John Bebow began his newspaper career as a carrier for the Lansing State Journal more than forty years ago, collecting two dollars a week from the customers on his route.
He’s now the president and CEO of Bridge, an online nonprofit newsmagazine based in Ann Arbor, as well as the Center for Michigan, its parent organization. And he muses on what a revenue stream like that would mean for his publication, even without adjusting for inflation.
“If we got two dollars a week from 10,000 readers, that would be a million dollars a year,” Bebow says. That would represent about 40 percent of the center’s annual budget–about twice the current share. Almost half comes from foundation grants and the rest from Phil Power, the Ann Arbor entrepreneur and philanthropist who sold his group of sixty-four newspapers in 2005 and founded the Center for Michigan the next year.
Bebow doesn’t just pull the $1 million figure out of his hat. It’s about what Bridge needs to meet its goal of getting 40 percent of its revenue from readers by 2025. So it’s timely that readership exploded when Covid-19 hit Detroit. Bridge’s tough but compassionate coverage of the metro area’s overburdened hospitals–a joint project with the Detroit Free Press–brought 3.75 million visits to its virtual pages in March. That “exceeded all of 2019, which was our best year yet,” says editor David Zeman.
The collaboration with Michigan’s largest newspaper–“on guard for 189 years”–was more than a stunning endorsement of Bridge‘s work. It was further evidence of the storm blowing through the media business.
The collaboration began when Zeman took a walk with his friend and former Free Press colleague Jim Schaefer. Zeman “suggested it, and I thought it would be a good idea,” says Schaefer, who is co-supervising the paper’s pandemic coverage.
Free Press editor Peter Bhatia “bought into it pretty quickly,” Schaefer adds. “The reason, I think, is because of the public service it provides. That sounds hokey, but it’s really true.”
“It’s a combination of a tremendously big story and news organizations–even big daily news organizations–that are more inclined [now] to cooperate when the need arises, both for civic reasons and for journalistic reasons,” says Zeman. “We think our time is better spent cooperating on getting into the story of what’s happening in the hospitals rather than competing.”
The collaboration has produced a string of powerful articles. “Hospitals have strong defense systems,” Schaefer says, “but we wanted to find out what was happening with frontline workers from them, not through a filter. It takes pretty high-level reporting to get behind hospital walls and hospital curtains to emphasize how challenging things are and what frontline workers are experiencing, what they need, and what kind of patient care is being delivered.”
The project began with a jolting report on health care workers dying on the front lines. “That was an incredibly tough story to do because it has to be handled sensitively, and you’re trying to get accurate information,” says Robin Erb, the Bridge health care reporter who worked at the Free Press from 2007 to 2015. “It was easier to split up that work and do the best story possible, for both of us.”
Another lengthy April article, by Bridge reporter Kelly House, detailed how hospitals were bidding up some nurses’ pay even while laying off others. “Things are changing so quickly, and stories happen so quickly, there’s not really a formal process” for deciding who does what, Erb says. “We just make phone calls to each other. We’ll take the lead on some stories, and they take the lead on others.”
“In a time like this,” House says, “where there can never be enough coverage, and there’s a hunger for information and a lot of questions that have yet to be answered, to me it just comes down to that instinct among journalists to serve the public. And, with limited resources, we’re not serving the public to the best of our abilities if we’re duplicating effort.”
Before the Freep, Bridge had another unlikely ally: Facebook.
The social media behemoth launched its Facebook Journalism Project just over three years ago, asserting that “we care a great deal about making sure that a healthy news ecosystem and journalism can thrive.” Of course, it was the rise of Facebook and its peers that blew up the longtime business model for print publications.
There are still stories to cover, and journalists as eager to cover them as readers are for them to do it. But the old system–where the product for sale was not the newspaper itself but its readers’ eyes, and the customers weren’t the readers but the advertisers who paid to access them–is rapidly dying. Scary studies abound that document the effects of “news deserts” on communities: lower voter turnout, greater polarization, and increased municipal borrowing costs (because lenders are aware that there’s one less watchdog keeping an eye on city government).
Bridge is one of more than 200 news organizations in the U.S. trying to figure out a sustainable nonprofit model, and one of seventeen that Facebook solicited in 2018 to participate in the initial class of its Accelerator Program, designed to educate them in techniques to drive traffic and inspire readers to contribute.
Bill Emkow, Bridge‘s growth strategist, was wary when he was contacted about the program. “The first question on my mind was: what does Facebook want from us?” he recalls. “I joked regularly that this was blood money for what happened in 2016 with fake news.”
Now, he says, “I look at it as an investment by Facebook to change the narrative of what Facebook’s impact on news is–a way to say ‘we’re helping journalism, not hurting journalism.'”
In Bridge‘s case, at least, that narrative is close to the mark. After implementing the techniques that Emkow, Bebow, and membership director Amber DeLind learned in the twelve-week program, Bridge‘s reader revenue and number of donors has nearly tripled, and its user count (a rough equivalent of newspaper circulation) rose 250 percent.
DeLind points out that, prior to Accelerator, Bridge didn’t even have a formal membership program, much less a membership director. Its principal connection to readers and their concerns was through its public engagement program, which she led, consisting of 100-150 “community conversations” annually around the state, an enterprise she led for six years before assuming her present role.
