Membership has its meaning

In newspapers’ game of revenue roulette, there’s a lot of talk lately about their trying to create membership plans. The New York Times and the Guardian, to name two, reportedly have visions of tote bags, mugs, and events in their heads. And I think that’s a fine idea. No salvation. But a fine idea. I’ll wear a Guardian hat proudly. I’ll go watch Nick Kristof present a slide show of what he did on summer vacation. (Other papers are merely using the m-word to cloak a pay wall; you know what I think about that.)

What the Times and Guardian seem to be considering is membership in the NPR mold – give us money and get a T-shirt to brag about it. That works at NPR because the network is a charity and supporting it is a political statement. The same might be true of the Guardian, which operates on a mission (“the world’s leading liberal voice”) and is owned by a trust. But the Times, as the product of a profit-making company with shareholders? I’m not sure. We’ll see.

In any case, the membership bar has moved up. It’s not enough to let people give you money and promote you. Now you have to invite them to have a real and meaningful role in what you do, even a sense – if not a stake – of ownership and, consequently, control.

Take Wikipedia. At the Aspen Institute two weeks ago, Wikimedia Foundation head Sue Gardner said they calculated the value of the work people put into editing entries. They could measure only the time that went into edits and updates, not the time writers may have spent elsewhere researching and writing. Even so, the value of time spent added up to hundreds of millions of dollars. That is how this incredible asset was built: minutes at a time. Note well that Wikipedia did not become valuable because it extracted money from the market and its users pockets. It became a great asset by enabling people to make it, to take control of it, to have a sense of ownership in it. It thus requires very little resource to run – and it gets the money for that from these users. Now that’s membership.

Note that Wikipedia is trying to figure out what value it needs to add back to its community’s product, not as a controller but as a contributing member itself. That’s part of the secret to successful networks: everyone’s a member, no one is king.

Now take craigslist. Craig Newmark was also at Aspen, befuddling the media machers, as he always does. But he shouldn’t. They are the ones who created his model. Newspapers created value by becoming the marketplaces in their communities for home, merchandise, and job transactions. Craig created the successor marketplace the best way he could: by being free. He extracts minimal value to grow to maximum size; those are the confounding network economics I describe in What Would Google Do?. The point is that Craig did not create a marketplace he would control, as newspapers did; he created a marketplace the community built and he supports that with customer service. He serves the community as a member.

When I was last in London, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was contemplating membership and he told me about the Barcelona Football Club, which is owned by its fans and in which members have the privilege to vote on leadership and more. Can a newspaper be owned by its community?

This morning, I recorded the next Guardian Media Talk USA podcast with Baristanet founder Deb Galant and Star-Ledger editor Jim Willse and we discussed the CUNY New Business Models for News recommendations, which center on creating collaborative networks among the new players in the next news ecosystem. Willse riffed on the idea of creating co-ops, like New York apartments, where the community sets its rules and hires the super to make sure the heat is on. All benefit, all have a stake in the success of the community.

Add all this together: contribution to a community to build it as an asset; ownership of the community by the community; members having a mutual stake in the community; members exercising control over the whole. That is membership. Not tote bags.

How far would and should news organizations be willing to go with this extended vision of membership? I can see newspapers as they have existed being quite uncomfortable with the idea of handing over control and even membership to the community. I can hear their fears of being co-opted or gamed. But that comes from still thinking of news as the property of a single company. Those days are soon over.

When you think of news instead as the province of an ecosystem that is distributed and owned at the edges by many players operating under many means, motives, and models, then the notion of contribution, ownership, and control changes. People own their own stakes but they benefit by joining together cooperatively. They create a tide upon which all their ships rise. That’s a network, not a company. Everyone contributes, everyone gains value and so does the whole: Everyone cooperates in systems of enlightened self-interest. Thus greater value is created (see: Wikipedia v. World Book) because more people contribute value but it is not owned centrally and benefit moves to the edge.

In the new post-industrial economy, I argue that there are three opportunities for growth and value: building platforms, building value atop those platforms (as entrepreneurs), and building networks to help these entities optimize their value. That is how news and many industries will be rebuilt, I believe.

In this vision, then, the basis of news is the platform, not the newspaper company. The value is built by owner-members, more than staff. The infrastructure for the network is a service to it, not a barrier to entry.

Yesterday, I was down visiting Vivian Schiller and her management team at NPR – who, by the way, are clearly having great fun (unlike other folks I know in the business). We talked about the New Business Models for News Project and NPR’s role in this new ecosystem. I think NPR and its stations can provide a platform and network services to many players in local markets and take a key role in the future of the news ecosystem. And NPR understands the beginnings of what it means to have members, so long as they move past tote bags.

