Ad Tech & Programmatic

Ads and events are bringing in more revenue than subscriptions at the Baltimore Banner—for now

The publication is courting local and regional advertisers while eschewing programmatic inventory.
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Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner

4 min read

The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit news startup in Maryland that opened in 2022, has quickly made its presence felt in its community. After exposing the state’s failure to fully reimburse victims of welfare theft in December, officials announced new policies to reimburse them last month.

The outlet is also beginning to make money. The Banner made $5 million in advertising and events revenue in 2023, outpacing the organization’s subscription revenue and exceeding the company’s own goals, Chief Revenue Officer Sharon Nevins told Marketing Brew. This year, Nevins expects subscription revenue to exceed what’s earned from advertising and events, but for now, local advertisers are paying the bills.

“We don’t think you can really be self-sustainable if you rely on only one source of revenue,” Nevins said.

The publication isn’t profitable yet—it’s only two years into a five-year path to profitability set by its owner, the hotel magnate Stewart W. Bainum Jr.—but it could serve as a glimmer of possibility among some attempts nationwide to shore up local news media. Bainum previously tried to purchase the Baltimore Sun newspaper back in 2021, but lost out to hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which earlier this year sold the paper to David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair, who has “given generously over the years to conservative and local causes” through his family foundation, the Banner reported.

Now, the newsroom has over 60 journalists, covering the city’s local government, its food scene, and its beloved professional sports teams, the Ravens and the Orioles. Lately, it’s covering regional stories from neighboring Howard and Anne Arundel counties, too.

Beyond its unusual founding story, the Banner stands out from some other recently established media startups that don’t report making a majority of their money from ads—or, in some cases, eschew ad revenue almost entirely. (The nonprofit Texas Tribune, for example, sees most of its revenue come from donations, according to its annual report.)

Nevins, who previously worked at Tribune Media, the former owner of the Baltimore Sun, said that margins at nonprofit news outlets like the Banner can be lower than at for-profit shops, but she said the $5 million figure is well above the $3.5 million the team expected, (though Nevins acknowledged that “the goal was a bit low”). It will aim for $5 million again this year, she told us.

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So far, the Banner doesn’t have a single national advertiser, and Nevins doesn’t expect them to come running. Instead, it looks regional and local, running ads for businesses like the Howard County Economic Development Authority, Ronald McDonald House Charities Maryland, regional banks, casinos, and a local music school and recording studio.

So far, the publication has avoided programmatic inventory. The Banner “does not have that scale,” Nevins said—plus, she added, these ads can be “extremely reader-intrusive.”

Beyond ads

Klas Uden, the Banner’s chief marketing officer, shared with Marketing Brew that the Banner currently counts 44,000 paying subscribers. That’s up more than 37% from the 32,000 subscribers reported by the Washington Post in December.

“The ambition is still to grow paid subscribers to 100k, but this number in [and] of itself is not what defines success for the Banner,” he told Marketing Brew in an email.

A portion of those subscribers are coming from an aggressive promotional campaign: six months of access to the Banner’s journalism for $1. Today, many of the newsletters the Banner sends advertise the promotional rate, and the Banner’s website navigation includes a prominent link to “Subscribe for $1.”

Uden declined to share the percentage of subscribers who are on the promotional rate, but said that “the majority of subscribers have transitioned to our regular rate, and continue to do so.”

This year, Nevins said the company expects to get a clearer look at its long-term subscriber base as it looks to continue growing its business beyond ads and events.

“Once you have somebody as a subscriber for, say, two years, they’re likely to stay,” she said. “It’s capturing that first cohort coming off of the promo and keeping them.”

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