As newspapers look for answers to the big question which they face in today's increasingly digital society - how to make more money from their readers - the idea of starting a membership club seems to be increasingly appealing to many. Several newspapers already have wine clubs or something of the sort, but more and more are looking at the idea of a club that is more closely connected to the paper's editorial content. The New York Times has apparently studied in detail the possibility of 'gold' and 'silver' membership tiers offering different levels of exclusive offers, and the Guardian has been looking into hiring a manager for a potential 'readers club' that would aim to offer readers a closer relationship with the paper.
And it doesn't seem a bad idea. Newspaper circulation may be falling, but online readership figures show that more and more people are reading news than ever before, although unfortunately not paying for it. There are undoubtedly many avid newspaper readers out there, and though many of them would not be prepared to pay for anything from a newspaper after being accustomed to reading news for free for so long, there is a small percentage who might well be interested.
The Editors Weblog took a look at two different kinds of newspaper membership schemes, on different sides of the Atlantic, at two very different newspapers: the Times of London and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
PG+: premium content and perks
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently launched PG+, a members-only section site containing new, premium content coupled with a variety of special offers for members. Jeff Jarvis suggested that the club is merely an attempt "to cloak a pay wall," but while there obviously is an element of that, the initiative does seem to be more than that. For a start, the content offered is all new, and is intended to be more interactive than the main site. Mary Leonard, the Post-Gazette's deputy managing editor who has been very involved in developing PG+, told the EW that the new site has a multimedia focus. "We're doing a lot of video, some additional chats and we're doing blogs, which promote interactivity."
The additional content is exclusive to PG+ subscribers and will not appear in the paper's print edition: this is not an attempt to protect the print edition. After much consideration, Leonard said, the paper decided to make PG+ an entirely separate initiative and print subscribers will receive no discount.
The site looks very different to the main site, and has been built on a different platform. "We didn't want this to look like a twin of our primarily breaking news site," Leonard explained. The colours are more muted and the pages are very content-focused - for readers who know what they want. There is no advertising on the site, which many must appreciate.
Users can interact with each other on the site - they can create profiles, add an avatar, and they can 'friend' each other and communicate. "There's a whole user menu of opportunities for commenting and interactivity," Leonard said. They can even create their own blogs within the site.
As well as the extra editorial content, PG+ offers a series of 'perks' to its members, clearly taking the initiative beyond just paid content.. "There's a whole menu of benefits and discounts and free things that you can access with a membership card," Leonard pointed out. Most of these perks are chosen and arranged by the paper's marketing department, but some involve journalists. For example, a couple of weeks ago one of the perks was the chance to attend an evening of questions and answers with Ed Bouchette, the paper's sports writer who covers local football team the Pittsburgh Steelers, at a restaurant downtown.
But what actually makes people pay extra?
So what is the main motivation for subscribers? Is it to have access to the premium content, or to the perks? Or is it to support a paper they respect?
Leonard said that based on the market research that the paper carried out prior to launching the product, all three factors were important to different people. "We found that there was a small market for people who would want to support the Post-Gazette as a community news organisation," she clarified. Others who answered the paper's survey said that they would be particularly interested in the benefits and discounts offered.
Those whose motivation to sign up is the extra editorial content are frequently sports fans, she pointed out: "shat we're starting to see is that it's the sports content that is primarily driving the users of the editorial traffic on plus." Part of the reason for this is that the paper's sports writing is built up around the personalities of the sports writers, many of whom tend to do television slots, both video for the Post-Gazette's site and for local TV stations. Hence, they have become well-known names, and PG+ offers readers a chance to see more of their writing, and have the chance for more contact, via chats or events such as that described above. "We hope that these personalities will be a sort of magnet for readers who follow these guys already, and we believe that they can give readers a little more insight and inside info into the teams and the players."
Is it going to make a difference financially? Could a sustatinable business model be built from such initatives?
Clearly the new effort is being produced at a cost to the paper: "it adds work in the newsroom and it adds work in the marketing department." Although the paper has not made any new hires specifically for PG+, some restructuring has taken place to devote the appropriate attention to the new service. But staff have been enthusiastic, said Leonard, and "there's a feeling that we need to come up with innovative solutions for the revenue shortfalls that are threatening the industry."
The membership price is relatively low, at $36 for a year. A committee was put together to decide a pricing strategy, and fixed on a point which the paper felt gave the content value, but didn't seem to be asking too much. Leonard explained that the paper is not yet releasing information on metrics, but commented that "growth has been steady" and "we think it has been good." Obviously, without knowing the figures, it is impossible to say whether the site could be bringing in significant revenue, and at such a low price it would need a considerable number of members to do so. However, what it offers would definitely be worth investing in for a Pittsburgh sports fan, or anyone involved in the community.
See part 2 of this article, to be published tomorrow, for discussion of Times+