So, yes, news organizations, please think about membership. But don’t think if it as merely a revenue opportunity. That is doomed. It is insulting. It brings to value to its members. It’s only a new price tag for a new product: a mug instead of news. No, instead use this opportunity to think about opening up as an enabler and member of a new network, a new club, and don’t think of yourselves as the owners of this club but instead as just another member.

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  • http://www.spartanburgspark.com Steve Shanafelt

    I’ve been advocating for a non-exclusive, membership-based model for some time now, and am working with one alt-weekly to implement a version of it. I’ve encountered so much resistance to the idea. Alan Mutter, one guy I hoped would at least understand it, basically shrugged it off, and the guys over at the Neiman Journalism Lab didn’t even understand what I was talking about. These are supposed to be the big thinkers in the industry — the guys who everyone is looking at to save it — and they don’t even understand how content-based websites have been actually making money for the last decade, much less how the ideas could easily and inexpensively be applied to news outlets.

    And here you are writing about the exact same concept. Very exciting.

  • http://cnewmark.com Craig Newmark

    It’s kind of like I’m a Batman villian — The Befuddler (successor to The Riddler?)

    Will I have to wear a funny outfit? Warning: should not be form-fitting.

    Craig

  • http://steveouting.com Steve Outing

    Hey, Jeff, I’ve also riffed on the membership model and while I have no argument with what you describe above, it’s pretty idealistic. Love to see it happen, but I don’t understand why you fail to mention the commercial opportunities of newspaper or local-news-consortium memberships.

    May I humbly suggest that you take a look at the 4 types of memberships I outlined in an ASNE CoverItLive chat last week? I’d like to get your take on it, even if you bash it down. The chat is embedded on my blog, here:
    http://steveouting.com/2009/08/27/chatting-about-new-news-business-models-heres-the-transcript/
    (You’ll need to scroll down in the CoverItLive window through the first couple guests to get to my description of the membership model variations.)

    I think if NYT or The Guardian tried my option No. 3 and took it really seriously, it’s potentially a major revenue stream. The commercial offers that are part of membership option No. 3 have nothing to do with news — but of course neither did classifieds, which supported newsgathering for so long until the Befuddler came along. … ;) to Craig.

    I noticed today that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s PM+ premium online membership program includes some commercial goodies, but they’re playing up the “special” news stuff and playing down the offers and discounts. (Too “unseemly” to play up the discount/value stuff? Or that part isn’t very good?) I’d argue that the news enthusiasts aren’t in large enough numbers to respond to a membership program that lets them watch Kristof in-person slide shows and get news-branded coffee mugs. I think we need to add a (crass?) commercial element to pull in the bargain and freebie seekers who also care (at least somewhat) about news.

    (On PM+, since it didn’t take anything away from what was free before, I’m not sure you can classify it as “cloaking a pay wall.” Rather, I think the “special” stuff they’re offering isn’t special enough to get more than a few people to pay.)

    You can also check my slides from my Aspen presentation, which you probably missed because I had my time squashed last minute and didn’t get to cover this well enough during my tiny time slot before the group. Presentation here (opens as PDF), includes some slides on membership models:
    http://steveouting.com/files/Aspen081709.pdf

    Please let me know what you think. And it was great to see you in Aspen.

  • http://www.download-not-available.com Jim McCarthy

    Perhaps another way to put what you’re saying, Jeff, (and not to put words in your mouth) is that as a tool for preserving the status quo of papers, this isn’t going to work.

    As a new way of thinking of what a paper might be, it could be a good device.

    It seems to me that too much energy goes into trying to preserve, by some crazy means, the specifics of what is passing away by trying to come up with some kind of Rube Goldbergian adaptation of it to present reality. It always ends up ugly.

    I had some more thoughts on this subject a few months ago here, specifically about the business model of big money advertising in papers:

    http://www.download-not-available.com/quick-takes/its-time-to-stop-trying-to-save-advertising

  • http://mountainx.com Jeff Fobes

    Jarvis:”…part of the secret to successful networks: everyone’s a member, no one is king.

    Jarvis asks if newspapers can/should be owned by the community. I think in some ways, they should. But we have to come up a way to make this work within the capitalist system — which was built on valuing bricks and mortar, not information.

    Media is evolving away from valuable newspapers (limited supply), giving way to millions of privately held publishing operations (unlimited supply), i.e., everyone with a blog or Twitter or Facebook account, each with smaller value.

    Then floating ephemerally amongst the millions of “publishers” will be the collaborative enterprises, the wikis, the community databases with APIs, the twitter public timelines, etc — all held in trust, in the public commons, or perhaps by nonprofits.

  • http://www.beatcanvas.com Brett Rogers

    As Jeff Forbes highlighted from you: “…part of the secret to successful networks: everyone’s a member, no one is king.” That’s genius observation.

