In 2020, 28 local newsrooms across the US and Canada participated in the Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator programs for memberships and subscriptions. As a group they generated the following results* using lessons learned over the course of one year:

  • 76K+ new paying supporters
  • 625K+ new registered readers (newsletter subscribers, site registrations, podcast subscribers, etc.)
  • $18.4M USD in customer lifetime value

To put these figures into context for the two participating groups: publishers in the Membership Accelerator grew their membership by nearly 50% through their Accelerator grants and tests alone. Publishers in the Subscription Accelerator, which included several larger and established digital subscription players, saw a 15% total increase in paying supporters (subscriptions and donors) from Accelerator funding.

Participating in the Accelerator “was the difference between insolvency and a thriving reader revenue program,” said Duc Luu, publisher of The Washington City Paper.

“This cohort of publishers had the unique challenge of innovating aggressively in the midst of a pandemic. While other organizations can hopefully report that they survived 2020, this group of publishers actually thrived,” said Lynne Brennen, a coach in the subscription program as well as other Accelerator programs around the globe. “They thrived with the support of each other. The community created by this cohort is enduring and profound. In fact, the teams would essentially ‘crowdsource’ solutions among each other to help participants pivot when needed and double down when possible. Their accomplishments are rooted in the strength of the community they created.”

These publishers endured in the face of the immense challenges presented by COVID-19 and rode a global wave of increased appetite to support local media to extraordinary success. We’re proud to share some of their successes below.

If you are interested in joining our 2021 Subscriptions and Memberships programs, learn more about how to apply here.

About the program

The Accelerator brought together two groups of publishers who worked on growing reader revenue: one cohort focused on membership, another on subscriptions. For the first three months, a team from each newsroom joined hands-on workshops that went fully virtual when the pandemic arrived in the US. In those sessions they heard from news industry experts who shared strategies and best practices for growing every step of the subscription funnel on and off Facebook. Each team worked one-on-one with a program coach and joined Slack channels where they continue to support one another and share ideas.

“I was inspired by how collaborative they were and how much they leaned into and learned from each other,” said Dork Alahydoian, a former product executive at The New York Times and theSkimm who coached in the subscription program. “Their openness and willingness to share was really encouraging and reminded us that we are all part of a larger mission dedicated to quality journalism.”

After the three-month training period, publishers received seed grants to execute projects using strategies from the program. Funding was administered by our partners, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and International Center for Journalists.

“These news organizations came together at a moment of intense need for their businesses and their communities,” said Lenfest Institute executive director & CEO Jim Friedlich. “They rose to the occasion to provide their audiences with essential news and information during a global pandemic while also working together to develop new practices and strategies that will support their continued longevity. The Lenfest Institute is proud to support this critical work.”

Success stories

Utilizing a funnel approach. Voice of OC, a digital publisher in Southern California, saw explosive 16x growth in annual sustaining donor income from January 2020 to January 2021. The team optimized every step of their subscription funnel for triple-digit growth across all reader segments in one year:

  • 329% growth in visitors
  • 550% growth in loyalists
  • 128% growth in subscribers
  • 330% growth in donors
  • 561% growth in sustaining members

“We’re better equipped to review data insights, test beta ideas and convert readers into donors because of the Accelerator program,” said Norberto Santana, Jr., publisher and editor-in-chief of Voice of OC, which grew its donors by 330% over the course of the program. “As nice as it is to receive grants that directly support journalism, the Accelerator helped us understand what tools and methods we need — and could invest in through testing — to fund journalists on our own. The training sessions were more important than the grant money in helping lead us to where we are today and where we aim to be in the future.”

Obsess over UX. The Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest continuously published African American–owned newspaper in the United States, more than quadrupled paid subscriptions and generated $26,000 in reader contributions by making it easier for readers to contribute. Easier newsletter subscriptions led to more loyal readers and a streamlined checkout process, and more calls to action across the site drove more paying readership.

