Reader support viable media revenue stream

The new look tabloid Guardian next to the old broadsheet version.

A good example of the reader-supported business model is The Guardian in the UK, which requests readers to support its journalism through one-off and frequent donations.

Photo credit: AFP

The foundations of any successful journalistic venture are based on high-quality, exclusive content that will loosen the readers’ purse strings.

In a highly competitive and disrupted media industry, news organisations have turned to reader revenue to make up for the decline in advertising revenue.

As paywalls continue to grow, there has been a growing trend of publications offering high-quality content for free and depending on readers’ support to run the news organisations.

A good example of this reader-supported business model is The Guardian in the UK, which requests readers to support its journalism through one-off and frequent donations.

Recently, US-based investigative news outlet Mother Jones announced that three-quarters (74 per cent) of its revenue comes from reader support, with about 50,000 people donating in any given year.

Advertising revenue is now down to 6 per cent from 15 per cent, meaning that the publication now almost solely depends on its readers’ generosity to survive. It is an interesting business model that keeps the publication with about 50 journalists afloat and also attracted considerable interest on whether this might actually be a replicable business model for media globally.

Investigative journalism

To answer this question, we must first place Mother Jones in context. It is an investigative news outlet in the US founded in 1976 following the Watergate scandal when it became apparent that America — and the world — needed solid, independent and bold investigative journalism.

Over the years, the publication has cut a niche for itself with impactful investigative stories that American audiences have come to appreciate – if the 6,000 readers who give monthly donations are anything to go by. Besides, the readers who support publications such as Mother Jones and The Guardian ascribe to a particular philosophy – that journalism is a public good that must not only be supported, but protected for the critical role it plays in a democracy.

Now operating in the era of fake news and disinformation, investigative journalism has never been so critical in our lives. But the question is, can Kenyan readers support investigative journalism? One would be lying if they said they knew the answer to this question.

In recent months, we have seen the growth of locally-owned investigative news outlets. We have also seen these Kenyan outlets seeking out readers’ support. Although the extent of reader support is not yet in the public domain, we know that there are Kenyans that appreciate this kind of journalism and would pay for it. We also know that some of these outlets depend on grants from foreign organisations and as they figure out the business model.

It may take time for these investigative news outlets to get to the Mother Jones level of reader support. However, if they remain consistent and uncompromised, their readers eventually will take note and dip into their pockets. For now, the Mother Jones reader-support business model remains an interesting dream in the local context.

Dr Chege is a media, innovation and technology researcher; [email protected]