On the day of her deadline, the first day of the new year, Liena Zagare still wasn’t totally sure what to do next.
On Dec. 6, the editor and publisher of Bklyner told readers that the 10-year-old hyperlocal site covering Brooklyn couldn’t make it on ads alone anymore.
They needed 3,000 people (“less than 1% of our readers,” Zagare wrote) to become subscribers and pay $5 a month. It was one last try to save something she’d built and believed in.
But Zagare had tried a membership drive once before, and she thought they’d be lucky to get 500 people.
By Jan. 1, Bklyner got 1,745 memberships.
It wasn’t the number they’d aimed for. But half of those people paid for the full year. They’d still need to get to 3,000 in order to hire another reporter and continue their work. But maybe they could take a bit more time.
So on Jan. 1, she wrestled with the whole thing. Stay open despite falling short of the goal, or close?
Then, Zagare got a handwritten letter from someone at a local detention center, an email from a tenants’ association about the ceiling of a lobby collapsing, and she had a full inbox with messages from the community rallying Bklyner on.
“It was just like, all right," she said. "We’re back.”
'We cannot make ends meet'
In the decade that Bklyner’s covered Brooklyn, a lot has changed for local journalism, including the value of online ads.
The for-profit site started with mom and pop neighborhood shops and small business owners. People could buy Google ads, then, but the real trouble began when Facebook opened up to ads, Zagare said. It’s a scene that’s replayed itself again and again in big and small, national and local publications around the country.
Last year, Davey Alba reported for Wired, Facebook increased its earnings by 45 percent and Google by 21 percent, “the vast majority of all this revenue came from advertising — 87 percent for Google, and a whopping 98 percent for Facebook.”
Zagare laid the troubles out clearly in her December push for membership:
In 2017, local independent media sources like ours are in real trouble. Revenue from advertising and classifieds that once fueled local news is now being lost to Facebook, Google, and other global internet giants. We cut our costs deeply last year, but it wasn’t enough.
Local newspapers are dying, and local news sites are shuttering every week. Just last month, Gothamist and DNAinfo called it quits. I must be frank in telling you that BKLYNER may not be far behind. We cannot make ends meet under our current advertising-based business model. Like hundreds of other news outlets around the country, we’ve found it impossible to sustain a robust news organization on local ad sales alone.
Maybe, she thought before this, the site could close and reopen as a non-profit. But in calling area foundations, she was told they didn’t have the money to invest.
Then, Zagare made a call that convinced her to at least try something she really hadn’t before: Ask people to pay for their news.
Help them understand why
In early December, Zagare called News Revenue Hub’s Mary Walter-Brown.
Before closing Bklyner, Walter-Brown said, Zagare should tell Bklyner’s community what they were facing. Walter-Brown found that sites that closed all had one thing in common: communities wished they’d known what was happening and had been asked for help.
“We’ve seen this is in markets across the country where we’ve helped news orgs launch membership programs,” Walter-Brown said. “Audiences will support journalism they value and trust as long as news organizations help them understand why we need their investment — and then make it easy for them to donate.”
News Revenue Hub started out of the non-profit Voice of San Diego and has worked with nearly a dozen for- and non-profit news organizations to set up sustainable membership models.
Zagare put Bklyner’s push for membership together pretty quickly, in about two days. She and her small team then spent the rest of the month getting the word out on social media, local TV and radio. They did not pay for Facebook ads or boost posts on Facebook. She couldn’t justify spending money on Facebook, Zagare said, “which is killing my business.”
They got 700 subscribers in the first week.
It helps that Bklyner was established and recognized for impactful work and not a brand new site trying to get off the ground, Zagare said. She learned the huge value of their email list in reaching people directly.
And she learned something about her readers.
“People want to be part of something that matters I think it the biggest take away,” she said.
“Journalists are great at telling other people’s stories but we struggle to tell our own story. That’s what it takes to build trust and support. News orgs that want to build reader revenue must be willing to cultivate a relationship with their audience that includes listening to their needs and providing products and services they want — whether it’s a special newsletter or a live event where their community can come together to discuss issues,” she said. “More than anything it’s about establishing a consistent dialogue with readers and helping them understand what it takes to provide strong reporting and giving the community a role in supporting that service.”
When a community cares
Berkeleyside is another for-profit site that has found success in reaching out to people for financial support. That site launched a direct public offering and has so far raised close to $700,000 of its $800,000 goal.
"If you have started something, if you've got some traction, if you've got a community that really cares about you and reads you, I think anywhere in the country you'll find a good reception to something like this,” Berkeleyside's co-founder Lance Knobel told Poynter last year.
Tom Grubisich wrote about the trend for Street Fight, noting that Spirited Media, which publishes several local sites, including Billy Penn, plans to work with News Revenue Hub this year to harness member support.
There is a difference, Jay Rosen has pointed out with the Membership Puzzle Project, between subscribers and members. But the project has found that people will pay for news for reasons other than just getting past a paywall, which are becoming more popular for legacy sites transitioning to digital.
“One of biggest discoveries is that members don’t want a gate around the journalism they’re supporting,” Rosen told Poynter in December. “Part of the reason that members of The Correspondent in the Netherlands support it is that they want others in Dutch society to have this journalism available to them, even those who are not members.”
Bklyner still needs to get to that 3,000 member goal. As of late last week, they were nearing 2,000. The process, while exhausting, has boosted morale at Bklyner and taught Zagare something pretty valuable in the process.
“I kind of wanted to see if it really even mattered to people, what we did,” she said. “As it turned out, I guess it does.”