Now that we’ve recognised that there’s little future in the advertising model for journalism, media membership has become the latest hot idea.
In fact, it’s so hot that that subscription-based media are rebranding their subs as memberships and many are trying to build a membership-based relationship with readers. If only it were that easy. Membership models operate under many names: supporters, donors, givers as well as members.
As with anything that’s hot — ranging from the Sydney and Melbourne housing market through to Bitcoin — it’s hard to separate the hype from the chaff. And it remains a largely vacant space in Australia.
From the outside, paying memberships can seem a lot like paying subscriptions. But those that will succeed will grasp the very real differences — both in the motivation of the member and the service provided by the journalism.
One’s about the transaction. The other’s about the relationship. People give or become members because they value media’s place in society, not because they want something for themselves.
That makes it a hard transition for traditional media. Once, they could say: “Read this to know what’s going on. You can’t get it anywhere else.” To entrench this, corporate strategies were built around regional or demographic monopolies.
It was based on FOMO, before we even knew what that was. But, well, then along came the internet …
Now, information is freely available. So why subscribe? Or why be a member?
Subscription-based media exists behind paywalls of various density. That’s the point of subscriptions: you pay for something that you can’t get otherwise. As paywalls become more common, they tighten, with fewer articles accessible for free. It’s the monopoly model adapted for the new century. In the age of social media, it takes the paywalled content out of the public conversation.
Abundance of news means the generic news model of most Australian papers doesn’t translate easily. It’s why Australian paywalls seem to have hit a ceiling.
On the other hand, most membership-funded media make the bulk of their material publicly available. You’re a member because you support the media mission, you’re part of the tribe or you want to be part of the conversation. And if you support the mission, then you want the journalism it generates to be as widespread as possible.
A recent New York University study identified about 100 membership-based media outlets, most of them in the United States, none of them local to Australia. Many have a distinct local focus.
The Guardian claims to have about 300,000 donating supporters making regular payments in Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA. There have been anecdotal claims that the membership base in Australia will make the local operations self-sufficient.
Membership seems to have a lower price point than do subscriptions. In Australia, digital subscriptions cost around $3.50 to $4.00 a week for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age or The Australian. (Or Crikey for that matter.) The Guardian prompts a supporter rate of about $2.20 a week.
According to the NYU survey, most seem to coalesce around US$5 a month, or about AU$1.60 a week. This was the price that Medium adopted recently for its member access. The more the membership is like an exclusive paywalled subscription, the more it tends to cost. For example, The Information — which reports in depth on technology — costs about $10.00 a week.
To build growth, membership-funded media need to build the conversation to provide a concrete reward to go with the warm feelings of your money doing good work. The more mission-driven they are, the more likely they are to just take your money (and the more likely you are to be happy about that). Otherwise, benefits range from special newsletters, freedom from advertising or member-only events.
Because membership equates with ownership, members often expect to be brought into the journalistic process ranging from suggestions for stories, to funding specific reporting rounds, and engagement in monitoring the journalistic process.
Subscription-based media can’t separate themselves from mission-driven engagement. The New York Times, for example, got an anti-Trump subscriptions boost. Now it sometimes seems at a loss when those subscribers demand the right to have a say in what the Times does.