Reader revenue and sponsored content — accelerated by mission-minded brands during the COVID-19 pandemic — are becoming steady and growing pieces of the revenue pie chart for local publishers.
At the Mather Media Revenue Symposium in Atlanta in March, Vince Johnson, publisher of The Sumter Item, and Dana Peck, director of digital solutions at The AFRO, shared that both reader revenue and sponsored content have been growing sources of revenue for their respective media companies. Furthermore, they said they expect that growth to continue in the next five years.
At The Item, Johnson said the team was determined to grow reader revenue by focusing on two key areas: improving the checkout flow for digital subscriptions and explaining the value of the newsroom’s work to readers.
“‘We tell the stories that would otherwise go untold’ is what we’re constantly telling and pitching to our community,” he said.
Last year, roughly 25 percent of The Item’s total revenue came from print and digital subscriptions. Digital subscriptions have been growing for The Item since 2020.
For The AFRO, growing reader revenue was more about connecting with younger audiences who weren’t familiar with the brand, Peck said.
The team decided to lean into a legacy message and use the tagline, “We’re still here” in a lot of its marketing.
The team celebrated The AFRO’s recent 130th anniversary by developing a cookbook highlighting historic recipes. To reach new audiences, team members also developed an accompanying cooking show that was broadcast live on Facebook and Instagram.
The cookbook was packaged with The AFRO’s membership program, which was launched during COVID. They acquired a record number of memberships during their anniversary campaign in 2022. Reader revenue, which they did not have before, now makes up 2% of overall revenue.
The AFRO has also been able to leverage its longtime community connections to develop custom sponsored campaigns focused on health outreach in the African-American community. Team members launched partnerships with Johns Hopkins University and Biogen that were focused on awareness around health issues.
Sponsored content now makes up 18 percent of their revenue — a huge growth area in the last five years, Peck said.
Pitching sponsored campaigns to a brand is different from a traditional advertising pitch, she said. The team leans into the trust that the audience has with the brand, which is known as “The Black Media Authority.”
“We’re doing a lot of packaging, not just putting articles on afro.com, but then adding social. Also, our live events allow us to be creative,” she said.
In Sumter, Johnson said sponsored content can be mission-driven, such as a campaign with the county to clean up litter. Businesses like celebrating high school athletes, so they are likely to sign up for sponsorships of events and contests recognizing them.
At the start of every event the Sumter team hosts, Johnson said most team members worry that no one will show up; instead, the events are always sold out and draw 400-600 people.
Peck expects to see growth in reader revenue and sponsored content as more brands realize they can turn to a legacy publisher to help tell a story, like what happened with Biogen.
“We just brought our creativity to it, because they understand that we could do that,” she said.
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