Indie local news sites see potential in membership programs

By Matt DeRienzo | Aug. 27, 2015

Tracey Taylor of Berkeleyside, J.T. Kostman of Time and Graham Page of Guardian talk about membership programs at CUNY in Manhattan Aug. 26.

Andaiye Taylor of Brick City Live talks about loyalty program she built in Newark, New Jersey, with Josh Stearns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Aug. 26 at CUNY in Manhattan.

Public media-style membership programs are “beginning to look like a lift raft” for independent local news organizations, nonprofit and for-profit alike.

Few online-only paywall strategies have succeeded. Lower CPM rates and the looming spread of ad blocking technology have publishers looking beyond advertising alone as a strategy.

“We’re very cognizant of the need to (have) diverse revenue streams,” LION member Tracey Taylor, of California’s Berkeleyside, said at a day-long symposium on the topic Wednesday at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in Manhattan.

Memberships now represent about 20 percent of the six-year-old Berkleyside’s revenue.

“Our readers are incredibly connected to us as it is. We have hundreds of interactions with our readers across our platforms every day … They are very invested in us,” Taylor said.

So Berkeleyside, which averages 250,000 unique visitors covering a city of 120,000, started talking more about the resources that go into the news it was producing, saying to readers, “Would you like to support us? We’re giving you this news for free.”

“It’s really about community. The value of being a Berkleyside member is you become part of this club,” she said. “... In theory, every one of our readers should be a member. They’re very much already part of the Berkeleyside community.”

The site has offered the stereotypical tote bag and T-shirt type of incentive for being a member, but has seen the most success from simple, heartfelt messages about their mission and work.

In the midst of Berkeleyside’s intense coverage of Black Lives Matter protests recently, they sent an email to everyone in their newsletter database talking about how their reporter had worked 10 hours straight without a bathroom break or stopping for lunch. Within a day, they’d received hundreds of donations. “Sometimes it’s $10, sometimes it’s $250,” Taylor said.

“We remind them of what we’re giving them,” Taylor said, when we’ve had “an amazing week or couple days of reporting.”

Berkeleyside sponsors local events, and gives members special discounts. It also gives them an early heads up on big features and special access to journalists.

Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY, and Josh Stearns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, said that in addition to revenue, membership programs can be about building relationships with readers that are essential to improving journalism, service to the community and audience growth.

And that can’t be a one-way request for money or be all about money. “If we’re really talking about relationships, we have to be listening in real ways,” Stearns said, especially the “communities that aren’t being served very well.”

“Membership is not just about being a revenue stream,” Jarvis said. “It’s an opportunity to reset the relationships we have with the publics we serve, plural.”

Stearns said Berkeleyside was right to bring “new levels of transparency” to their work.

“The actual labor of reporting - we don’t talk about that,” he said. “But we need to, because that’s what shows the value of our work.”

Mary Walter-Brown of the Voice of San Diego said that it became clear during the site’s membership efforts that people didn’t understand the nonprofit news model.

“They turned on their computer and the news was there and they didn’t really think about how it got there and who was producing it, and we’d never told them,” she said. “We had never written our story, and we had a really good story to write, and a whole staff of writers to write it.”

Voice of San Diego had a membership program “from the beginning,” but at first it was unstructured, with anyone giving $5 being considered a member.

“If managed properly, it can really be the breeding ground for a lot more money,” Walter-Brown said. “…You get major donors out of it, you get corporate sponsors out of it. … If you do a good job managing that relationship.”

With funding from the Knight Foundation, the Voice of San Diego and MinnPost worked together to build a customized customer relationship management (CRM) system using Salesforce to manage its membership program.

There’s a big push to get readers to sign up for a daily morning email newsletter, and then customized promotions attempt to convert them into members.

“We know what kinds of stories they like,” Walter-Brown said. “We know where they live.”

“You need to have a really clear picture of who your readers are before you can build an effective membership program,” she said.

Walter-Brown said Voice of San Diego conducted focus groups and sent out a 30-question survey asking about news consumption habits, topics of interest, desktop vs. mobile use, whether readers understood the nonprofit model and what they valued most about the site.

It also asked readers to list three words that described Voice of San Diego and/or what they valued in it, and later used that information in marketing campaigns.

Finally, they asked readers who’d never given if they wanted Voice of San Diego to stop asking them for money, or to “keep asking because I’ve been meaning to give one of these days.”

“There are two kinds of people in our ecosystem - members and potential members,” Walter-Brown said. “.... (we have) a potential member strategy and a current member strategy.”

Voice of San Diego gets about 18 percent of its revenue from members, 18 percent from sponsorships, 26 percent from major donors and 38 percent from foundations.

It has four levels of membership, ranging from $35 to $100 a year to $1,000 to $5,000, and “major donors” who give more than $5,000.

Walter-Brown said they are pushing automatic-renewal memberships in which readers contribute $10 a month, for example, with no expiration date and therefore much less churn.

They are working towards user testing that would enable them to watch readers navigate the site and be able to prompt a fundraising message catered to support for a new education reporter position, for example, after seeing that someone has read three stories about the local school system that month.

“I think we have a very long funnel,” Jarvis said, starting with the “faceless mass audience” that news sites have. “All the way on the other end is someone who is a subscriber a member. In the middle are tremendous opportunities.”