywall and what doesn't. You'll also want it to do a good job of accepting payments, registering your users, accepting their passwords, helping them reset their passwords and so on. You probably also want to make sure it isn't easy to fool but using a different device or an incognito window to bypass the paywall and read your stories.
2.) A customer service mindset—and maybe a dedicated employee. Once people are paying for a subscription to your publication, they're going to expect it to work, and they'll likely expect more from your tech platform than if they were simply a donor. So, you need to plan accordingly. I've spoken with development officers at non-profit publications that opted for paywalls, and they have lamented to me that their jobs are often more about hand-holding people through the paywall login process than they are about wining-and-dining big donors to add revenue for reporting.
3.) A set price. Because subscriptions are more transactional, you'll want to set a base price for what it takes to get past your firewall. Often, your reader will select that price—say, $10 per month—because they want to read you content and they'll pay the minimum required. That's as opposed to VIP donors, who are giving money to support you, and might be willing to do $25 per month, $50 per month or more.
4.) Content worth paying for. When you're focus is transactional, people are more apt to pay for content that benefits them monetarily or adds quality to their lives. The reason the Wall Street Journal is subscription-only is because its readers think WSJ's content helps them make money. (A few years ago, the American Press Institute found that the number one reason people subscribe to a news site is because it covers a specific topic.) At large news organizations such as the New York Times or Washington Post, subscribers may have their own reasons for subscribing—they love New York, they want to WaPo's take on social issues, or they like the recipes or crosswords.

If you think you're interested in setting up subscriptions or using paywall software to help you fill the funnel leading to donations and VIP memberships, I recommend talking to your CMS provider as soon as you can—particularly if you're planning a change to a new CMS or you want to implement specific paywall software. Let's get some assurances that everything will work well together.
The wrong paywall system can be a nightmare for a publisher when it comes to the customer-service and customer-satisfaction challenges that come with the software. And those challenges are different from simply using Givebutter, Donorbox or Memberful to take recurring donations.
The rewards of a nicely integrated paywall system (even if it doesn't actually limit the reader's access to the news) can be great, but there are risks you need to think through as well.
Content Worth Paying For
Just because your content is local doesn't mean a paywall won't work. One of my shining examples of paywall success is the Arkansas Times, a long-time member of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, which makes hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on their digital paywall. (They also sell advertising, print a monthly publication, ask for donations and throw events throughout the year.)
Is their content worth paying for? Their subscribers seem to think so—Arkansas Times represents a progressive viewpoint in a largely conservative state, putting them outside of the norm and helping them remain an alternative to their daily newspaper in Little Rock—which also has a paywall. ArkTimes also has a very active political blog that insiders like to read, as they get scoops on the machinations of state government.
Oh, and they market their subscription as support, giving them the best of both worlds:
So, in this case, the paywall helps coax people into subscribing once they've read a few stories, and the marketing of the paywall still focused on the idea of that it supports the publication—in other words, they're seeking True Fans to be subscribers. If you're willing to take the plunge on subscriptions as a local publication, this is probably a good way to do it.

Also notice that the Arkansas Times offers the option of Donating or Subscribing. What's interesting about this is that they are leaving things open so that someone could give them more money than the subscription cost, which is $10/month in their case. However, donating doesn't actually get you access to stories behind the paywall. So that's something else to think about—if you tell people they have to have a subscription to read your stuff, then they're probably less likely to donate. (The converse of that is once they're a paid subscriber, you know who they are, and you can reach out electronically—and in person—to see if they'll donate more for VIP status or during your pledge drives. In that sense, they're still True Fans.)
The Leaky Paywall
Another way that subscriptions (and, specifically, subscription paywall software) can be helpful is when you take the "leaky paywall" approach, where you offer a few stories without interruption, and then ask for an email address to enable the next few stories.
This is a nice way to build your email newsletter list and build up interest from new readers who are willing to trade an email to continue to access your content. They didn't have to pay with money to get past the paywall, they "paid" with their email address. Now you can marketing to them via both the paywall software ("Hi, Todd, you've read 10 stories this week—ready to take our relationship to the VIP level?") and via email appeals you can send them since they've given you an email address.

What an email onboarding sequence is important for any newsletter, I thought I'd drop this tip here because it could be really nice to have a clever approach to onboarding when you force someone to give you an email to keep reading your content. Dan Oshinsky is a pro when it comes to sweetening newsletter relationships, so take a look at this walkthrough:

Inbox Collective

How I Built a Welcome Series For My Newsletter | Inbox Collective

Here are four types of emails — the Hallmark, the Talking Head, the Evergreen, and the Survey — that I use to build relationships with readers.

Once a readers has subscribed or become a member, you can allow them to read all the content they're entitled to, as long as they're logged into the website. Plus, when they're logged in, the software will also allow you to offer a different, personalized greeting, thanking them for their subscription or membership.

Paywalls and Donors = ❤️ ?

