Digital Publishing: Membership Programs are Just the Beginning of the Relationship

Member supported news?

It doesn’t seem that far-fetched. After all, local public radio stations have been relying on donations from listeners like you since well before I was born. So why have so many news publishers rallied around erecting paywalls instead of simply asking readers to chip in to support the news?

In the U.K., the Guardian has been the poster child of generating revenue simply by asking readers to donate. Since 2016, the newspaper has grown from 12,000 members to north of 655,000 monthly supporters today (and another 300,000 who made one-time contributions last year), with a goal of adding a million more, most of it driven by simple requests for readers to support the paper’s journalism added to the bottom of news stories. The success has helped pushed the Guardian into profitability after losses for forecast to exceed £80 million a year.

Sign me up, right? Not so fast.

For starters, a successful membership project isn’t just a subscription by another name—it’s an editorial mindset that values a strong relationship with readers, not just the one-way street most news organizations remain accustomed to. Think about it like this—subscribers pay to access your newsroom’s content, while members are joining and participating because they believe in your mission.

“We see membership as programs that treat readers much more than an ATM,” said Ariel Zirulnick, fund director at the Membership Puzzle Project, a public research project based out of New York University that’s working to fund and guide news organizations interested in pursuing a membership strategy.

“There are a lot of people who, when they first begin to try membership, see it as a conversion funnel…once someone starts paying, it’s the end of the journey, we’ve achieved what we need to achieve,” Zirulnick said. “We see membership as the moment (a reader) converts to a member, it’s just the beginning of the relationship.”

In 2018, the Membership Puzzle Project launched its membership in news fund, which Zirulnick said was designed to provide coaching, knowledge sharing and a financial runway to news organizations around the world to green light promising experiments centered around membership models.

One of the project’s success stories is halfway across the world in Cape Town, South Africa. There, a digital-only news outlet called the Daily Maverick has swelled to 7,000 members who support the organization’s commitment to quality, long-form analysis and opinion.

How did they do it? By designing a membership program around the cause of keeping the website’s quality journalism free in a country where tremendous income inequality means many can’t afford a news subscription. Among the perks are ad-free web browsing, a members-only newsletter, invitations to events and the ability to engage directly with the website’s journalists.

“Outside of the few global players winning in the subscription space, the news publications that seem to be carving out a sustainable model, and not reliant on a single type of funding, are those embracing the membership model,” Styli Charalambous, the co-founder and CEO of The Daily Maverick, wrote in an essay for Nieman Lab. “Not only can membership save journalism, but it will do so by helping it evolve.”

In The Daily Maverick’s case, its membership program exists to eliminate the need for a paywall. But that doesn’t mean subscription-based news organizations need to re-invent themselves completely in order to experiment with membership programs.

Take the Dallas Morning News for example. The 134-year-old newspaper has had a digital paywall in place for years but approached the Membership Puzzle Project to develop a membership plan because they felt operating with only a subscriber model didn’t reflect how they felt about their readers.

What they came up with was Experience Dallas, a project that allows subscribers to contribute their own reviews of restaurants, bars and entertainment options in exchange for a credit towards their subscription. Basically, readers chose an experience, review it, submit their receipt and receive up to 97 percent toward their renewal price.

“The idea is it drastically lowers the cost of a subscription for somebody who’s participating in the program. But more importantly, it signals to this person, ‘We value your contributions,’ Zirulnick said. “It’s one thing to invite people to contribute on your Facebook page. It’s another thing to allow them to publish on your website alongside your reporters.”

In this case, the Morning News is making the bet that losing revenue in the short term is worth it to create a stronger bond with a segment of its audience. It’s also an opportunity to create a relationship with a different type of reader than the newspaper is currently reaching with its traditional reporting.

“Those who are coming to the Dallas Morning News primarily for the civic coverage of meetings, local election, etc., are probably quite happy to pay a subscription price just to receive that excellent reporting,” Zirulnick said. “But if you’re somebody who feels disconnected from the civic life of the city, but truly loves Dallas for its arts and culture, this now opens up a new avenue for you.”

More than 1,000 miles northeast of Dallas in Akron, Ohio is an arts and culture magazine called The Devil Strip. The publication is attempting to make the jump from a traditional advertising-based business model to a community-owned cooperative, where readers and reporters will have an equal stake in the news organization’s future.

Like The Daily Maverick, part of the goal at The Devil Strip is to keep its content free to anyone who wants to read it. But Chris Horne, founder and publisher, told the Lenfest Institute’s Brianna Baker that the co-op model wasn’t designed to just get existing readers involved—he hopes to form new relationships with nonprofits, civic groups, neighborhood associations and represent the city’s diversity across a range of demographics.

“A co-op just creates more opportunities for people to engage with us,” Horne told Baker. “And hopefully engaging with The Devil Strip is the first step to engaging the civic life in Akron.” 

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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2 thoughts on “Digital Publishing: Membership Programs are Just the Beginning of the Relationship

  • February 25, 2020 at 6:38 am
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    Just a few thoughts.
    Re: public radio. S.C. Public Radio holds an annual pledge drive, in October and February. Yes, you read that right. It is preceded by a “no pledge drive pledge drive” that seeks donations without interrupting local programming. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, this time, it only raised slightly more than half of the amount requested, so starting this morning, they had to go into full pledge-drive mode. Just asking for money, even for an excellent media outlet, isn’t as easy as it sounds.
    Second thought on that. Only a fraction of consumers actually donate. Several years ago I published a monthly newsletter on a “voluntary pay” basis. Most of my recipients chose not to pay, but became angry when I discontinued their subscriptions. Others demanded to know what I was doing with their donations. I reminded them that it costs money to print newsletters and put postage stamps on them — that’s where 100 percent of their money went. Eventually, I tired of subsidizing the newsletter and stopped publication.
    Re: Guardian. They do a fine job and I wished to support them so I made a donation via credit card a year or two ago. I did not realize my bank would add a currency conversion charge but that was palatable. But almost immediately my card was compromised and I was “buying” gasoline, fast food, and car washes in southern Colorado, thousands of miles away from my house. I canceled the card and got a new one. The experience left a bad taste in my mouth about donating via credit card.

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  • February 25, 2020 at 8:22 am
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    As someone who owns a small city start-up digital newspaper, I like the idea of paywalls, but it just puts up an unnecessary barrier to our readers and doesn’t show them the value beyond “just pay for the news”. That’s not to say there isn’t value people should pay for. Instead, we are operating under a membership model. It’s a small monthly fee to signup and our site stays free no login required. However, the bigger benefit to members is access to exclusive events, showing them behind the scenes unpublished photos/ live videos, and we began using our staff photographers to host members only group photo sessions for families. Although we’re still building our member base, it has show the community that supporting us is more important than bigger in-town “hedge fund’ owned paper because we bring more valued added opportunities other than just what they read.

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