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Sept. 6, 2017, 12:01 a.m.
Business Models

The Atlantic launches a paid membership program for its “diehards” called The Masthead

But not just the diehards — it’s also an attempt to forge tighter connections with its growing web audience. “We’re trying to create a product that’s a supplement, not a replacement.”

The Atlantic is the latest publisher to roll out a new membership program, seeking a new path to more engagement and (most importantly) revenue from readers.

The Masthead — the program’s name, as well as a nod to the access members will get to Atlantic writers and editors — is a separate level of subscription, that launches Wednesday for existing subscribers of the Atlantic; it’ll quickly be opened up to anyone interested in paying more for more Atlantic content and access. Membership comes with a digital subscription to The Atlantic, Masthead-specific stories and updates, behind-the-scenes dispatches, discounts to Atlantic events, and a members Facebook group.

The rate for the members who join early is $10 per month or $100 per year; the price will be increased down the line (a one-year digital subscription is currently $24.50). The Atlantic has brought on two full-time staffers, Matt Peterson and Caroline Kitchener, to manage relationships with Masthead members and members-only content.

The Atlantic has seen strong growth in its readership online over the past several years, surpassing 42 million global unique visitors in May according to Omniture data. (The absolute value varies depending on the analytics service cited, but the upward trend is consistent.) It hit a print circulation of 570,000 in July, according to a spokesperson (also a significant increase from previous years, based on Alliance for Audited Media reports). It’s also trying to grow its European audience, with a full London bureau and plans to extend its live events business, advertising market, and new membership base outside the U.S. (The company is profitable, according to Atlantic president Bob Cohn, and in 2017 less than 20 percent of its total revenue will come from print. And this premium membership was in development before Emerson Collective took a majority stake in The Atlantic this summer.)

“There are two different sets of readers we’re interested in using Masthead to connect with: longtime core audiences who come to us through print or digital, and the new readers who’ve come to us through this explosive growth on the web we’ve had,” Cohn said. “So we have this core audience of Atlantic diehards who just love The Atlantic, and we’re eager to connect with them more. Then we have this much larger new audience of people who discovered us digitally, who aren’t core, who’ve come through social and read a piece or two — we really want to establish more of a connection with them and to create more loyalty to that audience.”

Different pieces of what now make up the Masthead offerings were tested with several thousand Atlantic readers — both subscribers and non-subscribers — over the past two years, recruited through its email newsletters, social media, and the Atlantic website, according to Sam Rosen, vice president of marketing. Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg reaches out with a monthly email update. It’s held conference calls for staff writers to field questions and facilitate discussion around its cover stories. It’s tested a new email product that calls for and highlights reader questions and pairs them with staff responses. It sharpened the new premium membership through feedback from these initial tests — though Cohn added that founding members of Masthead will have a role in shaping the program by conveying “what Masthead content gets them excited, what they’re interested in, what’s working for them.”

“What consistently came back was this: Atlantic readers want deeper insight into issues of global import. Certain features that we thought would score highest, like in-person networking and online community, were actually lower on the list,” Rosen wrote in an email relayed by a spokesperson. “In the end, it was the kind of work that our readers told us they appreciate most from The Atlantic — namely, reasoned analysis, commentary, and reporting — that they requested, along with the opportunity to support important, intensive editorial work.”

Atlantic writers will be contributing “mini cover stories” exclusively for Masthead members (global affairs and U.S. foreign policy writer Uri Friedman, for instance, will have a piece up on human migration). Masthead editors might interview Atlantic reporters in the middle of a story, to check in on the process and see “what nuggets they can tell us about what it’s like to be on the inside of these stories,” Cohn said.

“We’re doing thematic, deeper dives in Masthead. It’s not a matter of, ‘Should that story go on the site or in the magazine, or should that story go to members?’ Our membership editors are only doing stories for members. There will be an additional draw on our writers’ time, but they’re already writing for print, online, video, for Radio Atlantic,” Cohn said. “The stories that run in Masthead are not the kinds of pieces that would otherwise go on the site or magazine. We’re trying to create a product that’s a supplement, not a replacement.”

The Atlantic is eyeing a future where a significant portion of its revenue continues to come directly from readers (The Atlantic’s CityLab site, newly redesigned and more standalone, may well see its own membership program soon).

“Ten years ago, we basically had revenue from the print magazine, and that was more than four-fifths of The Atlantic’s revenue. Over the years, we’ve added really important other platforms, like events, consulting, podcasting,” Cohn said. “Membership will be a great addition to the portfolio we offer, a good way to continue diversifying.”

POSTED     Sept. 6, 2017, 12:01 a.m.
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