Saving the BKLYNER.

How audience support saved a local news site from closing.


BKLYNER (pronounced Brooklyner) is a daily neighborhood news site for Brooklyn, the largest borough in New York. They’ve been sharing stories on the local happenings of 11 neighborhoods for the past decade, driving results that run the gamut from new crosswalks to new laws, all while collecting multiple awards for their investigative reporting and actively meeting their mission to advocate every day for Brooklyn’s communities.

On December 6th of last year, Liena Zagare the founder, publisher, and editor of the publication took a break from sharing their usual articles on Brooklyn news, and spoke directly to readers. Starting the post formally with “Dear neighbors,” she outlined a direct plea. The post was titled, “Save local journalism. Save BKLYNER.”

Advertising isn’t working.

Last year was a particularly dire year for editorial. In an Atlantic article, aptly titled “How to Survive the Media Apocalypse,” Derek Thompson reported that at well known publications like Vanity Fair, the editorial budget faced a 30 percent cut, and at The New York Times, advertising revenue was down $20 million. Thompson explained why he felt publications were facing their current issue, saying “In its inexhaustible capacity for experimentation, digital media has pivoted to programmatic advertising, pivoted to native advertising, pivoted to venture capital, pivoted to Facebook, pivoted to distributed, and pivoted to video. Here is a better experiment: Pivot to readers.”

"Revenue from advertising and classifieds that once fueled local news is now being lost to Facebook, Google, and other global internet giants."

In her plea, Zagare shared a similar sentiment, saying “...In 2017, local independent media sources like ours are in real trouble. Revenue from advertising and classifieds that once fueled local news is now being lost to Facebook, Google, and other global internet giants. We cut our costs deeply last year, but it wasn’t enough.”

That same struggle had been experienced by other local publications. Zagare noted in her article that local New York mainstays the Gothamist and DNAinfo had recently closed their doors and called it quits before she bolded her next statement for emphasis, writing: “I must be frank in telling you that BKLYNER may not be far behind.”

When we spoke with Zagare, nearly a month after her post, she gave us insight into the state of advertising for local publications, saying “I think advertising is certainly going away in the sense that I don’t think it’s going to be anyone’s major source of income. It has been going away for quite some time.” The failure of advertising as a commodifiable source of income was no longer a sensible strategy for local news publications, including BKLYNER.

An opportunity to support.

Screenshot of BKLYNER website

Outlined in the article was a big ask; if it didn’t work, the publication would see a similar fate as many of its contemporaries. Backed by the promise to keep fighting to keep the publication alive, Zagare shared, “Before we lose our neighborhood news source, we want to give you an opportunity to help support it.” They would need 3,000 subscribers, less than 1% of their overall readers to support them at $5 a month. The ask ended on an ominous note, “If we don’t reach this number, we will stop publishing at the end of December.”

If at first you don’t succeed.

This wasn’t BKLYNER’s first foray into the audience backed business model. They had attempted to raise funds via audience support before, but it didn’t take off. “We’d been publishing local news for close to a decade, and I had actually installed Memberful [membership plugin] about a year ago the first time, but it wasn’t successful. I wasn’t super excited, thinking it was highly unlikely anyone was going to pay for local news in this way; until I was convinced otherwise.”

Zagare decided to reach out to News Revenue Hub’s Mary Walter-Brown, in one last attempt to save BKLYNER. Walter-Brown gave Zagare the same audience support strategy, but with a new two-pronged approach, one that focused on the value the publication gave its readers and also being radically transparent with them. “[She] looked at our numbers, readership, and subscriber numbers,” Zagare said, “And she thought that we could convert a good number of readers into subscribers.”

"Audiences will support journalism they value and trust as long as news organizations help them understand why we need their investment — and then make it easy for them to donate."

Walter-Brown recalled the advice she shared with Zagare in Poynter, saying, “Audiences will support journalism they value and trust as long as news organizations help them understand why we need their investment — and then make it easy for them to donate.” Once Zagare decided to lean into the new approach, sharing the hard truth with readers that without their help BKLYNER would fail, she saw an immediate uptick in support. The gained 700 new subscribers in less than one week.

We’re staying OPEN.

One January 1st, less than a month from her initial post, Zagare shared another post titled, “We’re staying OPEN.” In that short amount of time, they had received 1,745 subscribers, short of their 3,000 subscribers, but enough support to prove that readers were willing to keep them open. They were going to keep publishing. “We said we would go out of business if we didn’t reach the subscribers, which, we did not meet. But, we did get more than halfway there, and that was way more than we had expected to get. So, there’s hope.”

A few weeks ago, BKLYNER crossed the line of 2,000 subscribers and are on track to reach their goal, and then some. “I think to the extent that people are able to switch to subscription models that can support them, that is a little bit of our saving grace.” The BKLYNER’s success is in line with a new model for supporting online editorial, one focused more on the audience than on advertisers. As she told StreetFight Magazine when asked about the future of local news, “I think we will see more calls for subscribers and reader-supported news models.”