How The Guardian is looking to boost reader donations in the US

The Guardian has discovered that American readers are willing donors, and the news publisher hopes that a bigger focus on investigations and requests related to the U.S. national news cycle will drive more donations.

On Wednesday, the news publisher is launching “Toxic America,” an investigative reporting series designed to explore the public health implications of all the chemicals that have crept into American food, air and water. The Guardian U.S. is hoping to raise $150,000 through reader donations to fund the series’ written articles, videos and opinion pieces. The amount of content the Guardian produces will depend in part on how much money the campaign is able to raise, according to John Mulholland, editor of The Guardian U.S.

“Toxic America” will be the fourth investigative reporting and fundraising effort The Guardian has undertaken in the U.S. and the sixth overall (it has launched two in Australia). While The Guardian U.S. accounts for 30% of the publisher’s worldwide audience, those readers have made more than 50% of the individual donations The Guardian has received in the past year, said Evelyn Webster, Guardian U.S. CEO.

As a result, The Guardian’s two-person reader revenue team in the U.S. has stepped up its requests, leaning not just on fundraising efforts tied to large reporting initiatives or annual asks but on what is going on in the news cycle. The Guardian intends to do more deep investigations into issues of national importance, Katharine Viner told Digiday last month.

“[The Guardian U.K.’s reader revenue team] encouraged us to focus on, ‘What are the news moments?’” Webster said. “How do we respond on a day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month basis?”

In May, The Guardian announced it had achieved its first operating profits in over 20 years, thanks in large part to growth in memberships and donations. In just three years, The Guardian has accumulated more than 650,000 paying members worldwide, 360,000 of whom contribute on a recurring basis with the rest being print and digital subscribers. In total, The Guardian has gotten more than 1 million paid donations; last April, the publisher announced it planned to push that total to 2 million paying contributors by 2022.

Though The Guardian’s U.S. reader revenue team is small, it works closely with a larger U.K. team, comparing notes and sharing learnings. While there is little variation by geographic territory in how readers respond to the designs of The Guardian’s requests — the size of a pop-up in The Guardian’s mobile app, for example, or where a request is embedded in the body of an article — there are geographic differences in the kinds of giving they do.

Americans are more likely to make one-time donations than they are to sign on as recurring members, Webster said, though that may be related to the kinds of requests The Guardian has made. In the past year, The Guardian has stepped up its requests for recurring donations, and since then, that kind of contribution has increased dramatically, Webster said; she declined to share additional details about the breakdown between single donations and recurring ones among U.S. readers.

The Guardian is embracing investigations because they are an opportunity for its newsrooms to dive deepest into the topics that matter most both to their readers and on the national stage, said John Mulholland, editor at The Guardian U.S. The investigation topics are chosen based on data The Guardian gathers about what its audience cares about most deeply, as well as editorial instinct about what topics will be gripping the national consciousness.

The investigative series has benefits beyond driving reader revenue, too. For example, The Guardian’s first American fundraising and investigative series, “This Land is Your Land,” set a fundraising goal of $100,000 but wound up raising more than $500,000 through a combination of individual donations, corporate underwriting and philanthropic grants, after attracting several brands and philanthropic organizations eager to underwrite the work.

The Guardian’s success with member donations is part of a broader trend within the news industry, particularly among non-profit and issue-based news organizations that once relied almost entirely on philanthropic organizations for support, said Fran Scarlett, the chief knowledge officer at the Institute for Nonprofit News. “With an individual donor strategy, be it membership, annual, quarterly, whatever, that’s something you control,” Scarlett said.

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