Make the case for bigger investments. After a single 45-minute pitch meeting, the Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate in Louisiana convinced its publisher to invest $500,000 in a new product team and digital subscription marketing budget to double down on the publisher’s successes in the Accelerator program. Read how they did it here.

“The Accelerator has been a landmark moment in my career,” said Kyle Whitfield, digital audience director of The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. “The knowledge and skills I’ve gained — I’m unsure where all of that would’ve come from without this program. It’s been one of the most rewarding professional experiences of my life.”

Use transparency to drive reader support. Canadian French-language publisher La Presse grew its reader contributions by two thirds, hitting a $5 million mark for 2020, by being upfront with readers about the pandemic’s economic toll and fine-tuning its donation messaging to resonate best with its most committed givers. Read how they did it here.

Double down on what works. The Colorado Sun, a digital native group founded by former employees of The Denver Post, ramped up its investments in Facebook marketing tool KeyWee, improved its on-site email newsletter and then automated promotion of its paid membership offering through email to drive its already impressive membership growth even faster.

  • 72% year-over-year growth in recurring memberships
  • 52% year-over-year growth in average net monthly revenue from memberships

“The Accelerator opened our eyes in so many ways. We didn’t even know what we didn’t know about analytics, membership and best practices,” said Larry Ryckman, editor of The Colorado Sun.

Make data-inspired decisions. The Narwhal, an online magazine focused on Canadian environmental issues, saw enormous growth. The group more than doubled its membership and newsletter subscribers in one year thanks to more explicit membership appeals and fundraising asks across its site. The team now tracks conversion rates on an article basis, identifying story types that are most likely to convert, and uses the data to inform editorial decisions and membership call-to-action units.

Use print to surprise and delight your members. The Sprawl, which covers the Canadian city of Calgary, saw spectacular digital growth during the program: doubling their membership growth and increasing digital visitors by 5x. Along the way, they created a special print edition “Sprawlzine” to drive digital membership sign-ups and mailed the magazine to members, who shared photos of it online encouraging more people to support the newsroom. The experiment proved that when done right (and made personal and fun), print can generate revenue for online journalism.

Growing transformational local news leaders. Two membership program participants became coaches in our subsequent Sustainability Accelerator: Sara Lomax-Reese of WURD Radio in Philadelphia and Cierra Hinton, executive director and publisher of Scalawag. Bill Emkow, growth strategist of Bridge Michigan, is also a coach after Bridge achieved impressive growth while participating in the first Membership Accelerator in 2019. We are incredibly grateful for Sara, Cierra and Bill and will look for opportunities to advance the next generation of local news publishing leaders, particularly amongst people of color, in future programs.

Participating publishers

The following publishers participated in each program:

Albuquerque Journal, Anchorage Daily News, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Carroll Times-Herald, Daily Memphian, The Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Tribune, The Post and Courier, La Presse, Tampa Bay Times, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, and The Salt Lake Tribune

Chalkbeat, Detour Detroit, KUNR, La Noticia, New Hampshire Public Radio, San Jose Spotlight, Scalawag, The Colorado Sun, The Devil Strip, The Narwhal, The Sprawl, Voice of OC, Washington City Paper, Wausau Pilot & Review, WURD Radio

If you are interested in joining our 2021 Subscriptions and Memberships programs, learn more about how to apply here.

*Stats reported by participating publishers, since program launch in February 2020.

The Accelerator Program
The Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator Program helps news publishers build sustainable businesses. Funded and organized by the Facebook Journalism Project, each Accelerator includes a three-month period of hands-on workshops led by news industry veterans, grants administered by non-profit journalism organizations, and regular reports on best business practices. The Accelerator’s executive director is Tim Griggs, an independent consultant/advisor and former New York Times and Texas Tribune executive.

For monthly updates on the Accelerator Program, sign up for the Facebook Journalism Project newsletter.

Local News Solutions

The Lenfest Institute provides free tools and resources for local journalism leaders to develop sustainable strategies to serve their communities.

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