Pete Ericson and Tyler Channell of Leaky Paywall and The Paywall Project are so into paywalls that they have a podcast on the subject. In Episode 26 (!) they discuss how paywalls can work with both subscription and donor strategies to increase revenues for a local news publisher. One caveat: Pete describes "subscriptions" and "memberships" as essentially the same thing, with both leading to full access of the site's content. In my definition, a "member" is really a recurring donor who gets relatively little more than recognition and appreciation for becoming a VIP donor. So while Pete discusses two distinctions: donor: someone who gives money to support the publication subscriber/member: someone who makes a recurring payment for full access to the content I have three: donor: gives money to support the publication VIP member: gives recurring money to support the publication and be a part of the club subscriber: makes a recurring payment for full access to the site's content Only the third, in my case, required a paywall. BUT… that doesn't mean paywall software can't work for donors or VIP members. In fact, it can be a great idea to use paywall software to encourage people to sign up for your email newsletter (for free) or to become a VIP member in order to either gain access to special features on the website (stuff that's "behind the paywall" even if it isn't your news content) or who get personalized recognition when they show up at your website and are logged in. Pete and Tyler also lay out some different strategies for publications based on where they are in their lifecycle—startups might rely more on donations, while more mature publications could use a leaky paywall for members or subscribers. Here's another tip: Publications covering topics such as environmentalism or education might offer monthly memberships or subscriptions, even as startups, to help them build recurring revenues. And, you can always experiment with different approaches and make changes along the way. Check it out.

How Reader Polls and Contesting Support Local Publishing
When we launched the Jackson Free Press in November 2002, our first issue including a ballot. It was the inaugural Best of Jackson ballot, designed to celebrate local people, businesses and organizations. We thought "Best of Jackson" was something that people in Jackson could use to help generate a sense of community pride, and we were very excited that our new publication would offer it.
We also knew it would help our fledgling weekly paper by immediately creating interest among potential advertisers. By February 2003, we'd had our first Best of Jackson party and we'd put our first Best of Jackson issue on the streets, having sold more ads than we could have imagined at that point.
The annual "Best Of" or "Reader's Choice" issue of local weeklies and monthlies is often the most lucrative issue of the year advertising. The package can include ads in print, online, on the ballot, leading up to the nominations phase, taking them through the finalist phase and advertising in the Best Of issue where winners are proclaimed. Maybe you can even sell them a plaque—or a longer-term advertising agreement.
Are you digital only? Services such as SceneThink offer both an online ballot (with advertising options) and a final announcement website where different types of advertising and monetization can live throughout the year.
And while people are voting in your Reader's Choice or Best Of, something else magical can happen on the digital ballot you offer them—you can collect their email address. If they don't opt out of your newsletters, you can add hundreds (sometimes thousands) of email addresses while your reader poll is running.
In other words, it's a great top-of-funnel strategy to pull people into your publication's ecosystem.

Todd Tip: Multiple Ballots

At JFP we eventually settled on a two-ballot system for Best of Jackson—a Nominations ballot and a Finalists ballot. On the Nominations ballot, each of the 100+ categories in the Best of Jackson (Best Restaurant, Best Local Nonprofit, Best Bartender, Best-Dressed Jacksonian) was just a write-in slot. The software would help us count up the number of nominations that each individual entity got, and then the top 4-6 (depending on the number of nominations in the category and the spread of those nominations) would be declared Finalists and appear on the Finalists ballot. The Finalists ballot was multiple choice, so once the voting closed on that one, we'd easily count up the votes and get a winner in each category. For Best of Jackson, we declared one Winner (unless there was a tie) and everyone else was a Finalist. (Other publications use the vote count to declare Second, Third, Honorable Mention or whatnot.) Our Best of Jackson issue was always published in January (we thought it was nice to start the year with a big issue), which mean the Nominations generally happened in early November and the Finalists ballot in early December. We'd give ourselves a few weeks between each to do the counting and sell the advertising. Part of our reasoning was this—the two ballots gave us more authentic results (the nominations process was an opportunity for newcomer or breakout candidates to get to the second ballot) and it gave us more sales opportunities. During the nominations phase, we'd usually get advertisers who were contract advertisers and/or familiar with Best of Jackson to advertise and try to market their way to that second ballot. Once we knew who the Finalists were, we could reach out to those Finalists with specific advertising and marketing packages to get them to advertise during the Finalist voting and to get them to advertise in the Best of Jackson print issue and on the results website. While we enjoyed declaring the Winner in each category, we made a big deal out of being a Finalist. We would encourage Finalists to advertise the fact, put it on their social media, use our web badges and even buy plaques to hang up in their shops. And all of that, in turn, was great marketing for the Jackson Free Press, helping cement our brand as a part of local culture and a champion of local businesses and organizations. Of course, two ballots isn't the only way to do it. Best Of balloting software can support one phase where you have write-ins, tally them up and then declare the placements of winners. It's your choice—and, frankly, that approach might be best for a smaller contest, or if your focus isn't as much on advertising as it is on generating buzz, getting email addresses and cementing your spot in the local culture.

