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Oct. 26, 2009, 10 a.m.

Talking Points Memo explores a membership model, but no paywall

Talking Points Memo spent the weekend asking its readers for advice on building a mobile strategy. (See these three posts.) Two of their findings are of interest to future-of-journalism types:

The Kindle remains a half-hearted medium for news, an awkward mix of book-centric tech and news organizations searching for marginal revenue. Here’s TPM top boss Josh Marshall:

There are many fewer Kindles out there than iPhones, let alone Blackberries. But even among Kindle users, demand didn’t seem too great. A lot of you said that you love it for books. But it’s just not made for rapidly changing information, our more iterative style of writing and reporting. And it’s also not great visually for anything but pure text. Another way of saying this is that it’s designed for books, which of course it is. Just speaking for myself, and as someone who’s become an avid user of my Kindle for books, I think I agree.

By contrast, “we’ve got a lot of readers who are very into their Palm Pre mobile devices,” Marshall reports, although they still lag far behind iPhone users in numbers.

TPM is exploring a membership model that aims to draw money out of its most dedicated readers without putting all its content behind a paywall. That’s a model a number of newspaper companies are coming around to as they wrestle with the need to generate revenue from readers but realize the drawbacks of putting all content under lock and key for those who won’t pay. Here’s Marshall describing the outlines of what they’re thinking:

TPM would never put up any sort of pay-wall in front of our content. It’s completely antithetical to both our editorial and our business model. But we are actively considering a membership program in which people who are really into TPM could pay a few bucks a month — say the cost of a coffee at Starbucks — for a series of extra services and tools — for instance, several times a week video-based live teleconferences with TPM reporters and editors in which you’d be able to ask follow-up questions to stories, ask about the reporting process on certain issues we’re covering, whatever. That’s just one example. But the key would be these would be things that we don’t think there’d necessarily ever be a mass audience for but which would still take a decent investment of staff time and in some cases tech-time to do. So a membership framework, with a small monthly fee, makes sense.

…we’ve discussed having access to customized versions of TPM for particular mobile devices be a benefit of becoming a member of the site. But we’re still considering whether that’s a direction we’d want to go — mainly because I think some of these mobile platforms may eventually become dominant ways to read the site, perhaps even rivaling the number of people who read TPM on the web…

Marshall also mentions as potential membership benefits mobile breaking-news alerts, customized story selection, and aggregated polling data on elections of interest. While TPM has a different heritage than traditional newspapers do, there are many news organizations running a similar set of ideas through their business-side meetings these days.

I’ve been a regular TPM reader since 2000, back when it was hosted on a subdirectory of Josh’s personal site, and the site’s tone and content mix have shifted over time as its audience has evolved from hard-core political junkies and blogophiles to a broader audience with a more casual political interest. When Marc Andreessen invested in a TPM growth strategy this summer, the future-of-journalism side of me was thrilled to see Josh get a chance to expand and evolve. But the TPM-reader side was a little worried that, in the process of reaching for a bigger audience, TPM might evolve into something a little more pageview-hungry, a little more Politico. So revenue aside, I’m heartened to see TPM thinking about new ways to satisfy its core audience. As Slate’s David Plotz put it last week, sometimes there’s more value to be drawn from a devoted core readership than from a broader but fickle one.

POSTED     Oct. 26, 2009, 10 a.m.
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