Chris Waiting is the CEO of The Conversation.
We have been inundated with news over the past few months of publishers closing their offices, scrapping departments, rethinking their revenue models and trying to establish a more concrete future for an industry that has struggled to adapt to the ever-changing habits and expectations of its consumers.
And yet these stories of closure and redundancy are juxtaposed with data which tells us that national news readership has soared by an extra 6.6 million in the year to March 2020, compared with the same time last year, while national daily readership over print and digital has surpassed 30 million for the first time.
Which to me is indicative of the times we live in: there’s enthusiasm for news products but it can be hard to monetise that enthusiasm.
The Conversation is proof it is possible to run a successful publishing business without advertising or paywall. We are largely funded by universities and research institutions and, to a lesser (but growing) extent, through reader donations. So while we are not affected by the current advertising downturn, we expect to see many of the institutions who fund us cutting back heavily. We share a similar need to diversify our income.
Like many publishing sites we have seen a surge in readers during the pandemic: between March and May our site had 9.7m unique users from the UK, a 185 per cent increase on the same period the year before. Globally, including republication, The Conversation’s stories were read more than a quarter of a billion times during lockdown.
And, like others, we can put that down in large part to the public seeking out reliable information and expert insight while they are under siege from an invisible and unknown enemy. We only publish content written by academics and experts in their field, all underpinned by research, and share it for free as part of our charitable mission to democratise knowledge. Everything is published under a Creative Commons licence, allowing other news organisations to use it for free, as long as they link back to us. We allow our content to find its audience, rather than the other way around.
But what we must all do now is focus on converting these new first-time visitors into repeat readers who will, over time, support us.
In its recent Digital News Report the Reuters Institute ranked countries on their propensity to pay for online news: the UK ranked near the bottom with just seven per cent confirming they had done so in the previous 12 months.
Yet I am convinced more people would pay for their news if we can convince them of our value - not just to them, but to society. I am reminded of the quote from one of our patrons, professor Sir Eric Thomas, who in his 2004 Government review into voluntary giving to Higher Education, said - and I paraphrase - we do not have a giving problem in the UK, we have an asking problem. Much of the Guardian’s recent success can be attributed to how effectively (and frequently) it asks.
So the challenge is to move people through a funnel, from first-time visitors, to regular readers, to newsletter or podcast subscribers and ultimately asking them to become donors or paying customers. At The Conversation, we had scheduled the start of our annual donation campaign the week that lockdown went into effect. With the uncertainty of that moment coupled with our skyrocketing traffic, we made the decision to postpone our donation focused-campaign in favour of one that encouraged first-time readers to subscribe to our daily newsletter. With the public hungry for experts to explain and contextualise what was happening, we wanted them to build a relationship with us, rather than immediately asking them for money
I am happy that this decision paid off - the rate of new subscriptions trebled. And so when we did eventually go back to ask them to support us, donations increased dramatically as we were able to target our most loyal readers directly through our newsletter.
Once people come across your content the key is to make it easy, accessible and engaging in the hope they will come back. Free tiers, offers and incentives will draw people in and with the average time Britons hold a subscription standing at 19 months, you have got a long time to prove your worth. You just have to keep them engaged.
Whether you are behind a paywall or free, you will always be competing for attention across so many platforms. There is always a danger people will seek a substitute and discover they can live without you permanently, but is that not true for any brand? Publishers are not exempt from the critical need for high quality, impactful and engaging content, nor can they escape the inevitability of a changing, modernising world.
The Conversation is a charity - something pretty rare amongst news organisations. When I spoke to the House of Lords Communications Committee in April, one of the questions they asked me was whether other news organisations should seek charitable status as suggested by Dame Cairncross in her review. There are benefits and restrictions that come with the additional transparency required of charities. But for me, the most valuable aspect is that it requires us to remain focused on our core purpose: to democratise knowledge by bringing academic research to the widest possible audience.
I think many publishers are finding they need a similar clarity to survive. We must be ruthlessly focused on our readership, building engagement and loyalty. Traffic in recent months tells us that the public is hungrier than ever for high-quality journalism. The challenge is to convert this interest into sustainable business models.
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