Being reader supported without begging readers

Positioning your subscriptions as valuable vs asking for donations

This is part 2 of our Pricing Paid Subscriptions series. Find Part 1 here.

On Wednesday, West Coast outlet L.A. Taco announced they had to furlough their staff because they couldn’t make payroll.

L.A. Taco is nearly 20 years old, and their emergency membership drive motivated their readers to take to Twitter with phrases like “keep independent journalism alive” and “@LATACO needs your support.”

On one hand, of course we want to save L.A. Taco!

On the other hand, journalism should not need to operate like a charity.

Journalism is valuable to its readers and those readers have money to spend on it.

We have to position that value better and make it easier to pay for it.

For a parallel model, we can turn to creators, particularly newsletter and podcast creators, because they monetize from subscriptions and sponsors just like outlets.

What we can learn from how creators position their paid subscriptions

Creators are rarely making an appeal for social good (because they’re not doing social good). Instead, they generate FOMO, access, desire, excitement, and belonging. They give their subscribers a reason to want in.

Positioning example from newsletter operator

Lenny launched his newsletter in 2020 about how to build tech products. I wrote one of his early issues that year and witnessed his growth from the beginning. Fast forward to now, he’s raking in $2M+ a year between his newsletter and podcast.

Here’s how Lenny launched his paid subscription:

The difference is subtle but it’s phrases like “join me on this journey” and “your personal advice column” which are a far cry from “save Lenny’s newsletter.”

Over the years, Lenny’s gotten even savvier about how he sells the paid membership. Here’s an in-depth case study breaking it down.

Positioning example from podcast creators

Another example is Worlds Beyond Number, a DnD storytelling podcast.

Worlds Beyond Number launched one year ago and they are already making 7 figures a year from their Patreon members alone.

Here’s their member upgrade block:


Two things that are notable about Worlds Beyond Number’s subscription is their captivating opener “Have a seat with us around the campfire. We’ve got a story to tell you.” and the visual where you can picture yourself there.

Where Lenny’s subscription is about access and return on investment, Worlds Beyond Number’s subscription is about excitement and belonging.

Neither is about saving the creators. Except maybe from dragons.

Our takeaway

Journalism creates plenty of value for its direct consumers and it could be positioned that way. We don’t need to make sappy pleas like we’re Oliver Twist.

Our opportunity is in getting smarter about how we position and “sell” these reader subscriptions. From what I’ve seen in outlets so far, we’re not even scratching the surface yet of FOMO, excitement, belonging and access AND readers are already jumping to subscribe to worker-led outlets in droves. We can only go up from here!

Welcome to this new venture called Journalists Pay Themselves. I’m Lex Roman, an indie marketer whose spent her career growing and monetizing audiences for tech companies. With the rapid decline of journalism jobs, I’m looking into how I can be useful to journalists navigating the business side of going independent. As I examine what worker-owned outlets and indie journalists are doing, I’m sharing my findings here with you.

We’re continuing our Pricing Series next week. What’s one thing you wish you knew about pricing subscriptions?

—Lex (@betonlex)

P.S. Absolutely no shade meant to L.A. Taco. Their team works super hard and they really banded together this week. They do a great job of making their subscription enticing AND it would seem there’s still opportunity for them to get even more value from reader-support by testing different positioning.

👀Keeping eyes on…The Lever

Worth remembering whenever you hit a downturn, there’s always someone thriving. This week, The Lever (journalist-founded, reader-supported) announced adding 9 new team members. The path forward for making money while reporting what matters is lighting up with examples.

One of my favorite subscriber perks The Lever offers: “Opportunities to enter your own questions for Lever interviews with major political figures.”