Revenue streams for worker-led media

The different ways publications are making money

People love reading your work.

You have a good size following and they have told you for years they’d pay for your writing and reporting.

But how feasible is it really to be reader-supported?

In this issue, I look at the most common ways journalists are funding their work by revenue stream.

For context here, we’re talking about worker-owned outlets and indie journalists.

Most common revenue streams

💸 Paid subscribers: readers buying subscriptions
💰 Sponsorships: longer running support for podcasts, on site series or newsletters (usually more value-aligned with publication)
🌐 Ads: one time or programmatic display ads, text ads on the site or in the newsletter (usually less value-aligned with publication)
👕 Merch: NPR style beanies, tote bags, mugs
🎟️ Events: ticket sales
🎤 Speaking Engagements: fees for talks and panels
💳 Donations: small dollar donors, tip jars
💼 Grants: public or private large dollar donors

What’s winning

According to the latest annual reports from Defector, Hell Gate and Racket, reader subscriptions are winning by a longshot.

We love to see this because indie outlets prefer to be audience-supported, as their missions state.

Defector made $3.7M in sub revenue (85% of their revenue total)
Racket made $198,000 in sub revenue (77% of their revenue total)

Hell Gate reported revenue differently in their review but had $19k monthly sub revenue (MRR) from 2,500 subscribers (which roughs out to around $228k throughout the year). They also shared they are seeing 10% month over month growth in paid subscriptions.

This is 2023 data for all three outlets (so it’s old data) but based on year over year numbers, they are seeing promising organic growth in both audience size and in paying subscribers.

Additional revenue streams

Other top contenders for income include sponsorships and ads.

404 Media enlisted the help of BuySellAds to embed programmatic ads into their site. BuySellAds will plug ads into your website, newsletter or podcast based on customizable parameters. Jason Koebler at 404 Media said they’re also focused on more direct sponsorships which take more labor from the outlet-side team, but will likely be more relevant to the readers.

Racket mentioned sponsors being an important, growing revenue stream in their annual report. They specifically called out “local businesses, venues, museums, and galleries” as website sponsors.

Merch, events and speaking gigs get honorable mentions but are showing up minimally in the reports I’ve read. Defector talked about how expensive and logistically complicated merch is and Racket noted speaking gigs but they didn’t even get a line item in the profit and loss report.

Donations and grants are also in the mix but they seem like more of gap funding as independent journalists seek to move away from the traps of legacy or even nonprofit media.

This is the first issue of Journalists Pay Themselves. I’m Lex Roman and I’m an indie marketer whose spent her career growing and monetizing audiences. I’m interested in support journalists as they navigate the business side of going independent. As I look into what worker-led outlets and indie journalists are doing, I’m sharing my findings here with you.

If you’re a journalist running your own media company, even if it’s just you, I’d love to chat with you. Reply here or email me at lex(at)