Once you've gotten a Best Of under your belt, it can be tempting to do other contests to get the same benefits: advertising demand during the nominations and finalist voting, and more e-mail addresses from processing the ballots online.
At Jackson Free Press, we would hold 3-4 other ballots through the year, including Best Doctors, Dentists and Clinics (very popular); Best Lawyers and Law Firms; Best Local Household Services and so on.
We'd basically have a quarterly contest going that would attract different businesses and services to whom we could sell advertising packages while we built our local email list from the folks who voted.
Use Contests to Help Local Businesses and Orgs Build Up Their Email List (…For a Fee)
Once you've got a somewhat sizable email list for your publication, you can use a contest to help other local businesses or organizations grow their email lists—and you can do it to generate revenue for your pub.
Here's my approach. Using software called UpViral (I've also used ShortStack), you create a contest to give away some value at the local partner. If they're a restaurant, have them give away a few $100 gift cards; if they're a museum or venue, have them give away gift certificates for memberships, season tickets, or passes to big perfomances. Make sure there's a significant monetary value attached to what's offered.

Using your partner's own product is important—everyone would like a Amazon or Visa gift card, but only people with local interest will want to win a gift certificate to Main Street Falafel or OurTown Music Lessons. That means the list you help them generate will attract people on it with a stronger interest in remaining.
In the contesting software, you allow people a chance to win the gift card by entered their email address. There should be an opt-out checkbox, which, if left checked, causes them to be subscribed to the partner's email list. Make that clear in the legalese.
Once they enter with their email address, the software can then give them the opportunity to share the contest on social media for more entries. That's a nice bonus to help get the word out about the contest and generates some social buzz that your partner will appreciate.
Finally, with everything set up, blast the contest links and details out to your email list as a "promoted e-mail" or "partner campaign" — however you denote sponsored content. Most of your readers will appreciate the opportunity to win something authentically local. When the contest is over, pick the winners randomly and announce them on the partner's new list, welcoming everyone else. (If they want, the partner can welcome the non-winners to their list with a discount or coupon of some sort.)

You may want to run a little paid social media boost or advertising campaign in your channels to send folks back to the contest as well; not everyone on your email list actually looks at every email, and marketing to your existing social audiences can create an additional boost. Anytime you're doing something in email or social for a client, I'd put a little of the revenue back into social media advertising just to "pour a little gas on the fire." (Also, don't pour gas on actual fires.)
The contest will likely generate a few hundred new email subscribers for your partner organization. Pricing it somewhere around $3-5 per email isn't outrageous — maybe a flat rate of $750-1500 depending on the size of your list. Or, sell the contest as part of a broader digital campaign that includes web and newsletter ads along with the contest.
Using Live Events to Fill Your Funnel (and Please Your Readers)
Since throwing an event isn't technically "digital"—or not purely so—so I'm not going to go deep into "how to make money throwing events." That's a little outside the scope of this playbook, but it's certainly written about extensively and even has its own playbooks.

Events aren't just to build revenue or email lists. They can also be an important part of your reporting, especially if you have a solutions journalism lens for what you do.

Free Press

Gathering Toward Solutions: A Community Event Playbook for Journalism Collaboratives

This toolkit offers an introduction to the before, during, and after of well-designed community gatherings.

That said, events can be a great way for a local media outlet to leverage its reach and build another leg in the stool.
For our purposes, though, events can be good for two things we've already covered: collecting email addresses for the top of your funnel and offering perks for True Fans at the bottom.

Better News

DIG DEEPER: Live Events Ideas from Better News

News enterprises, particularly those bound by geography (locals, regionals and metros), must do more than provide journalism. Your purpose must also extend to fostering experiences and conversations and convening community for the purposes of problem-solving and connection. Participating in or hosting in-person events can help news organizations deepen their relationships with casual audiences and attract new ones, while using digital platforms such as livestreaming and text-based tools to bring live events to larger audiences creates the sort of real-time, appointment-based engagement that is increasingly scarce in an oversaturated media environment. When used strategically, events can not only drive audience and engagement and provide strong marketing for your brand, but also generate significant revenue for the larger organization.  