    The problem I feel with newspapers is exactly the same problem I feel with politicians: I am a means to their end, not a respected member of their network. My other sources of information, and my own personal viewpoint, are not peer to theirs, but treated with disdain.

    I have yet to see any news organization changing that attitude of superiority. (They’ll never let go of their belief that the “press” is a class, not just a device.) As your conclusion urges: “Use this opportunity to think about opening up as an enabler and member of a new network, a new club, and don’t think of yourselves as the owners of this club but instead as just another member.”

    Again, genius, but it’ll never happen with the current news organizations. The disruptive innovators at the edge will win this.

  • http://www.iberkshires.com Tammy

    I’ve been arguing for better membership opportunities for two years at my hyperlocal with no results. We do have members. They can post events and photos (mostly nonprofits are doing this), and we just added weddings & engagements – more than a year after I proposed the idea. But that’s it.

    The general public doesn’t go out of its way to get involved in anything. You have to give them a reason. Some are passionate and will write letters and edit Wikipedia; most others will play if only you give them carrot, a coupon, a raffle chance.

    Building a base with functions that allow members to contribute easily and swiftly can build a dedicated community willing to share information, if you give them a reason to.

    It also opens up opportunities for targeted advertising. Maybe a member saves or comments on a lot of education stories – and gets local coupons for back-to-school supplies posted to her member page.

    I’m more than happy to toss in some coffee mugs and hats, or raffle off some gift certificates only for members if it grows my base and proves to advertisers that they ought to start spending some money on my site.

    Steve Outing, I’ll definitely give your chat a read. I need all the ammunition I can get.

  • http://mountainx.com Jeff Fobes

    Laughing at Brett Rogers’ own delightful skepticism: News organizations will “never let go of their belief that the ‘press’ is a class, not just a device.”

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  • http://russellcavanagh.wordpress.com Russell Cavanagh

    Great post with many good points.

    Totally reasonable to merchandise, whether a charity or public limited company. (The NPR point you made in relation to this aspect is a bogus one.)

    There are journalistic US radio talk shows that rely not only on dedicated sponsors but also merchandising of DVDs, t-shirts, books, etc. They can only survive if they are fulfilling the expectations or need of their audience.

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  • http://ppalme.wordpress.com Peter Palme

    I find membership modells are not easy to establish. There must a very clear value add for the member. This is challenging in the online world. I played around a little bit with a different busienss model which I summarized under a Life Resource Planning system: http://ppalme.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/life-resource-planning-system/

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  • Eric Gauvin

    I’ve often puzzled over how/why NPR operates seemingly under different rules–especially within this tumultuous time. In many ways it’s the same news just packaged up to sound more intelligent and less commercial. I’ve often thought that the bulk of what makes NPR beloved by its devoted audience (me included) is the light programming like Fresh Air, Click and Clack, Prairie Home, etc. Although the news is excellent too.

    Do member contributions really amount to much? I thought the budget really came from other sources and the tote bags and member drives were primarily for dramatic effect.

    • Andy Freeman

      > I thought the budget really came from other sources and the tote bags and member drives were primarily for dramatic effect.

      “Drama” can affect funding from other sources.

      It’s one thing for the NPR person requesting a grant to say “we’re really popular”. It’s another for the grant authorizer to know someone who wears the shirt.

      • http://inblognegro.blogspot.com Gregory J Amani Smith

        That 200 million dollar donation for NPR made by Joan Kroc in 2004 didn’t hurt, either. There has been a noticeable leap in quality since 2004. NPR as spent it well.

    • Tex Lovera

      I’d bet for NPR, the funding is primarily from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and other big “national” sources.

      For local radio stations, I’d bet the funding is primarily from individiual donations, and some other state/local funding sources. I believe they have to pay NPR (or whomever produces the actual programs) for the content they carry.

      I don’t know anyone who is a “member” of NPR; I know a bunch who are “members” of local public radio/TV stations…

    • http://www.npr.org/ombudsman Alicia Shepard

      I’ve been following the comments on this fascinating discussion about new news models to ensure we continue to have a vibrant press. As NPR’s ombudsman, part of my job is to explain how NPR works to NPR’s audience.

      NPR had editorial control over only four shows: Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Tell Me More and Talk of the Nation.

      Shows such as Car Talk, Diane Rehm (WAMU) On Point (WBUR) or Fresh Air (WHYY), are produced by local stations or independent producers. NPR distributes them. NPR does have control over Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, which is more of an entertainment show playing off the news.

      I thought it useful to share how NPR and stations get their money.

      Actually about 50-60 percent of NPR’s money comes from donations made to member stations — much more than from selling totebags. NPR produces editorial content, and the stations buy it using listener donations.

