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Vox launches subscription program as news publishers race to diversify revenue streams

By Oliver Darcy, CNN

(CNN) — Vox is preparing to celebrate its 10th birthday — making a major change to its business model that reflects how digital news publishers are scrambling to evolve as they are increasingly starved of referral traffic and advertising revenue.

Not only will Vox debut a refreshed website on Tuesday morning to mark its 10th trip around the sun (fear not, the trademark yellow is not going away), it will also launch a membership program, its executives told CNN Monday, as the digital publisher becomes the latest news outlet to lean into subscriptions to diversify and grow its revenue stream.

The subscription program — which will cost $5 a month, or $50 a year — will give members access to an array of exclusive content, including newsletters, a digital magazine, a monthly bonus episode of “The Highlight Podcast,” live virtual tapings of audio programs, interactive video interviews, and more.

“It is so incredibly important to diversify our revenue and business model,” Swati Sharma, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Vox, told CNN by phone Monday. “We have to be strategic.”

While the site and its suite of content will continue to remain free to readers, its new members-only program is additive to Vox’s existing content and will be the only programming behind a paywall. The outlet will count the revenue it earns from subscriptions as an added stream, with the publisher opting for a hybrid model consisting of multiple forms of revenue, including advertising and grants.

Sharma said that building a members-only tier for Vox’s loyal fans was the natural step after finding success soliciting reader donations, which the outlet has done since 2020. In those four years, it has received more than 100,000 contributions, Vox Media’s consumer revenue chief Priyanka Arya told CNN.

Now, with members-only benefits aimed at enticing subscribers, coupled with the hiring of Bill Carey as executive director of memberships, the digital publication is hoping to strengthen its relationship with readers.

“We are taking a bet on people caring about news organizations,” Sharma told me. “But I think that it’s a bet worth taking.”

The move could not come at a more critical juncture. News publishers are navigating challenging terrain, and most have been forced to undergo painful layoffs in recent years, including Vox. The stormy seas have been made even tougher by the rapid advancement and deployment of artificial intelligence. Not only has Meta turned its back on news publishers, but Google, which so many outlets have become quite dependent on, announced last week it will infuse its dominant search engine with A.I. That move has prompted alarm over the possibility referral traffic to news outlets will slow to a trickle.

“It worries me, and it should worry everyone in journalism,” Sharma said.

The daunting circumstance has made establishing direct pipelines between news outlets and audiences more important than ever. Which is likely why so many major newsrooms have signaled they will, in one way or another, wade into creating and/or bolstering subscription models that include members-only content to supplement other revenue streams.

Looking ahead to its next decade, Sharma told me she wants to see Vox identify solutions to some of the biggest problems plaguing the world, expanding on its coverage of issues ranging from climate change to gun violence to loneliness. Sharma emphasized that while it is important to cover such paramount issues, it is equally important to offer readers a way to walk away empowered with steps they can take to help improve society.

“Vox was such an incredible bet to make,” Sharma said. “It was offering something very specific at that time, which still resonates … Vox pioneered the explainer format and that is everywhere today.”

“We’ve explained the news,” Sharma added. “The next step is shaping the world.”

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