Credit: Left to right: Federica Cherubini (RISJ), Renée Kaplan (The Financial Times), Siddharth Varadarajan (The Wire), Rosalia Lloret ( at the International Journalism Festival

Good journalism is not cheap. But where does the money to produce it come from if readers are not always willing to pay for news, and other revenue sources are shaky, like digital advertising?

At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia last week, three news leaders talked about what is next for the business of news.

Picking your battles

There are few better places to start than business news publisher, the Financial Times (FT). In the last few months, it hit its longstanding target of 1m digital subscribers, and also launched a new app, the FT Edit, delivering a curation of the news of the day at a fraction of the price of a standard subscription.

Acquiring new subscribers is easy compared to holding onto them, says Renée Kaplan, head of digital editorial development at the FT. It is always important to repopulate your audience, but what truly makes a difference to the bottom line are the people who keep their subscriptions rolling.

Retention is the key goal moving forward, but in the FT Edit, it also has a way to seize upon its enormous 26m social media followers. The plan is to get a slim percentage to download the app, try it out for free for the first month, and ultimately convert these followers to paying subscribers once they see the value.

This "adjacent audience" represent valuable potential; these are people who know about the publisher but do not take up a subscription because, for example, its title "Financial Times" excludes non-business professionals. In other words, the FT is trying to change how it is perceived to a much wider crowd - having already updated its content with increased coverage of lifestyle, climate issues, personal finance and more - and in doing so, start to create a relationship.

There are a lot of ways to make money, Kaplan adds, but the challenge is picking your battles. How many of those make sense for your audience? And how many could hurt your brand in the process if they diminish trust amongst your audience?

And each to their own. More news publishers are leaning into e-commerce; writing to generate sales for an affiliate or partner company. Kaplan uses an example from BuzzFeed, where it arguably makes sense from a brand perspective to review and recommend sex toys. But that is, clearly, not for everyone.

"As soon as you figure out what really works, you already need to think about the next thing because it never lasts," says Kaplan.

Bumps in the donation model

The Wire was founded in 2015 as an Indian digital-first, non-profit news organisation, publishing primarily in English, but also in three other languages.

Founder and editor Siddharth Varadarajan reflected on the difficulties for a donation-based news operation in India to have any kind of cash flow predictability. It has reached some level of comfort through reader donations, which cover 60-65 per cent of its monthly budget, but there are always curveballs ahead.

Indian law, for example, does not allow non-profits to access funding from overseas. Large donors within the country make up significant parts of its revenue, and this law prevents them from tapping into donors abroad.

Add to that the Indian diaspora that it wants to cater to. Non-resident Indians (NRIs), as in those who have passports and now live abroad, can donate to The Wire. But Indians who have settled elsewhere, and maybe received citizenship in another country, cannot.

The Indian central bank also took the decision last year to introduce a new rule, which imposed two-factor authentification on any monthly recurring expenses above 5000 Indian Rupees (approximately £50). It has caused churn amongst their biggest spenders who get irritated by the constant need to re-validate their subscriptions.

Non-profits are tax-exempt in India, but that places a cap of 20 per cent of its net revenue coming from commercial sources. Any contractual work, merchandise sales, or events all fall under this cap. Reader revenue seems to be the main source of income with scope to grow.

But even then you have a chicken-and-egg situation. The Wire has a successful YouTube channel with some 3.69m subscribers, there is scope to grow but that requires more human resources. That requires funding, which needs to come mostly from new readers, which, in turn, means reaching new eyeballs.

The Wire has had some joy with running events for its readers pre-pandemic, even without heavily sponsoring the events, which leaves room for revenue growth. Other publications in the country become subject to pressure from the Indian government, Varadarajan says, because they attract big sponsors as a knock-on effect of booking Prime Minister Modi or other top-level ministers. But then they are held to ransom and are not allowed to criticise the government in their reports in case they pull out of the event, and the whole plan falls apart.

"It pays for your journalism, but what kind of journalism is it? Everything comes with a price," says Varadarajan. He targets finding more readers and viewers, who continue to surprise him through their generosity. The plan is to create more touchpoints with readers either through stories or events.

Objection handling

In Spain, digital newspaper had a lot of success launching a membership in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic. With more than 60k paying subscribers and 1m daily readers, about 50 per cent of revenue comes from readers.

What has kept them going, according to Rosalia Lloretl, CEO of is pinning down readers to long-term commitments. About 80 per cent of their readers are yearly or bi-yearly subscribers, which makes more solid cash flow.

Most readers will not be asked to pay upfront, but the website has introduced a meter that detects users who read more than 10 pages a month and ask them to become members, with a Guardian-style pledge.

When people cancel their subscriptions, they will be asked why they cancelled. If they select any editorial reason, the editor-in-chief gets in touch to try and resolve any problems. This proactive approach has proved an effective way to convince people to change their mind and stay with the website.

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