      Here’s how stations get their money:

      On average, public radio stations (including NPR Member stations) receive the largest percentage of their annual operating revenue (31%) from listener support. For FY07, the most recent data available, the average station’s revenues came from the following sources:

      31% from listeners in the form of pledges, memberships, and other donations
      20% from businesses via corporate underwriting
      11% from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is federally funded
      10% from licensee support
      9% from foundations and major gifts
      5% from local and state governments, and
      14% from all other sources.

      Here’s how NPR gets its money:
      http://www.npr.org/about/privatesupport.html

      NPR supports its operations through a combination of membership dues and programming fees from over 860 independent radio stations, sponsorship from private foundations and corporations, and revenue from the sales of transcripts, books, CDs, and merchandise. A very small percentage — between one percent to two percent of NPR’s annual budget — comes from competitive grants sought by NPR from federally funded organizations, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

      Any more questions/comments, try http://www.npr.org/ombudsman
      Alicia Shepard

      • Eric Gauvin

        Not disputing your numbers in any way, but I was curious another time, so one looked at the annual report (available for 2005). I’m not good at reading annual reports, but what does the 1% for membership dues in the annual report below represent in relation to the percentages you give here on this blog?

        http://www.npr.org/about/annualreports/2005_Annual_Report.pdf

      • http://www.npr.org/ombudsman Alicia Shepard

        Eric — membership dues are what each station pays to become a member of NPR. Programming fees to NPR cover the costs of buying NPR programming and that comes from listeners.

        BTW, I’ve been pushing for 9 months for NPR to put more recent annual reports on the website. Alicia

      • Tex Lovera

        Alicia-

        Thanks for this information; it has cleared up a few misconceptions I apparently had.

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  • http://www.recoverybull.com/ Jack

    Thanks for Nice read…
    “Membership has its meaning”, You have made a Great discussion Really the membership bar has moved up. You must involve with the people all arround to put the impact of your work…

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  • Tex Lovera

    Jeff-

    Thanks for linking to the PG+ service. As someone already noted, it sure doesn’t look like it’s got anyhting “extra” worth paying for. And this is from a company that doesn’t allow any comments on another of its online papers.

    I doubt many traditional papers would go the “public” route. It would mean giving up too much of what little power they have left to try to shape opinion and control events – the antithesis of public participation.

  • http://critique.org/hellocorruption.ht Andrew Burt

    As noted in ” Hello, Corruption, My Old Friend” – http://critique.org/hellocorruption.ht – the one aspect commonly overlooked in the demise of the newspaper is that they provide a critical watchdog role over corruption, especially at the local level. It’s a critical role to a healthy democracy. Yet people aren’t willing to pay directly for this role, so “membership” isn’t a solution.

    How do you solve that problem? (If you’ve got an idea how to solve it, add it to the end of that article — so far nobody’s come up with one…)

    • http://www.spartanburgspark.com Steve Shanafelt

      It’s not like newspapers have an exclusive ability to be watchdogs. Some newspapers do take that role seriously, but on a local level many are basically lapdogs for the local political and business establishment. Every once in a while, particularly when someone else has already revealed the corruption and all they have to do is write about it, they’ll do an expose, but for the most part is hum-drum, dull coverage.

      After all, they’re in smaller towns, so it’s not in their best interest to rock the boat too much, because they might offend an advertiser or lose subscriptions. And while they talk a good game about being responsible to their readers, ultimately they’re not as responsible to their readers as much as they are to their advertisers. We all know this, yet we keep pretending that the old print model’s watchdog function was the rule of its content, rather than the rare exception in a sea of essentially perfunctory coverage.

      Couldn’t a small, efficient news site generate enough revenue from member support and web ads to serve the exact same watchdog function that a print publication could? Why does that need to come from a newspaper organization rather than a dedicated and professional blogger or a small team? Wouldn’t they be more likely, in fact, to get harder-hitting, more interesting news than the average newspaper does because their traffic depends on it?

      And blogs (and blog-like things) can actually be funded at least significantly by readers. Look at any site that actually does get a fair amount of its revenue from membership money — Fark.com or SomethingAwful.com — and there’s no reason that a well-crafted, well-planned, non-reader exclusive membership plan can’t be made to work. It’s not on the traditional print revenue scale, sure, but it’s a perfectly viable model for a small business, I’d think.

      I mean, how many mainstream news sites have ever even tried it? Bill O’Reilly’s site offers memberships with exclusive content, but does, say, the Orlando Sentinel? Nope. How many have even done something absurdly simple, like DemocraticUnderground.com has, where people who donate (or buy, say, a one-year “membership” in this context) get a little gold star next to their user name? Almost none.

