Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Higher ed and public radio are enmeshed. So what happens when the culture wars come?
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May 2, 2018, 9:32 a.m.
Business Models

Can a news organization provide the service of feeling connected through its membership program?

“They’ve moved across borders for work or for love or whatever and often they’re struggling with the same sort of issues…The Local is a service for them, somewhere they can come to to get advice around these issues.”

Moving can mean losing your network. Moving to a different country can almost guarantee that. Can a niche news organization focused on those recent relocaters help readers find a new sense of belonging — and help the organization develop reader revenue through a membership program?

As an international organization with a local focus, The Local Europe caters to English-speaking expats trying to resettle in a new country and culture. Its sites in nine countries discuss topics from navigating the apartment market in Sweden to cultural bathroom habits — all centered on how to make this new place your home. So why not get an extra dose of community by joining their membership program, and supporting their journalism while you’re at it?

That’s part of the pitch Paul O’Mahony and the rest of The Local Europe’s team are making to readers in their top three markets, joining the train of publications seeking reader revenue to complement digital advertising/platform whiplash. The Local Europe’s revenue previously came from advertising (including postings on their job board), but now they have 2,000 members to go with their 5 million monthly users. Membership is €5/month or €50/year (though there’s a lower introductory rate for the first few months).

“We’re calling it membership rather than subscription to highlight that sense of belonging…people become members of The Local and it’s somewhere they can meet other likeminded international expats who are in similar situations,” O’Mahony said. “They’ve moved across borders for work or for love or whatever and often they’re struggling with the same sort of issues: trying to learn a new language, trying to get their heads around new social codes. The Local is a service for them, somewhere they can come to to get advice around these issues.”

After brainstorming and surveying readers for about nine months, The Local Europe kicked off membership in November in Sweden. (They’ve since introduced the model on its Germany site and, as of last month, its France site.) Some articles on those sites are always behind the membership prompt, but otherwise readers can access up to four articles free before hitting the wall. Membership privileges include in-person events to help newcomers build their network and meet new people, forthcoming exclusive Facebook Groups to talk about the challenges of expat life, fewer ads, and the ability to comment.

“It really raises the level of conversation. There are far fewer comments but no trolls, no hate speech,” O’Mahony added. “The members are an engaged bunch and want to talk about things and learn things from each other and not hurl insults at each other.”

The Local Europe’s writers have been working on more in-depth pieces focused on solutions journalism and debunking reputation-based claims like Sweden being the rape capital of the world. But pieces of practical advice and international news that specifically affects their readers have turned out to be the best converters, O’Mahony said.

“We thought that in-depth feature reports and resource-heavy investigative pieces would be the kinds of things to convert, but in fact, practical advice has been our best converter by far,” he said. “This means how to file your tax returns in France, how to manage your pension in Germany, how to buy an apartment in Sweden. Obviously, people will know how to do those things in their home countries, but they’re here trying to navigate a new society and new language and it’s really difficult. That’s where we step in and can really help out.

“We’re also seeing relatable cultural experiences — things like dealing with expat depression,” O’Mahony added. “We had a piece on that on our Germany site that has converted quite a few people. It’s something people don’t think about before they leave home. Then they arrive and they find that they are hit by culture shock, and people are excluding them from conversations. It can be really difficult for people’s sense of identity. We really want to tap into those kinds of issues and discover types of problems people are grappling with and dig deep on them. We’ll be writing a lot about expat depression in the future.”

All 10 of The Local Europe’s writers can relate — they are all expats themselves (O’Mahony, originally from Ireland, now lives in Sweden). “All our journalists have been in the same situations as our readers. We’ve all moved to different countries for various reasons,” he said. “We want to dive into the psychology of what it means to relocate to a physical and mental space and challenge that sense of people’s identity.”

Image of a woman looking solemn (perhaps lonely?) in Filipstad, Sweden by Jens Johnsson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 2, 2018, 9:32 a.m.
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