For the better part of 10 years, journalists have been told that paywalls are the future to funding a sustainable newsroom. Free is out, the funnel is in and pageviews matter a lot less than subscription conversions.
What if there is another way? Well, journalists in Chicago are putting that to the test.
In October, the Chicago Sun-Times announced it would be dropping its paywall in favor of a membership model more akin to Chicago Public Media, which bought the newspaper back in January and turned it into a nonprofit. Instead of forcing readers to pony up their credit card to read more than a handful of articles, the Sun-Times is now asking them to voluntarily support their newsgathering enterprise at whichever level they see fit.
It’s not a totally alien concept for a major metro newspaper, but it certainly goes against the grain. Just a handful of medium to large newspapers in the U.S. are owned by a nonprofit, and even fewer have decided to embrace a membership model. (The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I work, is owned by the nonprofit Philadelphia Foundation, but has a digital paywall).
In the United Kingdom, The Guardian has been asking readers to donate since 2016, and back in July, the company reported it has more than one million digital supporters making ongoing contributions. In a difficult financial year for media companies, The Guardian reported annual revenues grew by 13% and generated a cash surplus of £6.7 million (about $7.5 million).
As The Guardian has shown, a successful membership project isn’t just a subscription by any other name — it’s an editorial mindset that values a strong relationship with readers. It’s a narrow but essential distinction — subscribers pay to access your content, while members join and participate because they believe in your mission.
Ariel Zirulnick, who worked on New York University’s Membership Puzzle Project until it wound down last year, put it differently. In membership programs, readers are much more than just an ATM, and the conversion to paying supporters is just the beginning of the relationship.
That’s the mission (and the success) that the Sun-Times hopes to mimic, according to Chief Audience Officer Celeste LeCompte, who moved to Chicago for this job after spending more than six years at ProPublica, where she developed a fondness for its membership model for supporting journalism.
“It's really taking a mutual approach to what ‘Trust in media’ means,” LeCompte said. “We ask our readers to trust us all the time. We tell them that we report the news fairly and clearly and are doing our best. Why don't we trust our readers back?”
The Sun-Times membership program is pretty straightforward. Readers can select to donate whatever amount they can, or they can go with a couple of tiers and get some swag — $5 a month earns them a tote bag, $60 a year nets them a mug, and a limited-edition Sun-Times umbrella goes to readers who donate $150 a year.
“One of the things I think is wonderful about the Sun-Times is there’s so much authentic, long-lived historic community pride in the brand,” LeCompte said, which is true of many metro newspapers across the country. “If you belong to an organization that people are proud to be a supporter of, give them tools for communicating that to their friends, family, and strangers at the grocery store.”
The Sun-Times isn’t doing away with subscriptions for its printed newspapers — they’ll still set readers back $10 a week for seven-day delivery, though the cost is now tax deductible, thanks to the paper’s nonprofit status. And while it is shedding its paywall, by most measures, it was a tough sell in a two-newspaper town. (The Sun-Times had about 28,000 digital subscribers according to a March 2021 filing with the Alliance for Audited Media, NiemanLab reported.)
LeCompte said her experience from ProPublica, along with the work at Chicago Public Media, has been that if you give people an opportunity to participate in the mission, set their own price and join on their own, it encourages greater participation from the community overall.
“I’ve always liked it because I think it keeps everybody honest,” LeCompte said. “Do you value this thing? Do you think about it? How could it be better? Are we meeting your needs? It’s all about making sure we’re serving the community, so there’s a real continuum of relationship building that’s happening on both sides of the equation.”
The Sun-Times will have to find out if they have that type of relationship with readers on their own. LeCompte said it isn’t merging with the robust membership program of its sister company, NPR-affiliate WBEZ. The two will remain separate and distinct brands. And the Sun-Times won’t have the option of turning to quarterly radio pledge drives as a call-to-action to readers, but there are options to replicate that approach digitally, including on-site messaging and email campaigns.
“Running campaigns is a really important part of building a membership program. Everybody needs a deadline, not just journalists,” LeCompte said. “On our first day when we launched, we said if we get 500 members today, we will unlock $15,000 from a donor, and we met that goal handily.”
So, what are some benchmarks the Sun-Times is looking to hit? LeCompte wouldn’t reveal specific income levels they’re looking to reach, but said they hope to see support levels for the Sun-Times that are similar to WBEZ, where 60 percent of all support comes from its nearly 90,000 members.
One thing this new membership model won’t do is change how the Sun-Times covers Chicago. Not only are the two newsrooms not merging, but the collaboration with WBEZ also enables the newspaper to reach a new audience and vice-versa.
Recently, the two organizations collaborated on a joint investigation into the debt residents had acquired from their city water bills. Chicago Public Media was able to muster the resources to organize a series of community action sessions to help educate those impacted.
“It was really a powerful example of how the two brands can collaborate together to do different things where they have real excellence and then build on each other's strengths,” LeCompte said. “We also did a joint election guide during the primaries earlier this year, and the reach of that was significantly better than we had seen before. We believe we reached somewhere between 20 percent to 25 percent of all voters in that election with our combined coverage.”
Rob 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 email@example.com.
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