    • Andy Freeman

      > the one aspect commonly overlooked in the demise of the newspaper is that they provide a critical watchdog role over corruption, especially at the local level.

      “provide a watchdog role”? How about “serve a watchdog role”?

      In any event, you’re confusing “do” with “could”.

      Disagree? Let’s do an experiment. Pick up a local newspaper. Compare the coverage of the local school system(s) outside the sports section with the coverage inside the sport section.

      Think that’s a one-off? Compare the police blotter (who got arrested for what) and incident-based coverage with the coverage of the local police department.

      Note that local govts don’t advertise much, so it’s not like they’re placating advertisers by not ruffling govt feathers.

  • PJS

    Brett Rogers: …(They’ll never let go of their belief that the “press” is a class, not just a device.) …

    Is that the news organizations themselves or just journalists in general? Can anyone say… “Priesthood of Journalism”? A lot was dscussed about thisd at the FOCAS forum recently.

    It is easy to point at “organizations” and call their attitudes archaic – but let us not forget that in order to change an organization. The people on the inside need to change first.

    • http://www.beatcanvas.com Brett Rogers

      PJS: It is easy to point at “organizations” and call their attitudes archaic – but let us not forget that in order to change an organization. The people on the inside need to change first.

      I did mean the people, as they of course comprise the organization.

      I spoke generally. There are some who have made the leap, but the culture retained by organizations – a mass of journalists publishing under a common banner – is largely unchanged.

  • http://www.flypmedia.com Greg Bocquet

    I think the experience of Wikipedia shows that people just want to contribute to having correct information out in the world. Imagine a corps of citizen fact-checkers with hours to ensure that quotes taken from speeches are verified, or statistics from studies confirmed. It would be a huge improvement over the hasty work that many news organizations do these days.

    Extend that a little bit to a membership that contributes sources, scoops, and other story ideas, with the opportunity of a “additional reporting contributed by” credit at the end of the story, and you are sure to get an engaged audience.

    Take it one step further and give *preferred* members the ability to edit content on a part of a news organization’s website (of course, with the article or section mentioning clearly that it has been “wikified” with public contributions) and you have a number of ways to give an involved audience more opportunity to contribute without losing too much control over your content.

    Of course, not losing that control is paramount; and that is where the major news organizations use their competitive advantage: trained writers and editors to do the requisite filtering to protect their brand.

    The two-way relationship between producers and audiences is definitely becoming the status quo, so it should be explored. Mind you, it is important to keep the line sharp between professionals and amateurs, but just like fact-checking can be outsourced to India (and it is) so can it be outsourced to citizen-editors out there who have already proven an ability and willingness to contribute hours upon hours of free labor for very little concrete reward.

    • Eric

      It would be a huge improvement over the hasty work that many news organizations do these days.

      Agreed. How do we get four different news organizations featuring the same patient for a story on medical tourism?

      http://www.seefirstblog.com/2009/08/22/the-curious-case-of-medical-tourism/

      Do we need more than one newspaper if that’s what they’re going to do? And by “that” I mean rewrite press releases and present them as original reporting. They say original reporting is the “killer app” of the news business. I used to think so, but these days I’m not so sure.

  • http://www.thesnob.com The Snob

    We talk about “community” as though it’s one thing when really there are several kinds of online communities with wildly-varying dynamics. Wikipedia has a freeloader:contributor ratio that is probably well over 1000:1 or more depending on how we take volume of input and specialized knowledge into account. At the other end, something like Yelp is more like 50:1 while Facebook is 5:1 or less. Where you end up on this scale has a lot to do with relevance, stickiness, and the sense of personal involvement and ownership.

  • tom swift

    The Wikipedia model is geared to the lowest common denominator. Another way of saying it is that fact isn’t determined by vote or popular acclaim.

    As example, there is an obscure technical/historical matter on which I happen to be an internationally-known expert (seriously!). I corrected a minor error on this matter in a Wikipedia article. It was later changed by someone who obviously is not an expert, internationally known or otherwise. End result, the Wikipedia entry is still in error. The knowledge to make the article 100% correct exists, scattered about the world; the mechanism of Wikipedia makes it accessible, but the filtering is inadequate. So by its nature, Wikipedia sure ain’t the new Britannica, and can’t be.

    • Rolland

      Tom you are correct that wikipedia is no encyclapedia Britanica however this is the return value that wikipedia should provid to the community. Wikipedia should buy-out a reputable source such as Britania and provide verified and fct checked information that cannot be so easily and readly modified.

      Let people provide the content and let Wiki provide the open and audited validation.

    • John Banfill

      If you cared about correct information you would go back and correct it again. There are tools to tell you when a change has been made. People who actually care about the truth will eventually outlast people who do not. That is one of the principles and strengths of wiki’s.

