Membership Programs for Publishers

How 5 Publishers Use Membership Programs to Maximize Revenue

Membership programs have become a source of sustenance for independent local publishers struggling to make up for decreasing ad revenue. While there’s no firm count on exactly how many local publishers are selling memberships to readers, the number is clearly growing. Forward-thinking publishers are finding new ways to maximize revenue through their membership programs, as they adjust the pricing and benefits to suit unique reader demographics.

If you’ve been following along, you’ve already learned what membership programs are and how the membership model works for local publishers. Now lets look at some real world examples of how digital news organizations are structuring their membership programs.

1. The Ferret
Over in Scotland, The Ferret relies on news tips from its members to support its editorial efforts. The investigative journalism platform—which is technically a co-op, with both journalists and readers on its board—is completely ad free. Instead of generating revenue through advertising, The Ferret uses a membership model with five pricing levels, ranging from £3 per month to £500 for a lifetime membership. The Ferret also offers a free community membership, which allows readers to take part in online forum discussions, while still limiting the number of premium stories they can read each month. The Ferret’s reporters discuss story ideas with members before starting new investigative work. The site’s director, Peter Geoghegan, credits that transparency among members with promoting social sharing on sites like Facebook and Twitter, since members are more inclined to share links to articles when they feel like they’ve made a contribution to the website.

2. azcentral
Part of the USA Today Network, azcentral is a local news source for Arizona. The company’s “Insider” membership program is designed to promote its subscription sales, as memberships are only available to people who’ve subscribed to either the print or digital editions. As with many similar membership programs, azcentral’s membership program gives subscribers the feeling of being on the “inside” of the newsroom. Members can get premium access to special events, local discounts, and other perks, like the ability to read certain stories and participate in games that non-members cannot. Members also get first dibs on purchasing tickets to local shows and events.

3. Berkeleyside
Berkeley’s independent news website is entirely reader-supported. Unlike many of its industry peers, Berkeleyside doesn’t charge readers for access to stories. Instead, the site suggests a number of ways that readers can help out, including sending in tips and sharing articles on social media. Certainly one of the most effective ways Berkeleyside has been able to generate revenue is through a paid membership program. Members have the option to contribute once a month, and in exchange they receive tickets to an annual members-only party, a free t-shirt, discounted tickets to local events, and advance notice of all other special events.

4. Charlotte Agenda
Positioning itself as the user’s guide to Charlotte, the Charlotte Agenda publishes five to 10 stories on its website each day and sends a popular email newsletter each morning. The Agenda’s membership program was developed as a way to build deeper relationships with the site’s most loyal readers. A list of members is posted publicly on The Agenda’s website. Members get early access to events, invites to member meet ups, discounts at local businesses, an exclusive “insider” newsletter, and free swag when they pay in advance. Members are also asked to weigh in on hot local topics, and The Agenda publishes those thoughts on a regular basis as op-eds on its website.

5. Honolulu Civil Beat
Launched in 2010, the Honolulu Civil Beat is a tax-exempt news organization. That means that donations to the Civil Beat’s membership program are tax deductible. Memberships start at $5 per month. For that price, members get access to a monthly members-only newsletter and invitations to coffee meet ups with the Civil Beat’s staff. The Civil Beat has developed a tiered pricing structure, where members who pay more receive more benefits. For example, members who pay $120 per year get advance notice and reserved seating at monthly Civil Beat events, and members who pay $1,000 or more a year get invitations to VIP donor experiences.

To find even more publishers utilizing a membership model, check out this database from The Membership Puzzle Project, a public research project focusing on the future of sustainable journalism.