So what am I talking about when it comes to events? We've got lots of options, but let's limit the scope a bit:
1.) Tabling. This means attending other people's events—think street fairs, farmers' markets, parades, "taste of our town"—and having a table there. (Maybe a tent if it's hot.) Run some a contest where people enter by giving you a phone number (for SMS) or email (for your email list). It's great for community building, story ideas… and adding to your email list.
2.) Talks. Want to make your True Fans feel special? Throw a talk! Grab a couple of microphones, a member of your staff and a local celebrity. It can be a politician, writer, musician, museum curator, etc. Invite people out; offer some chips and dip. It can be great to partner with a venue such as a museum, art gallery or coffee house and get them some publicity along with a small crowd who can buy drinks. (Oh… you should also record the talk to video and post it; it'll make a nice VIP-only story on the website.) Get email addresses from anyone new.
3.) Gatherings. This is one that the Mississippi Free Press specializes in. (They call them "Lounges.") Call up a local restaurant and get a corner table in their bar reserved for happy hour on a Friday and then invite your VIP Readers to come visit with some of your staff. Buy a few plates of appetizers and let everyone buy their drinks (esp. if you're a non-profit). Visit. Talk. Get story ideas. See who comes. Get email addresses from anyone new. (See a pattern?)
4.) Sponsor. As a media outlet, you should set aside some portion of your inventory for in-kind sponsorship. This can be tough, sometimes, because non-profits, museums and venues can be your best advertisers if you sell advertising. So my rule is to set a policy that you donate to specific charities that mean something to you or to your organization (such as domestic violence prevention or animal rights issues) and offer attractive marketing packages to all other non-profits.
That said, you might also want to sponsor events that help your brand or help you build your list. An event thrown by a big non-profit with their own marketing power could help your publication build your brand. Or, you could ask the non-profit to share their registration email list with you or give you the opportunity to send a sponsored message to their list. Feel free to get creative if a little "awareness barter" could help with your overall strategy.

Best of Jackson Party Formula

While the Jackson Free Press was publishing, the annual Best of Jackson Party was one of the year's highlights for our readers. The basic model was the same each year: 6-10p on Sunday evening (so service industry folks could attend), usually in a venue or part of town that people didn't usually frequent for parties. The event started with low-key music and free food served by local restaurants and chefs (the finalists and winners), with wine and beer donated by local distributors (or traded for advertising). After about 5-10 minutes of surprise entertainment (drum line, drag queens, flashmob, etc.) around 7:15, we'd hand out awards from 7:30-8:30 and we switched over to a DJ dance party until 10. The party was free to attend. All we asked for was an email for the registration (and we limited the list to 2,000, with priority given to actual finalists in the contesting). The result? It was an amazing party that fed the souls of our True Fans and usually added several hundred new emails to our newsletter thanks to those free registrations. While we didn't make a lot of money on the event itself, we did sell sponsorships that included large ads in the Best of Jackson issue, which added to the bottom line. And it was always a big positive for our brand. There are weeklies around the country that charge admissions or get a lot of sponsors for their Best Of party and end up making good revenue on the event itself. I'll interview some of them and add that to the newsletter and playbook in the near future.

Podcast Ep. 1: Cassandra Yardeni Wagner - 'Three Things for Profitable Events'
Check out the first ever episode in the Digital Revenue Playbook for Local New Publisher's "Three Things" podcast. New episodes appear in video on YouTube and you can subscribe to the audio on Spotify.



Ep. 1 - Cassandra Yardeni Wagner - "Three Things for Profitable Events"

The first episode of the "Three Things" podcast features Cassandra Yardeni Wagner, co-owner and Chief Marketing Officer at Chava Communications, which owns the San Antonio Current, Orlando Weekly and Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. All three publications are great at money-making events that stay true to their mission and support their ability to publish great journalism for their readers. Three Things is the podcast supporting the Digital Revenue Playbook for News Publishers, written by Todd Stauffer. See the playbook at

Be a part of this living, breathing playbook.
(Is that a little weird?)
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Pursuing Grant Revenue and Philanthropic Dollars
There's an adage about getting a business loan: it's easiest when you don't need the money… and it helps when you know someone at the bank. The same can be true for grants for your journalism. You may get lucky turning in an online grant application to an entity that has never heard of you before. But you're much more likely to get a grant if you get to know people in philanthropy—and if you don't desperately need the money.
So, what can you do? Here are some things to consider if you'd like to add some grant funding as one of the legs of your revenue stool:
1.) Think local. One way to get national grants is to show success with local grants. Look to granting opportunities from your city, region or state. For example, arts organizations, alliances and commissions offer grants for arts reporting or collaboration. Humanities councils or bureaus can do the same for reporting or initiatives around problem-solving, leadership or democracy. Meet people at your local community foundation, as they will both be a grantor and a connector to local foundations. And learn more about state, regional or national foundations that work in your area. The Kellogg Foundation is active in Mississippi, for instance, and they've been a source of grant funding for the Mississippi Free Press.

Here's one quick shortcut: Pay attention to your area's PBS and NPR stations. Listen to who underwrites their local programming, and see what you can learn about their grant funding from press releases—or by taking the station's development director out to lunch!
2.) Get to know people in philanthropy. Some of this means attending the cheese-and-wine events in your community, including those outside of journalism. See who shows up and funds in other nonprofit verticals such as economic development, the environment, education, healthcare, criminal justice, etc. Alberto Ibargüen, the former CEO of the Knight Foundation (a foundation you should really get to know), is famous for saying about local philanthropy, "Whatever your first priority… journalism needs to be your second, because trustworthy information, most often locally sourced, is essential to achieving any of these other important goals." It's a good line to have on the tip of your tongue at cocktail parties.