    • Andy Freeman

      > People who actually care about the truth will eventually outlast people who do not.

      You clearly don’t have much experience with actual people.

  • EvilDave

    Quote:
    The problem I feel with newspapers is exactly the same problem I feel with politicians: I am a means to their end, not a respected member of their net

    Well said.
    The main problem with newspapers and the media in general, they are filled with journalists who want to “change the world” and not reporters who want to report the facts.

  • http://www.bobhayesonline.com Bob Hayes

    So argue the point, tom, and win with your superior sourcing and knowledge of the relevant literature – rather than fume that they won’t just take your word on it because you’re an expert. Great – your expertise equips you magnificently to be the best wiki contributor. Do that!

  • Sk

    “On average, public radio stations (including NPR Member stations) receive the largest percentage of their annual operating revenue (31%) from listener support. For FY07, the most recent data available, the average station’s revenues came from the following sources:

    31% from listeners in the form of pledges, memberships, and other donations
    20% from businesses via corporate underwriting
    11% from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is federally funded
    10% from licensee support
    9% from foundations and major gifts
    5% from local and state governments, and
    14% from all other sources.

    Here’s how NPR gets its money:
    http://www.npr.org/about/privatesupport.html

    Am I understanding this correctly? (and it really is a question)

    “20% from businesses via corporate underwriting. ” Note that corporations grant this money because they get tax benefits for doing so. So, indirectly, this is really public money.
    “11% from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is federally funded” Once again, public money.
    “5% from local and state governments,” Once again, public money
    Plus the 1-2% of grants mentioned.

    So isn’t NPR really about 35-40% government funded?

    Sk

  • dr kill

    I stopped supporting my local when Clint O’neal died. I stopped listening to NPR about a year ago. Diane Rehm? Hahahaha.

    I have never been happier. Coincidence? Not.

  • http://westseattleblog.com Tracy at WSB

    I don’t think traditional membership is going to work any better than paywalls (that is to say, I don’t believe either will do anybody any good).

    However, since I haven’t seen it brought up yet, there’s a fascinating type of membership in the very successful forum-software-based Paulding.com – businesses have various levels of membership enabling different posting privileges, and this is one of the site owner’s rev streams in addition to more classic advertising.

  • http://www.thevailspot.blogspot.com Rich Vail

    I thought they already had members…aren’t they called “stockholders”? Wouldn’t those be “members” in the newspapers? I would have thought so. What do they stock holders think?

    Rich Vail
    Pikesville, MD
    http://www.thevailspot.blogpspot.com
    The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.–Thomas Jefferson

  • http://thirdpipe.com JohnMc

    Its been around three+ years, there is now even a newer, better cheaper model, and there is a business model that indicates it is successful. What is it? Partnering with Amazon or Sanyo with their eReaders and offering the paper the same way that the Telco’s have offered phone sets. You get a free reader, the content from the paper, plus bonus AP feeds for the price of a 2 year subscription. The ePaper is delivered to the customer electronically, waiting for them when they get up.

    Why go this route? First it works. Second it finally decouples the provisioning of content from the dead tree cost structure of delivering it. So long as the Pulp Press holds onto that million dollar plus monstrosity called a printing press they are doomed to failure. It is the one component in their infrastructure that costs an arm and a leg, and has been supplanted by newer means of delivery that is cheaper, faster, better.

    Point Blank

  • Jim,MtnViewCA,USA

    Wait…the Times, is a profit-making company? Coulda fooled me…

  • AndyJ

    I quit listening to NPR two decades ago. Same with PBS. Membership is like the school cafeteria meals. They will only serve what most members will eat. Nothing spicey, nothing new or investigative, nothing that has not been approved by a committee.

    The future of news is reporting. Reporters need to report-not- do rewrite from the many public, private, and policy groups who want their megaphone. They need the imprimatur of an owner. They need a dose of personality and viewpoint.

    Committees and accountants want only what works for the 80% ignoring the 20% who come for the edge… The problem is that without that 20% seeking the edge the 80% wanders off. The individual is not static in desires and tastes. Even the advertisements are educational for the inquiring reader.

    The internet is but one channel of distribution. News Corp (the evil empire) can collect from many reporters and distribute the same stories with different flavors across all their channels. NYTimes etc seeks to control the customer. Their reportage is slanted and biased. They have given up their role as the one-honest-newspaper-in-America… They are a bankruptcy awaiting the final shot.

