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March 1, 2012, 3:30 p.m.

What kind of challenges does the L.A. Times face in creating a membership program?

What does a “membership” program for a newspaper look like, and will readers look at it differently than they would a paywall?

From a marketing standpoint, the word “paywall” is pretty terrible. Right away, it tells you there’s a barrier between you and what you want, and the only way to negotiate it is to pay.

So it’s not surprising that media companies, used to working with words, are using alternatives. The New York Times uses “digital subscription”, and Gannett’s also talking “subscription model”. And the Los Angeles Times is billing its new approach a “membership program.” Granted, it’s a membership program that limits access to Times stories based on payment — but the Times promises “retail discounts, deals and giveaways, as well as access to digital news.”

The Times plan isn’t surprising as a paid-content strategy — more and more papers are asking readers to pay, even within the Tribune empire. But the Times’ approach is worth looking at from the standpoint of how a newspaper brands itself, and how that can entice readers to pay for a product that has been free-ish for a long time.

When I spoke with Emily Smith, the LAT’s senior vice president for digital, she said she believes readers already understand the importance of the journalism the paper produces — a membership approach is an attempt to build on that. “We want to make this a great value, to be a part of the L.A. Times,” she said. “I think the burden is on us to prove that. I welcome that.”

What would a L.A. Times membership look like? Smith said benefits could include free or discounted ebooks from the Times, which began publishing them last fall with reporter Christopher Goffard’s A Nightmare Made Real. Members could also get special access to events the Times hosts, such as their annual festival of books or movie screenings. But Smith didn’t want to get too detailed about the membership program, which is supposed to officially launch on Monday, March 5. She said the Times wants to be careful not to define the benefits of membership too strictly and limit their room to launch new features or perks.

While that flexibility may be an asset for future growth, it makes how the Times defines membership to its readers all the more important. Smith told me the move is “not a marketing-copy trick,” that the Times really wants to reshape the connection between a newspaper and its community. “It is definitely a shift from what newspapers have been using to describe their relationship with readers historically,” she said. “It just reflects the times we are in.”

A matter of definitions

It’s still an odd thing to consider, the idea of a newspaper having members instead of subscribers. Readers historically paid an access fee that provided them with a day’s worth of news and ads; whatever connection existed beyond that was likely found on the editorial pages or, if you needed to sell a used car, the classifieds. There was little prestige or badge of honor that went along with reading — or identifying with — most newspapers; at most you got a box with the newspaper’s logo on it to attach to your mailbox.

Membership clearly implies something more, a means of aligning yourself with a group or organization that either shares your beliefs or provides a service or product above and beyond what you could do for yourself. I’m a AAA member (and have been since college — thanks Aunt Rose!) for the simple reason that I wouldn’t be able to fix my car were it to break down in the middle of nowhere. In high school, I — like many of you, don’t lie — was a member of the Columbia House CD club because they (theoretically) provided me with access to more music than I was willing to walk down to the record store to get by myself.

In recent years, news organizations have experiments in programs that offer readers benefits outside of news, but those are typically attached to promotions with local advertisers or Groupon-esque deal programs like the New York Times Times Limited. The newer nonprofit online news organizations like MinnPost use the language of membership to secure donations, sometimes promoting hosted events as incentive to join. While there’s no clear comparison to a membership program in newspapers, public media provides some examples: We’re all familiar with local NPR or PBS pledge drives that regularly asks the audience to contribute funds to help stay on the air. This is a system with a number of physical, as well as psychic, benefits — not least the endorphin rush from knowing you support your local station and they’ve thanked you for it on air.

Lessons from public radio

Jay Clayton, a consultant who works with public media stations on strategy and marketing for their fundraising, said those infamous tote bags, coffee mugs and more, are less member benefits than enticements. While there are a number of public media outlets that offer exclusive events or discounts through listener/viewer programs, the phrase “membership” has a loose meaning at most stations, easily interchangeable with “contribution support.”

Still, the mugs, bags, shirts, and the rest do provide public media fans a kind of totem and means of self-identifying that acts as a way to spot kindred types elsewhere in their community. They create a kind of ad hoc membership group even if a formal one doesn’t exist. That group, as real or loosely defined as they may be, make for a solid block of (paying) supporters once pledge time comes around.

“The format will always be the cause for giving,” Clayton said. “The mugs and extras act as a catalyst for giving a certain amount and giving at a certain time.” What Clayton means by that is the audience goes into the whole thing knowing public radio survives off donations. Yes, there are those who don’t support public radio and TV, but enough do to keep stations solvent. The proposition is different with newspapers, he said, because the nature of online news has changed how people associate their money with keeping their paper afloat.

Though public media would seem a good example of memberships as a means of supporting journalism, the structural differences with for-profit media show there will be plenty of challenges in making a similar system work for newspapers like the L.A. Times. Public media in all its forms has a kind of implicit appeal for donations, and newspapers don’t, Clayton said. That’s important, he said, because it’s the seed that motivates people to spend money to support news in their community. Absent any kind of physical benefits, the idea of a membership — whether you have a card or just nod to a person with a “I heart NPR” shirt — is secondary to that. For the Times, or any other newspaper looking to create a membership program, they must not only find a way to entice people to make that first step to join, but also demonstrate why their membership community is worthwhile.

“Unless there is interest from the beginning, all the mugs and extras are not going to provoke them to donate,” he said.

Photo by Leo Reynolds used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 1, 2012, 3:30 p.m.
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