Sustainable journalism model drives strong debut for The 19th* — Interview with CRO Johanna Derlega


This article is part of an LMA series on solutions and innovations at and for local media organizations, in which we explore the products, best practices, and strategy behind sustainable and thriving local journalism businesses. 

By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

A mission-driven approach has carried over into business operations of The 19th, a new nonprofit publication that provides nonpartisan political and policy coverage from a woman’s perspective.

The 19th officially debuted its website in early August after a soft launch back in January. All content, which is focused on gender-based injustices and other issues impacting women, is made available for free online and through various content partners.

Derlega

“For us, it’s a clear mission: empower women with the tools and community they need to be more civically engaged,” said Johanna Derlega, The 19th’s chief revenue officer. “It’s imperative to get more women engaged in the civic process.”

That mission extends to every aspect of the business model, with each decision put through the filter of “sustainable journalism,” said Derlega, who previously led revenue operations at The Hill and National Journal. She is among several industry leaders from different news organizations who were recruited by two former Texas Tribune veterans, co-founders Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora.

The operation already has a two-year financial head start, having raised at least $8.8 million of its $10 million initial fundraising goal. Most of that money comes from philanthropic groups and foundation support, she said. The rest of The 19th revenue comes from individual memberships as well as sponsorships and advertisements.

The mission has proven to be a selling point so far for donors and sponsors, Derlega said. That has helped overcome slower-than-anticipated ad revenue during the pandemic, although even that side of the business is catching on.

“We are much more reliant on foundation and philanthropic support until things bounce back on the advertisements and sponsorship side,” Derlega said. “We’re lucky that we’re diversified because if we were completely reliant on advertisements and sponsorships, we wouldn’t have been launching right now.”

Other revenue sources

Events are also driving momentum, Derlega said, with virtual events arguably proving more successful than in-person events might have been. More than 8,000 people registered to attend the 2020 Virtual Summit, a launch event in August that gained notable attention for the recent addition of Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle to the all-star list speakers.

“We were fortunate to be able to cast a much larger net to our audience and bring in people who might be interested long-term in being our readers and hopefully our members,” Derlega said.

Other conference speakers include former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, as well as vice presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, among others. The high-profile speaker list helped garner major sponsorships, Derlega said.

Sometime in 2021, The 19th expects to launch sponsored content as another revenue stream. The content will focus on thought leadership and the success stories behind those efforts.

“To me, that’s the biggest goal for 2021,” she said. “It’s not an easy time for news media, and I just feel so fortunate to be at an organization that knows exactly what we want to do and who we’re serving.”

Going against the grain

The 19th touts several simplified business approaches that buck some trends seen at other online startup publications. For example, The 19th has chosen not to display any programmatic ads, gaining more control of the user experience as a result.

In addition, the ads that are sold by The 19th are not sold based on the popular cost per thousand, or “CPM” model. Instead, ads are sold at weekly and monthly base rates as well as through exclusive sponsorships for newsletters.

There is also no plan to develop an in-house agency, instead choosing to reinvest revenue back into the journalism operation.

“We want to keep it pretty lean on the business side,” Derlega said.

Membership may not bring in the most money of any revenue stream, but Derlega said it’s the best gauge to judge whether The 19th is fulfilling its mission. And in a moment of social unrest, she said the audience has responded favorably so far.

“In the several days that we’ve been publishing on the website, we’re bringing stories to the table that aren’t found anywhere else,” she said.

More than 2,000 members joined The 19th in the opening days of the official website launch. Now the goal is to create a community that ensures members continue investing in The 19th.

As part of that effort, two questions have already been raised to members seeking feedback on economic and mental health issues they want to see covered. That has helped the editorial operation tell more relatable stories, she said.

“What we hope is that our coverage is reflective of readers who see themselves in the coverage,” Derlega said. “We want to make sure women are greater participants in U.S. politics, and the only way to do that is to make sure it is free and accessible.”