Want another shortcut? Join an association! AAN, NAHP, NNPA, LION Publishers, INN, ONA, NNA, LMA and others exist, in part, to help you meet more people in your industry and in the broader journalism ecosystem. The annual conferences offer a great way to make connections, meet actual funders, and many of the associations themselves offer access to grant funding for members.
3.) Shore up your other revenues. Grant funders often do not want to be your most important source of funding, and while this is changing somewhat, it can still be difficult to get operating funds from philanthropy to pay for admin salaries and internet access. Instead, they're more likely to fund projects or reporters. That said, one thing that tends to impress funders is knowing that you've got the basics covered—you're asking for a grant to improve and expand your coverage, not to pay back rent. For instance, showing strong recurring reader revenues and local donor patterns can help you make the case to grant funders.
4.) Try for a chat before sending a proposal. Many funders are happy to talk to you before you submit a grant proposal. (Others may not do one-on-one calls, but look for webinars or information sessions leading up to a grant deadline.) No rule says you can't "get the inside scoop" on what they do or don't like to see in a proposal, and making that personal connection can give them extra nuance around your proposal and the opportunity to learn more about your mission. Talking to funders ahead of time is one of the key antidotes to the problem of "we never get grants we apply for"—you've got a much better chance if you've spoken with the grant officer and everyone has a better idea of why you're applying and how the grant would benefit your readers.
5.) Understand the language and go in with clean books. Some other suggestions, which you'll see in the News/Media Alliance link below (especially in their guidebook), include understanding some of the lingua franca of grant-making, such as Letters of Intent, one-pagers and other items you should have on hand for a grant proposal. One item that I will highlight here is clean financials. If you want grant funding, you need to show that you've got a system in place for tracking and spending the money responsibly. Few grantors are willing to send you money just because you pinkie-swear you'll spend it on important stuff.

News/Media Alliance

Getting a Grant: How, Where and Why to Apply for Journalism Funding

The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) has developed guidelines for seeking funds and a “living” directory of journalism grants.

6.) Improve and track your diversity. Diversity may be anathema for certain politicos in the U.S. and elsewhere right now, but, as of this writing, it's pretty important to many philanthropic funders. So, we've got two items to think about:
  • Your newsroom—payroll staff, contract remote or freelancers—should reflect your community and/or tothecommunity you're reporting on. Work to make this a priority.
  • You should track your diversity metrics (on staff and in terms of your journalistic impact) so you can discuss them with grantors.
7.) Starting small is OK. Feel good about starting small with grants. If you can get a grant for a few thousand dollars from a local organization for a voter's guide or to help with a specific type of coverage or investigation, go for it if you have the resources. In your first months and years of grant funding, piecing together smaller grants can be good, especially if you execute them well and build up a fan base in philanthropy. Those smaller grantors can offer references and connections to larger ones, and showing them on your books will help make larger grantors more comfortable with giving you money.
8.) Get a fiscal sponsor. A fiscal sponsor is a 501c3 that lends its non-profit status to your organization and helps manage non-profit donations or grants. A professional fiscal sponsor takes a small percentage of the grant to help with accounting, tracking and reporting the success of your grant to the grantor. A fiscal sponsor will also often make the grantor feel more comfortable when giving you a larger grant because the fiscal sponsor is accustomed to managing larger sums of money, has the capacity to account for it, and sometimes will invest the principal to generate additional interest income. Options include your local community foundation or, if you're unsure who to contact, reach out to AAN's sister organization, the Alternative Newsweekly Foundation, which handles fiscal sponsorship for our members and many other news organizations.

What if Other People Paid Your Reporters?

