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Three years into nonprofit ownership, The Philadelphia Inquirer is still trying to chart its future
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April 6, 2018, 1:37 p.m.

How can local independent news orgs build successful membership programs?

“Don’t substitute the word ‘interest’ for ‘value.’ People might be interested in a car crash, but don’t value it enough to pay for it.”

Would free pizzas offered by a local pizza restaurant entice you to subscribe to your hyperlocal online news source?

That’s one approach Covering Katy, an online news outlet in Katy, Texas, has been taking to drum up local support, they shared at the Center for Cooperative Media‘s Reader Revenue Summit in partnership with LION Publishers on Friday. (The pizzeria can make money from drinks, appetizers, or other dishes the patrons buy when they go in for the pizza.) The summit brought together people from 50 local independent online news orgs to brainstorm about developing and strengthening membership or subscription models at Montclair State University.

Most local news sites haven’t benefited from the Trump bump many national sites have. On top of that, local news sites that became nonprofits (think The Tulsa Frontier, Rivard Report, and Honolulu Civil Beat) realized they needed to pull funding from national foundations as they do reporting that can irritate local ones. Some local news orgs have found success with local funding though, such as the Shawnee Mission Post in Kansas, which blew past its subscription goals after putting up a paywall, and six investigative reporting nonprofits that have each topped $500,000 in annual revenue. But drawing readers in as emotionally-invested members or product-driven subscribers can be just as vital for building lasting relationships that don’t rely on the whims of one mega-funder or philanthropic changes. (Eggs! Multiple baskets! You know the drill.)

When you have 50 different local news organizations from across the country in one room, you also have 50 different news markets. Not everyone might have a pizza-shop partnership, but everyone wants to create journalism that is meaningful — and funded. Gwen Vargo of the American Press Institute, Christina Shih of the News Revenue Hub, Emily Goligoski of the Membership Puzzle Project, Matt Skibinski of the Lenfest Institute, and more shared their lessons learned in the morning portion of the Reader Revenue Summit. Here are some of the insights (full livestream of the presentations here), and if you want overarching helpful resources, find those here from the American Press Institute and here from the Local Fix of Democracy Fund.

— “Don’t substitute the word ‘interest’ for ‘value’,” said Vargo. “People might be interested in a car crash, but don’t value it enough to pay for it.” She also referenced research on paths to subscription, the types and motives of news subscribers, and the price points of digital subscriptions for U.S. newspapers.

— It takes 20 exposures to a subscription offer before someone typically converts to being a subscriber, according to paywall tech company Piano’s Michael Silberman. He also encouraged the organizations to focus on annual subscriptions because of the instability of monthly subscriber churn.

— Christina Shih, who helped build the membership program at the Voice of San Diego and is now COO of the News Revenue Hub, which helps other orgs develop their own, talked about the importance of email when communicating with potential payers. “People see the donate button, but they don’t click on the button,” she said. “You have to tell them, ‘if you value us, please donate to us.'” And she emphasized that email relationships are about quality, not quantity.

— The Membership Puzzle Project’s research director Emily Goligoski talked about the methods they’re exploring and highlighted the importance of learning from other member-based organizations outside of news (church!), allowing members to play to their strengths versus just asking them for money, and transparency between a news organization and their members (including the Daily Maverick’s Reader Covenant).

“There’s a lot we can learn from studying congregations and their memberships about how volunteers participate and what it means to belong,” she said. (She actually wrote about this idea in her Nieman Lab prediction in December.)

— And Matt Skibinski ran through the metrics that you usually consider for memberships, subscriptions, and paywalls.

POSTED     April 6, 2018, 1:37 p.m.
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