There was a “donate” box on the home page, but it was producing only about 1 percent of the publication’s revenue. One of the first steps toward enhanced support was making that box more prominent, positioning it more attractively, and adding a gentle reminder that while Bridge is free to read, it isn’t free to produce.
“The Facebook Journalism Project, for us, was like a master’s program in understanding news customers, getting more of them to read your stuff, and providing enough value that more of them voluntarily pay for it,” says Bebow. “We traveled around the country and went through a series of seminars and coaching and data analysis with some of the best in the business.”
“I was always good at growing digital metrics,” says Emkow, who’d worked at WXYZ TV, the Free Press, and MLive. “What was eluding me was how to capitalize on loyal readers. I knew there was something there, but I didn’t quite understand it. When I got into the Accelerator, everything made more sense. I didn’t feel like it was a huge shock, more like a revelation, something in front of me the whole time that I didn’t quite understand.”
The revelation was a business concept called the “marketing funnel” that maps the process whereby people move from awareness of a product or service to being a customer. In the case of a nonprofit news organization like Bridge, the top of the funnel is made up of everyone who’s ever visited the site. The funnel narrows as the level of engagement increases; at the bottom are the readers who have been persuaded to make a donation and become members. The prize is at the bottom, but the process begins at the top.
While tricks of the trade like search engine optimization are undeniably helpful, Bridge‘s view is that the most effective way to maximize visits is with stories that attract readers. That’s what will eventually pay off, both journalistically and financially.
“To get more people who are willing to give us their hard-earned money, we need more people reading,” says DeLind, “and I don’t think we’ve approached our ceiling there.” As readership surges, Bebow emails, they’re gaining forty or fifty new members a day.
“Surely we uncovered a niche filled with low-hanging fruit,” says Power, “but our ability to maintain our growth depends entirely on our ability to make the paper interesting and relevant to the needs of readers, and to do the kind of journalism that we think most people want.”
Despite Power’s newspaper background, when he launched the Center for Michigan, there was no hint that Bridge would become its predominant project. “We had three areas of activity,” Power recalls. “One was a newsletter–at first, in a testimony to our brilliant marketing thinking, we called it the newsletter. One was our community conversations, and one was linking our journalism with policy research.”
Bebow vividly remembers that time. “I was the editor, we had one reporter [Ron French, who is still there] and some freelancers, and we cobbled together kind of a weekly online magazine with a few stories a week. That was in 2011.”
“For the first four or five years, there were no beats at Bridge,” says French. “Everyone sort of got together and talked about what issues they saw happening in Michigan, then someone raised their hand and wrote the story.”
One day in 2012, French raised his hand and became the lead reporter on a multipart series that represented what he deems “the first big impact we had on the state.” When attendees at many of the community conversations complained that there were no spots for their preschoolers in a state-funded program for low-income kids, “John and I discovered there were 30,000 four-year-olds in the state who qualified for the program but weren’t getting in because the state wasn’t providing enough money.”
After the stories were published, then-Governor Rick Snyder more than doubled the funding for the program in 2013 and 2014. “That sort of set the tone for what Bridge does ever since then,” French says.
French used to write important articles like that for the Detroit News. But “I’d been through four rounds of layoffs in four years,” he recalls, “and at the time there was difficulty getting the sort of long projects and explanatory journalism that I specialized in into the paper, because of a shrinking news hole.
“When John approached me [about joining Bridge], it seemed like a lifeboat to me. I was not anticipating, to be honest, that it would be such a lifeboat for readers, too.”
Power was having similar thoughts. “About four or five years ago, we decided that of our three lines of business, Bridge seemed to be the one that was the most scalable, the most cost-efficient, and the most efficient vehicle to reach the largest number of thoughtful people and have an impact on state policy makers.”
Now Bridge has a full-time staff of a dozen journalists, based primarily in Lansing and southeast Michigan, who produce an online package of mostly investigative stories that has earned four straight Newspaper of the Year awards from the Michigan Press Association.
“We had no idea what to expect,” French says. “We knew that we wanted to try to provide more in-depth news to readers than what they were getting in a world that was changing to Facebook posts and tweets. We found a real thirst for it. Sometimes it feels like we’re the only steak restaurant in a town full of hamburger joints.”
Whether they’re hungry or thirsty, or both, support from readers is crucial to Bridge‘s survival. For its first five years, 53 percent of its income came from foundation grants, 46 percent from the Power family and a measly 1 percent from reader donations. Today’s percentages show a significant improvement, mostly due to the Accelerator, but they’re still a ways away from the goal of getting 40 percent from readers by 2025.
“Many nonprofit news organizations that I’ve come in contact with are very much reliant on foundations and philanthropy,” says Emkow. “That’s one of the things we’re trying to avoid.”
“We are having success in changing the revenue model, but we’re still pretty heavily reliant on foundation support,” Bebow admits. “We would never have gotten to the point we’re at today without the vision and commitment of the Power family and Michigan-based foundations, but reader donations are what is ultimately going to make a true market for nonprofit news models like Bridge. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re on a great trajectory.”
The people in the trenches are on board with that. “I do not feel anymore as if I have to thank a car dealership or a grocery store for my job,” says French. “It’s the readers who both provide us with the funding and also give us most of our ideas.”