“Someone else pays for my reporter? Where do we sign?!” I’d guess that’s the first response you’d get from most money-crunched newsrooms. Someone else funding one of your most essential resources—a reporter—can be highly appealing. You’ve got a few ways to go about it: fully funded, fellowship funding or project funding. Let’s look at each. Funded reporters Programs exist at scale to provide paid reporters to newsrooms—the big names are Report for America, ProPublica, and The New York Times, and sometimes they’re literally on a different payroll and sometimes their pay is subsidized, with the expectation that you’ll match and/or raise money locally to complete their pay package. (Similar but limited to the Golden State is the California Local News Fellowship, which places young graduates in newsrooms while paying them as University of California employees.) You may also find that other journalism funders (or local/regional funders) will work with you on specifically funding a reporter for a set number of years, particularly if that reporter is from an underserved population, focuses on a particularly needed vertical or fills a critical gap in coverage. One caveat to funded reporters: These organizations may want to edit or co-edit the stories produced by your reporter, so bear that in mind as you get started. ProPublica and the Times have their own goals—they want to publish some cutting-edge investigations—and that will cut into the time your reporter can work with your team on breaking or follow-up reporting. Reporting fellowships Fellowships vary considerably in what they cover, but the best ones (for our purposes) are those journalists can use to fund part of their job, specific investigations or educational opportunities. Ideally, they'll offer some education for the reporter while covering some reporting costs or a portion of their pay.40 Journalism Fellowships for Experienced Journalists and Recent Graduates | ProFellow Project funding This is perhaps the most ubiquitous approach—you get a particular project funded, enabling you to either assign a current reporter to it (using the funding to offset their salary during the duration) or hire a freelance reporter. (Alternatively, the freelancer may get the grant themselves and then publish the resulting journalism with your outlet.) Project funding can come from national sources—Pulitzer Center, Fund for Investigative Journalism, Earth Journalism Network, The Carter Center, Society of Environmental Journalists, USC Annenberg Heath Reporting Fellowship, Association of Healthcare Journalists, Inasmuch Foundation, The Hatch Institute, INJR, IRE, NYU, Solutions Journalism Network, Type Investigations, Education Writers Association, and many others A lot of these links came from this Poyner article by Kristen Hare. The story is a little out of date, but it's a great starting point for tracking down some project funding opportunities.. Beyond the national opportunities, project funding is often easier to approach with regional foundations, local family foundations or big donors. Of course, less structure can work against you, too, especially if the funder tries to get involved in the journalism when they’re not welcome. With grants at this level, you should consider putting a grant agreement in place to ensure everyone is in complete agreement about how this project will go down and who has the ultimate say over what.

So, where do you find grants? Remembering that I've mentioned local sources and news associations, one major resource is NewsFuel, a database of funding opportunities for local journalism.

What is Press Forward?

Announced in 2023 and gathering steam in 2024, Press Forward is an initiative spearheaded by the Knight Foundation and fiscally sponsored by the Miami Foundation. It's goal is to create a "national coalition investing more than $500 million to strengthen local newsrooms, close longstanding gaps in journalism coverage, advance public policy that expands access to local news, and to scale the infrastructure the sector needs to thrive."Press Forward | A national initiative to support the revitalization of local news Out of the gate, you're probably not likely to get a "Press Forward" grant, as the grants will generally come from other philanthropic organizations as part of their commitment (or increased commitment) to journalism funding. (For instance, the Mississippi Free Press is a MacArthur Foundation grantee, announced as part of their first cohort of Press Forward grants.) That comes under the banner of "Aligned Grantmaking" where individual foundations can grant money to news outlets or other organizations as part of this national effort. Soon to be announced is the Pooled Fund, which will be open to grant applications. In this case, foundations without dedicated journalism program officers can rely on Press Forward to help them pick and manage grantees to receive journalism grant dollars. Finally, Press Forward encourages "Press Forward Locals," often managed by community foundations, to encourage local grantmaking to journalism outlets. It's a valuable educational and organizational effort because those Press Forward Locals have a vested interest in seeing journalism and democracy thrive in their cities, regions and states.

Finally, one big "don't" as you seek grant funding: Don't take a grant for a project simply because the money is there. If you don't have the capacity, expertise or interest in doing the project, you'll likely fail—or worse, spend too much. A major cautionary tale in philanthropy is the project that costs you more to fulfill than the dollars granted.
If a grantor offers you a few thousand dollars to augment some reporting you're already likely to do—adding precinct-change reports and visuals to the political reporting you're planning this election cycle—that can be a nice way to add some project-only dollars. But a few thousand dollars to report on the state of schools in the suburbs (when all your regular reporting is in the inner city) might not be enough for the project. If you need to add significant capacity in order to succeed at the project, then the grant needs to be a capacity-building level of funding.

