Press Pass: Could membership programmes save the news media?
by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) They already are, says Styli Charalambous, publisher and CEO of online newspaper Daily Maverick, which turned 10 in October 2019. The online daily has seen its own membership initiative go from strength to strength over the past year.
“Sustainable business model”
“The inspiration came from desperation, and trying to figure out what a sustainable business model looked like for quality news media,” he says. He’s explaining the roots and rise of its membership programme, Maverick Insider, which counted 8 400 contributors as of November. Launched in August 2018, the initiative, which continues to grow, has opened up a range of new opportunities for the publication.
The financial challenges faced by the news media in South Africa and abroad are far from unknown, and finding effective solutions has become integral to the upholding of democracy. Understanding this, Charalambous and his colleagues sought one that they believed would speak to their publication’s values; the idea of a paywall was quickly ruled out.
“We saw that some global players were starting to excel with their paywall solutions, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, but we knew that a paywall was not an option for Daily Maverick,” he explains. “We didn’t want only people who could afford it to have access to it, because of the impact that would have on the country. But recognising that reader revenue was possible, and that people were starting to get traction out of that, we researched the options. Membership stuck out as one that really resonated with the kind of journalism that we do, and our belief systems — and we decided to jump head-first into it.”
Drawing on research by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Membership Puzzle Project, Charalambous and his team designed Maverick Insider, trialling a short-term recurring donation scheme to gather data and feedback that could be used to polish the membership programme. He emphasises that Insider is about much more than financial contributions, differentiating it from donation or subscription services: “It’s really about taking audience engagement to the next level and embracing it as part of the organisation. We’re committed to it becoming part of our culture.”
While the Maverick Insider membership programme is important to the overall success of the organisation, accounting for close to 30% of its payroll, it’s not intended to become the exclusive source of revenue. “The way I look at it is that general news media need to have 6–7 significant revenue streams in order to survive,” says Charalambous. “Those will be different from one [organisation] to the next. [Finding them] is a process of deep introspection and entrepreneurship.”
At Daily Maverick, these include philanthropy, advertising, events and other sponsorships.
I’m a Maverick Insider, are you? Daily Maverick journalists Defend Truth everyday. Join the community of people who are supporting quality independent journalism.
— Daily Maverick (@dailymaverick) August 15, 2019
Engagement is key
Going forward, the aim is ultimately for Insider to be integrated in the newsroom and production processes — for the membership programme to become part of the Daily Maverick DNA, he says. The community of contributors have skills and expertise to offer, as well as ideas and information. Engagement, he says, is key, and new hires will likely be made to drive this. Events, of which an estimated 35 had been planned between September 2019 and September 2020, would be an important means of engaging with members, and one of the primary benefits offered to them.
Charalambous stresses that the publication is looking at ways people may become members without making financial contributions (currently the only option). “It’s about diversifying the membership base and getting younger people into that mix,” he says. “Our members do skew older and whiter, and we’ve got to try our best to remedy that.”
According to him, the core focus of Maverick Insider is building a community. “Financial success is not the reason that we’re doing it — it’s a byproduct of building this community — and if we build the community well, financial success will come from that. But if we focus on [money], we’re just going to make the wrong decisions and alienate people, and do things that don’t align with the reason people wanted to support us in the first place.”
He believes that the programme could celebrate 30 000 or even 40 000 members in the coming years. Currently, the team has a soft target of 500 new members each month but this figure is not fixed. The Daily Maverick website is visited by approximately 1.7m readers monthly, and its newsletter goes out to 115 000 inboxes — a number Charalambous is focused on increasing.
The success of Maverick Insider has debunked the myth that South Africans will not pay for news, he says: “We’re not selling news; we’re selling a news experience. As long as we keep doing our jobs well, and move into more-engaged journalism opportunities, that will only fuel the membership numbers. Which is great, because there’s this linear relationship between the quality of the work that you do, and the support.”
While some may argue that what works at Daily Maverick may not be easily cut and pasted at another media house, Charalambous champions reader revenue as a strong answer to the question of sustainability. “I think there are very few organisations where a membership model couldn’t work,” he says frankly. “How you design it is unique to you and your audience, and your cause, and the benefits that you are offering, or the value exchange, and it’s pretty flexible — you could run a membership plan that doesn’t involve a financial transaction at all, you could have a fixed price, but behind all of that sits the bedrock of audience engagement.”
Hopeful about the state of the news media globally, as it, Charalambous suggests, emerges from more than a decade of “disruption by players that weren’t even originally in its space,” he predicts continued growth for Daily Maverick. By the end of the year, its staff count would have almost doubled in size, he says, and going into 2020 the team would be considering such projects as a books division, following on from the publication of the online daily’s 10-year anniversary book, as well as a multimedia show, podcast, documentary division, and possibly even print news product. “We’re riding the wave of momentum and growth,” he says.
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to MarkLives.com, her column, “Press Pass”, is a monthly feature spotlighting media leaders and their responses to the trends and tribulations in the industry.