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These Online Publications Are Not Free … and Readers Don’t Mind

4 min read

You had to pay to get in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He added that the publication has a 91 percent retention rate, and the reason for it is simple: “I still think the first and most important aspect of mitigating churn is making sure your stuff is good,” he said.

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

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