Another caution: Beware of strings attached. Particularly if you're getting grants from organizations that aren't accustomed to funding journalism, you'll need to spell out what you won't do for that grant, including whether they have the right to read or edit stories (they shouldn't) and what the parameters are for your reporting. Beware the grant that is actually a sponsored story. If it seems to be going in that direction, and you offer sponsored content on your site, maybe steer them toward a "buy" instead of a "grant."
Be an Agency: Audience Extension, Content Marketing and Client Services
Becoming a "digital agency" might sound like a lot to take on for a local publisher, and, in truth, it's not the first place I'd suggest you look for revenue. However, doing digital agency work for clients can be a nice extension of what you already do—digital publishing and advertising—and for the right organization, it's a way to add to the bottom line using your existing skillsets and team.
Let's look at several ways you can generate revenue by helping others with their digital presence.
Digital Advertising Audience Extension
If you already sell digital advertising, you may have hit this ceiling before—a client who would like to buy hundreds of thousands or millions of impression, and you can't deliver that many. The solution is to offer an "audience extension" service, where their digital ads are displayed programmatically on other websites visited by readers in your city or region. This is done using geotargeting and the services of an ad network. You can sell them ad impressions that appear on a wide variety of regional and national websites—sports, gaming, home and lifestyle, hobbies, etc.—but they only appear to folks visiting those sites from your area.
I've got two broad options for you regarding Audience Extension:
  • Google Ads. The first way to offer audience extension to a local client is to create a Google Ads account in their name (if they don't have one) and then create a geotargeted campaign using their advertising creative. Depending on your relationship with the client, you can charge them a service fee for managing the program (especially if they work with you long-term) or you can charge them a flat CPM for their advertising while you pay the lower wholesale amount to Google. In that case, you could charge $5, $8 or even $10 per thousand, and pay closer to $1-2 CPM for the ads served for the client. That's the approach I would take a for a one-time campaign or a limited relationship with the client.
  • Third-Party or White Label Service. Using a company like AdCellerant, you can run geotargeted, local or regional campaigns for your clients for which you charge a higher CPM while paying the service provider a lower CPM and pocketing the difference. The advantage is that this provider will have access to more networks and more tools than simply Google Ads, meaning the ad is more likely to appear in prime real estate on name-brand websites. That company will also have tools for more sophisticated campaigns, such as OTT video services, so you could help local clients get their commercials to appear during shows streaming via services such as Hulu and FuboTV.
Being able to offer this service gives you something else to talk about when you're on a sales call with a local prospect. Even if they say, "Your publication seems too small" or "too niche"—or they don't seem to like it—you can answer back with, "Actually, we could help you advertise on all sorts of different sites around the web, but target folks right here in the Jackson Metro, and you can work with our local team to design the ads and track success."
Google My Business and Search Engine Optimization
The Google My Business service is a great lead-generation tool for local digital revenue. When you find a local business or organization that hasn't "claimed" their Google My Business listing, there's a good chance they have other digital deficits lurking in their online marketing place. You can figure that out by (a.) looking at their Google My Business listing to make sure it seems active, complete and has an About statement for the business and (b.) clicking the "Own this business?" link to see what results you get.
If no one has claimed ownership, that tells you it's a great idea to call this business and offer your "Google My Business Customization Service." For $500-$750 you can help them "own" their business on Google My Business, dress it up with images, menus, reservation links, Q&A answers and more. It's a great way to customize the look and feel of the client's results on Google.
Businesses can also have search results problems that affect them on Google and Bing. Frequently, businesses have inaccuracies in their citations in the databases that underpin search results—databases managed by data aggregator companies such as Data Axle, Factual/Foursquare and Localeze.
You can figure out if a local business has a citation problem by using the free Moz Local Listing Score tool, where you enter the name of the business and its address. It will search for that business and let you know if you have issues in major databases.
You can then review the results and see which databases need to be updated so that everything matches—it could be something straightforward, such as your Facebook details, or something more involved. For the more involved listings, you can use the Moz Local tools (for a price) or a service like BrightLocal's Citation Builder to create the citations for your client. What do you charge? It can depend on the cost of the service and what else you're doing for the client, but $500-$1000 is a fair price to improve their search results over time (and it can take some time for them to come up) while you report the successful completion of new citations and show those pie charts improving.

Fit Small Business offers several handy guides aimed at small businesses that you can learn from and repurpose to serve local businesses as a digital agency. Here's a deeper dive into Google My Business and local SEO citations, for instance.

Fit Small Business

How to Build Local SEO Citations (+ 7 Ways to Build Them)

Local SEO citations help build your business' online presence. Here are 7 ways to learn how to build local citations for your business.

Search Engine Marketing
If your clients want help getting to the top of Google and Bing search results, then another option is to help them buy ads on the search engines. Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is simply buying your way into a featured listing that appears when users within a certain geography use certain keywords in their search.
To place ads for your client, you can use their Google Ads or Microsoft Ads account and go to work. To make money doing this, you can charge a flat monthly fee or a percentage of their advertising spend, often 15% of what they budget each month for SEM. Generally, you'll do this as part of a broader campaign to handle their digital advertising (see Audience Expansion above) or to handle both their SEO and SEM.

WordStream offers a fairly comprehensive primer on Search Engine Marketing if you'd like to take a deeper dive. It's got a little sales pitch for their tools at the end, but you might want to check those out, too, as they offer some free tools to help you get started with SEM ad creation and keyword research.


Search Engine Marketing (SEM): How to Do It Right | WordStream

Search engine marketing is one of the best ways to grow your business in a competitive marketplace. In this guide, you'll learn an overview of search engine marketing basics, tips and strategies.

