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These Online Publications Are Not Free … and Readers Don’t Mind

The Daily Memphian, a nonprofit news site in Memphis is also part of the wave, with readers contributing the bulk of its revenue. It started in 2018 in response to the shrinking of the local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. Nearly 17,000 subscribers pay $99 per year (or $12.99 per month) for The Memphian, and they have renewed their subscriptions at a rate of 90 percent, said Eric Barnes, the publication’s chief executive. Ad sales, sponsorships and donations cover the rest of a $5 million annual budget that supports a newsroom of 38.

“People paid for news for decades,” Mr. Barnes said. “Why can’t they pay for it now?”

The imperative to hold on to subscribers has influenced The Memphian’s journalism, he added, bringing an emphasis on straightforward stories on local issues. The publication connected with readers, for instance, through its coverage of the replacement of East Memphis’s elegant Century Building with a Woodie’s Wash Shack convenience store and carwash.

Mr. Barnes added that he is against offering discounts to subscribers, a strategy that is backed by Matt Lindsay, the president of the subscription consultant Mather Economics, who said that the price of a subscription is not the main factor for readers who decline to renew.

“Usually, it’s some other reason,” said Mr. Lindsay, whose clients include The New York Times. “They lose the habit of reading every day, there’s other competition for their entertainment, someone else has attracted their attention.”

The business news site Quartz started in the days of giveaway journalism and made the shift to asking readers to pay in 2018. In addition to 1.3 million regular readers of its newsletters, which are still offered free of charge, it has 27,000 subscribers who pay $99.99 a year (or $14.99 a month), a Quartz spokeswoman said, and the renewal rate is 97 percent. “Listening and responding to readers is what’s necessary for retention,” said Katherine Bell, the editor in chief.

Writers who have a significant number of loyal readers have had success on the newsletter platform Substack. Heather Havrilesky started publishing extra bits of her advice column for New York magazine, “Ask Polly,” on Substack in 2020 before moving the column there full-time. That newsletter — and another, “Ask Molly,” which she described in an email as “written by Polly’s evil twin” — have more than 30,000 subscribers and a paying list above 3,000. The figures have grown every month and especially in recent months, Ms. Havrilesky said.