    Most of the electronic and broadcast media have no idea what they are doing with their 22 minutes every half hour… The last newscast of the day should not showcase upcoming entertainment as a news story… I don’t care who is on Letterman or Leno or Conan etc… Do not take the precious news minutes for teasers… Tell me about events, scandals, issues in my community and a dose of the national with sports and weather… This is just an example of simply not knowing what one is doing but keeping the flashing pictures flowing so that the accountants are happy… Most of the nations newspapers are in a similar failing and flailing state… Report write edit and add value to the work that you are doing…

    A clear-cutting lumberjack works with wood… so does a skilled carpenter, cabinet or furniture maker… add value… give me something that informs, educates and entertains in exchange for my time and money…

    “A business exists to serve the customer. The purpose of an investment is to make money.” Peter Drucker said that long ago…when the customer catches you making money they go elsewhere… Just as when an actor is caught acting the play folds or the movie goes straight to dvd…

    I am reading many good books this year… I have plenty of time free from the TV and the daily newspapers… Once upon a time I read four a day and had the news channels going all day and evening… They were all caught “Making Money” from me…

    Accountants do not invent or serve customers

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  • http://www.mediaflect.com Dorian Benkoil

    Some of this reminds me of The Cluetrain Manifesto’s “95 Theses”: have a conversation, make it genuine, don’t condescend, give real value and and so on.

    Prescient, that treatise.

  • Paul F

    Regarding the idea of having the “community” form the online basis for a news platform:

    “In this vision, then, the basis of news is the platform, not the newspaper company. The value is built by owner-members, more than staff. The infrastructure for the network is a service to it, not a barrier to entry.”

    Who, precisely, are these “owner/members?” The idea may be worthy, but seems to overlook some key facts, one being that newspapers are often adverserial in their endeavors. As a person who spent several years in the print journalism business, I can tell you that a good deal of any reporter’s time consists of talking to people who would really rather not talk to you. This could be a policeman, a local official under scrutiny, or someone who stands accused of a serious crime. Are we sure that everyone in the “community” will share the same idea of how to cover these kinds of stories? I am afraid they won’t. I worked in a small town where a highway superintendent was caught on tape trying to sell stolen construction equipment. His wife ran a local laundromat. Believe me, she told everyone who would listen (and many who didn’t ) not to believe what they saw in the papers, it was all lies, her husband didn’t do it. That is your community.

    Also, there is the question of aptitude, plain and simple. People doing a reporter’s job, proficiently. Twitter and Youtube are not, alas, news. Tweeting about a demonstration gives you an idea of what is happening right there, not what is truly going on. Same with Youtube. You need someone to ascertain facts, not record events. It is not the same thing. Will the community pay for someone to do this?

    Finally, there is the mundane. Who will sit in a folding chair for hours while a local zoning board pushes through an unpopular or controversial shopping mall? Or listen to a parent’s group come out in favor of a teacher who has been denied tenure? (Yes, I have done these things) This is the real deal, foks, this is community jouirnalism. It is not glamorous stuff, but it is news. Rather important news, at that, and not so easy to do. I would truly like to see if someone can explain how the community-based model can address these issues.

  • Paul F

    Regarding the idea of having the “community” form the online basis for a news platform:

    “In this vision, then, the basis of news is the platform, not the newspaper company. The value is built by owner-members, more than staff. The infrastructure for the network is a service to it, not a barrier to entry.”

    Who, precisely, are these “owner/members?” The idea may be worthy, but seems to overlook some key facts, one being that newspapers are often adverserial in their endeavors. As a person who spent several years in the print journalism business, I can tell you that a good deal of any reporter’s time consists of talking to people who would really rather not talk to you. This could be a policeman, a local official under scrutiny, or someone who stands accused of a serious crime. Are we sure that everyone in the “community” will share the same idea of how to cover these kinds of stories? I am afraid they won’t. I worked in a small town where a highway superintendent was caught on tape trying to sell stolen construction equipment. His wife ran a local laundromat. Believe me, she told everyone who would listen (and many who didn’t ) not to believe what they saw in the papers, it was all lies, her husband didn’t do it. That is your community.

    Also, there is the question of aptitude, plain and simple. People doing a reporter’s job, proficiently. Twitter and Youtube are not, alas, news. Tweeting about a demonstration gives you an idea of what is happening right there, not what is truly going on. Same with Youtube. You need someone to ascertain facts, not record events. It is not the same thing. Will the community pay for someone to do this?

    Finally, there is the mundane. Who will sit in a folding chair for hours while a local zoning board pushes through an unpopular or controversial shopping mall? Or listen to a parent’s group come out in favor of a teacher who has been denied tenure? (Yes, I have done these things) This is the real deal, folks, this is community jouirnalism. It is not glamorous stuff, but it is news. Rather important news, at that, and not so easy to do. I would truly like to see if someone can explain how the community-based model can address these issues.