Client Websites and On-Page SEO
Early on in my tim running the JFP, I decided we could make money helping our advertising clients improve their presence on the Web. I created a brand—JFP Digital Services (now Changemaker Media Services)—and set out to build and manage websites and mobile presences for local restaurants, bars, stores and non-profits.
While I did end up hosting lots of local business and organization's websites (and I still do), the truth is that the "web business" wasn't the lucrative part. Businesses often undervalue web design services since they figure they can use GoDaddy or Wix or some other service to build the site themselves. (They rarely finish such sites, which is one place you can come in.)
So, briefly, I'll offer an idea or two here. First, if you have a local business or organization struggling with their website, you can offer to build it for them if you have that expertise. If you think you'll be building sites for several businesses, you can look to a service like SiteSwan, which makes it easy for you to offer a hosted web solution to multiple businesses at around $10-15 per site. Squarespace Circle offers discounts and affiliate revenue for signing new clients to Squarespace, which you can do when you create a new Squarespace website for the client. Duda offers an "agency" plan for hosting multiple sites along with a white-label service so that it looks like your company is doing all the heavy lifting.
How do you price a client website? Depending on how much effort the initial design is, you might charged between $250-$5000 to get it set up. For sites my company creates in WordPress, designing the site is generally $2500-5000 (especially for e-commerce) and then we charge $249/month for full "managed" hosting.
For sites in SiteSwan, we charge a lot less, most clients pay $990 to get set up and then $99/month for their site, which includes an hour of changes per month. Here's the pricing grid from, which was the name I gave our basic website creation service.
From experience, I'll say that your best website clients are those who want other, ongoing services from you, such as monthly content marketing or social media management, as discussed next. For others who simply need a billboard (and maybe a menu or two that they change out quarterly), one of these services can be a way to make a little money and keep the relationship going.
Content Marketing and Social Media Management
One of the "legs of the stool" for the Jackson Free Press was offering content-marketing services for local nonprofits. While restaurants and retail weren't as profitable for us, helping local nonprofits become "publishers" was a lucrative niche.
One reason this worked as a revenue stream for the weekly paper is that these clients had similar needs to our publication. They needed to get the word out to supporters and constituents, often via a regular newsletter, and they needed to fill their website and social media channels with content. That was a good fit because some of the same staff members who helped put together our newspaper and online newsite could help make something similar happen for local non-profits.

For the record, we didn't use our reporters for content marketing work, since we felt that wouldn't be ethical. We did use our advertising designer, sales team, copyeditor and me—the publisher—to fulfill these tasks. Eventually we had a "content manager" on this team who did a lot of the work, particularly the development and management of social media content.
In exchange for a monthly retainer (or an hourly rate) we offer a mix of services to clients. They tend to look like this:
  • Weekly or monthly newsletter that we help write, copyedit, assemble and send.
  • Weekly, bi-weekly or monthly blog or news updates on their websites.
  • Press releases to tout new programs and accomplishments; press alerts to encourage press coverage for events.
  • Social media channels updated with posts and reels 2-5 times a week.
  • Web updates to static content, managed hosting and regular (often quarterly) analytics reports.
  • Video production and editing.
  • Livestream support for webinars, social media gatherings or in-person events with a streaming component.
  • Graphic design for slide decks, promotions, leave-behinds, reports, printed collateral and more.
  • Live event support (name tags, registration table, vendor outreach, etc.)
Most of these clients paid between $1500-2500 a month for the steady work and then $75-150 per hour for the one-time projects depending on the type of work required (e.g., $75/hour for graphic design or live event support, $150/hour for video production).
When I was running the JFP, I was known to say "I'd rather sell a Full Page ad for $1500 than do a month's worth of content marketing for $1500," But, truthfully, we were able to shore up the company's revenues in lean times with these services and they kept our team busy with work we were good at. Plus, interacting with these non-profits on a regular basis would also help me find story ideas to pass on to the editorial side, as I spent a lot of time talking to non-profits working in startup entrepreneurship, retraining programs, medical and mental health spaces—thanks to our client base.
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Conclusion: You Can Do This.
You probably didn't get into local journalism to get rich. (If you did, then we really need to chat.)
But as you can see from this playbook, you do have options and practices you can follow for generating the revenue you need to sustain your publication, pay your staff and—yes—pay yourself a good salary if you don't already.
I'm here to help! If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please send them to me a I'm happy to answer anything I can in email, and I love getting new ideas for this playbook or for newsletter updates. (I also offer one-on-one coaching if you'd like me to help you talk through your plan of action for generating sustaining revenue for your organization. Write if you're interested and we'll chat.)
I wholeheartedly recommend you join an association if you haven't already. Consider the Association of Alternative Newsmedia if you think you're a fit (you can write and ask me if you're not sure) or our partners the National Association of Hispanic Publishers (NAHP) or the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA, aka "The Black Press"). Other wonderful groups include LION Publishers, the Institute for Nonprofit News, the Online News Association, the Local Media Association and the Tiny News Collective among many others.
Again, drop me a line if you'd like to ask more about any of those and I'll do my best to connect you.
Thanks for reading!