Introducing Journalism Growth Lab

Helping publishers who want to grow their audience and revenue online

Phillip Smith
8 min readApr 7, 2021

The short version of this post is: In January I quietly launched a new company called Journalism Growth Lab. The aim is to help established publishers grow their audience and find paying customers using advertising platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tik Tok, YouTube, etc. You can find out more here.

The long version is a bit more nuanced, because this new direction came as a bit of a surprise to me, and you might find a few surprises below too. So, if you’re interested, read on…

What’s old is new again

The truth is, Journalism Growth Lab is a real latecomer on the scene.

As I often share when speaking on the subject, I was first introduced to the concept of “paid acquisition” in 2005. At the time, I was working on a project for Seattle-based digital publisher, I learned that they paid other publications to include an opt-in for Grist’s newsletter on the other publications’ subscription page. The opt-in was presented as a “bonus” for the person signing up, and — for the publisher providing the opt-in email addresses — it garnered additional revenue. But, for Grist, it was a coup — a steady stream of high quality, low cost, opt-in newsletter subscribers.

I wondered at the time: why isn’t every publisher doing this?

A few years later, in 2008, I was working with the Oxford-based magazine publisher, New Internationalist, and was asked to review a proposal from a company called Jellyfish.

A Jellyfish SEO-optimized subscription site is shown above.

Jellyfish, at the time, was one of the very few paid acquisition agencies on the scene. They worked with publishers across the UK — New Scientist, Red Pepper, and eventually New Internationalist — to drive magazine subscriptions using a combination of paid Google search-engine marketing and special offer landing pages. Jellyfish’s offer to publishers was simple: they would take the difference between what New Internationalist was willing to pay for a new subscriber and the conversion cost they could achieve using paid digital marketing — a win-win for both.

Again, I wondered: why isn’t every publisher doing this?

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it

I started obsessing about these ideas. It seemed that a little creative thinking in combination with new digital marketing tools was like a video game “power up” that could take a publisher to the next level in audience and customer growth — and one step closer to long-term financial sustainability.

The simple truth of the matter was that newspaper and magazine publishers had been doing marketing like this for ages, but in a different medium — direct mail.

In fact, back in 2005 almost every print publisher I knew — newspapers and magazines alike — were using direct mail marketing as part of their effort to reach new readers and subscribers.

And the reason they were doing it was because it continued to work. Yes, response rates were dropping and acquisition costs were going up, but — as the publishers’ thinking went at the time — ”if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!”

Then, a decade later, it broke.

Printing and mailing costs continued to increase, and response rates continued to plummet, and eventually direct mail no longer made financial sense outside of some very limited use cases.

However, over that same decade, digital marketing options for publishers continued to expand. Facebook arrived on the scene in 2006 and later launched its advertising platform. Google acquired YouTube around the same time and added the video platform to its ad offerings. Digital advertising options have only expanded since then.

The Mother Load

Here’s a concrete example from a couple of years back that I like to share that demonstrates just how much publishers have shifted from direct mail to digital paid acquisition.

Mother Jones, a 45 year old print magazine, has likely done a lot of direct mail over the years. But more recently they also invested a lot in digital paid acquisition. The size of their investment is hard for me to estimate from the outside, but on just one platform — — it was likely six figures or more.

You see, platforms like Care2 (and Facebook, and others), often charge publishers on a “cost per lead” basis for new opt-in email subscribers. And in 2016, Mother Jones ran a campaign with Care2 that looks like it delivered more than 100,000 new subscribers. I won’t give away Care2’s pricing, as it’s probably different for a campaign of that size than for smaller efforts, but suffice it to say that it was probably close to $100,000 investment on that platform alone.

Mother Jones is running those kinds of campaigns on several platforms, and I believe that those efforts likely played a big part in their 2019 effort to raise $25 million for their reporting, a campaign that looked to individual readers to help them reach that goal.

But isn’t this expensive?

Now there are several big agencies like Keywee (now called Anyword) that are working with newspaper and radio chains, and managing budgets in excess of $10,000/month (that’s typically been the table stakes for working with an agency like Keywee/Anyword). This is, in fact, an industry of sorts. And it’s not unusual in 2021 for a larger publisher to be spending a solid six figures or more a year on digital marketing and paid acquisition.