  • mark simon

    Great thoughts all on the membership model, but membership models are false promises in so many ways. Membership is meaningless without exclusivity and that means that you have to keep it in the club. Can a newspaper do that? A newsletter can, but if you want to be out in the mass how do you exlcude?

    Times keep changing, good stories, great graphics, and alternative soources of income, along with new and low cost ways of sourcing content are the way forward. I don’t know if a model change in the magic pill all hope for.

    Mark Simon, Apple Daily Newspapers
    Hong Kong

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  • http://ajacksonian.blogspot.com/ ajacksonian

    There were many ideas floated in the early 1990’s when the first effects of New Media were felt on how the then current, now legacy, media in the print realm should respond.

    One of the concepts to understand is that print media is driven by circulation and ad revenues, with paid subscribers forming a minority of income. The Washington Examiner is giving the incumbent legacies (Post and Times) a run for their money in DC by driving circulation up via free papers. If ad revenue is the driver, then the cost of the paper must be balanced by the cost per paper circulated. They also run an excellent on-line site and get ad revenue that way. That was the way newspapers were moving in the 1990’s, but none wanted to commit to that model as it is counter-intuitive that free distribution creates income.

    Having grown up with parents belonging to a tiny third party, the newspaper run by the party depended on it for revenue and, due to doctrine, took no ads. The insular party organ tended to drift when it did not feature member problems with the party, itself, and the party continued to lose members. When postulating a concept of those owning a stake in an outlet via membership, the minority must have representation. If we criticize the legacy media as being insular, archaic and unable to host new voices across the political and social spectrum, then a diverse community that puts the paper out as reflecting the viewpoints of significant small ownership groups (say 2-5%) is not only necessary but mandatory: when you create an echo chamber your ability to discern what is and is not pertinent or even factual declines and you take that member voice for granted in doing so.

    What has not been actively discussed is the member/owner/contributor concept. If the membership has a diverse population, across strata and socio-political bands, then the ability of members to get information out beyond just online but in a more material form gives a feeling of material ownership not only in the media outlet but in oneself and one’s value. Reporting factual information does not take a college level degree and when one does not want to report a ‘story’ but such information, then just getting vital facts to the membership is a vital form of member ownership, feedback and contribution simultaneously. At some point interested members may decide that they enjoy their work enough to market it separately via other means while still retaining their previous outlet(s) as at least secondary if not primary venues for their work. That creates wider interest in the work, itself, and the membership community that has performed the hard job of getting to information in a fast, factual and pertinent means to the end of informing the rest of the members of what is going on.

    There are both extreme up and down sides to member owned media, but the upsides can be major. And if an organization becomes too insular it loses members, oversight and becomes an echo chamber for repeated words that no one pays attention to. Just like the MSM. The New Media has opened a new ecosystem for news…and while first populations may dominate (blogs, social networks, video) they each change in response to each other. The printed word, or more correctly textual information, will not go away as text is a means for rich social discussion and has been created because we do NEED that rich form of communication.

  • B Dubya

    I do not ever see a time when the Grey Lady will be able to delay or prevent her imminent demise. She has been what she is since the 1860’s, particularly in her politics and in her ongoing efforts to do harm to the nation that provided the haven of liberty she has so smugly looked down her long, copperhead nose at.
    She preaches to an ever shrinking choir.
    Personally, I’m thinking of having a chapter 11 party when Sulzberger makes the announcement. Cheap wine, of course; it won’t be that important an event.

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  • peter

    This discussion is academic. The big mainstream newpapers will NOT disappear – they will without a shred of doubt be bailed out by the democratically-controlled Fed.

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  • http://twitter.com/kevinheisler Kevin Heisler

    Jeff, Interesting take on the membership vs subscription revenue model. I agree that the Times would be hard-pressed to convince readers they’re a non-profit, even if they bleed red ink.

    Tote bags? They’ve had ‘em for years.My concern: no one has estimated, evaluated & calculated the incremental revenue. NYT runs conferences & special events. They’ve started a Wine Club. They sell Crossword Society subscriptions: Crosswords US $44.95; Canada $59.95.

    Is that a membership or a subscription? The conversation shouldn’t devolve into a discussion of premiums. Not even banks give away toasters anymore, although ING Direct does sell Peet’s coffee and 25 minutes of Wi-Fi for two bucks.

    Mugs? How about foul weather gear? I trust you haven’t splurged for the “New York Times Umbrella and Raincoat Set, Designed by Isaac Mizrahi.” Price : $99.00.

    Remember the white gloves the Times once sold readers to keep them from becoming ink-stained wretches? Same as it ever was.

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  • http://www.couponfan.com John

    This discussion is academic. The big mainstream newpapers will NOT disappear – they will without a shred of doubt be bailed out by the democratically-controlled Fed.

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