Funding niche news services

Talking of links, and more blogging (as I just was if you’re reading this out of sequence), I wanted to expand a bit on something I linked to earlier. Matt Edgar is trying to fund a quality, local, online news service for Leeds by getting at least 36 people to pledge £23.32 per month.

This is the amount of money he pays to subscribe to the print edition of the Guardian and 36 people paying that makes a nice round £10,000 (roughly).

Last year I floundered around the edges of some ideas around online news, without really making much headway (other than with some design thoughts). Despite not coming to any useful conclusions I still strongly believe there are interesting new things to be discovered around the small-scale production of online news.

How to fund this, like any news service, is tricky, and I wonder if Edgar’s on to something for niche services (whether that niche is a small geographic area, or a specific dispersed interest group).

Usually, direct funding of news (advertising revenue aside) seems to come from either end of the scale. At one end you have a person or organisation with deep pockets providing large amounts of money to get things running and, possibly, keep it running. At the other end you can force every potential reader to pay in advance to receive the news. The former requires knowing someone with money to burn and, online, the latter requires solving a problem everyone’s been wrestling with since online payments were invented.

However, Edgar’s solution is somewhere in between. Rather than one person paying a lot of money, or many people paying tiny amounts, maybe a small news service could be funded, or part-funded, by several people paying a medium amount. If you can find enough enthusiastic people with a little spare cash, maybe they can be persuaded to pay more than they would have done to simply read the service. They’re supporters, rather than consumers.

A parallel might be the funding of election campaigns. The people who vote for a candidate want them to win, but few are enthusiastic enough to contribute time or money to the campaign. These voters are like most readers of a news service. But there’s another layer of people who will donate their time or money to an election campaign because they really care. Maybe there’s a similar layer of people who would care enough about a news service they’d really want to see succeed.

(Yes, the analogy breaks down a little if your country allows rich organisations and individuals to contribute vast sums to election campaigns although, even then, the funding is probably more distributed than that of any news organisation.)

I don’t know if Edgar’s balance between number of people and amount of money is optimal (no one does), or if it’s sustainable, or if it could ever be enough to fund a useful service. But it certainly sounds like another possibility.


  • Hi Phil,

    Great analysis that I'll respond to more fully later.

    I put up the Pledgebank page on the spur of the moment the night the Guardian announced their intention to "wind down" Guardian Leeds so there's no science in setting the amount and target for subscribers, just a gut feeling.

    The value for me is not in having interesting stuff to read, but in how such a service makes a city function more smartly and feel better about itself - not in a boosterish way but in terms of having its own voice, connecting and empowering local people. I'll pay proper money to live in a city like that, and my bet is that I can find 35 other people out of 700,000 who feel the same way. I'll be pretty disappointed in my fellow citizens if not.

    The 36 pledgers could form a committed core around which many others gather with a patchwork of micro-payments, advertising, sponsorship and other models.

    Sarah Hartley and John Baron have built something very special in Guardian Leeds. If we can save something of that then it must be worth a try.


  • A small core of committed supporters is a classic model for the funding of public goods like radio stations (NPR), lighthouses, etc, and it has some real advantages over massive crowd-funding or government funding, such as a smaller number of people to please.

    I think the model could do well, and it probably just needs a user-friendly site (maybe Kickstarter + OneClickOrgs) to get things going. Along with a lot of hard work, obviously.

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