Even in the oft-told fable about the power of Morning Brew’s referral programs to drive their early growth, is the admission that paid acquisition was an even bigger driver of growth than referrals:

While the referral program obviously doesn’t account for all 1.5 million subscribers we have today (we began pursuing paid acquisition in early 2018), it does account for over 30% of our total subscribers

The Hustle? Yep. The Skimm? Yep. Even high-growth local news upstarts like 6AMCity readily admit that paid acquisition is an important factor in their growth.

But here’s the rub: the smaller publishers that I work with — the local independent news publishers, the hyperlocal news upstarts, the niche single-subject newsletter creators, and even the more established independent or family-owned operations — can’t typically afford to invest six figures a year into digital marketing.

Moreover, they’re often discouraged from experimenting much because of the perceived opportunity cost — which is more distractions that take away from putting out their editorial product. Even the well-resourced digital publishers that I’ve worked with struggle to prioritize much beyond getting out their reporting and that’s often because they’re working with a small staff and punching well above their weight. God bless them.

As I headed into a JSK fellowship at Stanford in 2017, I had it in the back of my mind that “this is a problem that can be solved.”

From side hustle to real hustle

You see, ever since those early realizations, I’d devoured everything I could find on the topic of paid acquisition. I’d kept a database of every great example I’d come across. I’d teased out the design patterns of effective creative. And I’d talked to every publisher I could about what they were doing in that area and documented what I heard.

And in 2017, I was able to start experimenting with publishers, thanks to the freedom the fellowship provided. And a short time later I was able to find two great supporters for the work, Pico and Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Pico provided me with access to publishers running the same software (which made data analysis much easier) and Lenfest provided funding to run dozens of experiments. You can read the results here and here.

This partnership enabled me to run experiments on virtually every platform you can think of — the obvious ones, like Facebook, Instagram, Google and YouTube, yes. But also the less obvious platforms, like Care2, Quora, Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as less-used ad formats like “Stories.” And, more recently, I’ve added Tik Tok and Reddit to the list.

After making the research available, more and more publishishers started reaching out to me to help them with their campaigns. I quickly realized that I would not be able to keep up without a bit of help. I reached out to my network and was lucky to find a great creative partner and talented campaign manager to work with in Emily Zajac.

Since then, the two of us have helped publishers to grow their newsletters with tens of thousands of new, high-quality subscribers, to deepen engagement with existing readers, and to cost-effectively build the ranks of their membership programs and paying subscribers by the thousands.

Teaching publishers how to fish in the digital pond

At the end of 2020, I had three realizations:

  • First, that it might be time to turn this ad-hoc side hustle into a more of a real hustle.
  • Second, that even as a real hustle, this would always be something small and unique — I like to say “bespoke” because we provide a very hands-on, tailored service — for forward-thinking publishers and creators that are trying to make a difference.
  • And, most importantly, it needed to be affordable and right-sized for publishers who aren’t quite ready to invest $10,000+ a month into digital marketing.

So that’s what we’re trying to do with Journalism Growth Lab.

We’ll continue to be open to inquiries from savvy funders and investors who’d like to underwrite the experimentation and research we do — the ad platforms are changing constantly, and new ones pop up regularly — so that we’re not learning on our client’s dime.

We then take the learning from those experiments, as well as what we’ve learned running and scaling campaigns for our clients, and make that available to everyone. We keep up-to-date on everything so that our clients don’t have to be. And we’re happy to figure out what ad platforms make the most sense for each publisher we work with — we’re not tied to just Facebook or Google (in fact, we often use several ad networks in tandem to drive better results).

If you’re a funder or investor that digs what we’re trying to do here, please get in touch.

If you’re a publisher or creator that’s doing important work and you’re looking to grow audience and revenue — let’s talk.

And if you’re just curious about this space, feel free to subscribe to our members-only podcast to get notified about all of the no-cost resources we develop, and invitations to our regular live talks on Clubhouse.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading. I wish you a happy, productive, and safe 2021.

P.S. The one-on-one coaching services that I provided under the Journalism Entrepreneurship Training Co will continue as a part of the Journalism Growth Lab, please reach out for details. The training programs that were offered now fall under the banner of the LION/Google News Initiative Startups Boot Camp where I provide support to news startups through an annual eight-week program.



Phillip Smith

👉 My passion is helping: 💰 Newsrooms make more money; 📈 News startups grow their audience; 🔥 Journalists succeed as entrepreneurs. Let’s talk 📩