By Steve Outing
If you follow the news industry like a good media geek, you’ll already know that the New York Times is pondering its future online business model. Reportedly, the main choices under consideration are 1) a “metered” pay wall (i.e., a site visitor can view “X” number of stories before a request to sign up for a paid website subscription to view more pops up) or 2) a “membership” model that would give special privileges, services, and content to paying NYTimes.com members but leave most of the site’s content freely accessible (so there’s no drop in website traffic and thus online ad revenues).
Gawker recently published a Times survey that showed details of some early thinking about what a NYT membership program might look like. This is not necessarily what a membership program will look like, but it’s one under consideration.
I’m a fan of the membership concept for news sites looking for a new revenue stream. But I don’t like what I see here with NYT’s vision of “silver” ($50 a year) and “gold” ($150 a year) memberships. If all that’s included in the memberships are newspaper- and website-related goodies, I predict failure.
In an Editor & Publisher Online column a while back, I promoted the idea of newspaper websites creating membership programs: “Getting Money from Readers Who Won’t Pay for Online News.” (Discussion of the membership model is in the bottom half of the column.)
In that column I put forth several ideas for what might attract people to pay for a premium membership. While some of the Times’ ideas from the survey are good ones, they’re missing some of the most important enticements that will get a lot of people to become paying NYT members.
Yes, paid memberships must include news premiums: access to special content; access to select forums and discussions with NYT journalists and/or news sources; free news phone applications that for others cost a few bucks; free admission or preferred tickets and seating to NYT lectures and events; and even the inevitable Times coffee mug and free online crosswords subscription.
But the most important part of a newspaper website membership program, IMHO, should be a package of ongoing, truly valuable discounts and free offers from newspaper advertisers partnering in the program. If the membership has enough free-stuff and discount value, many people will become members because of that, not because of the news.
Yeah, I know, you want people to become members because they value news, want to support news-gathering and investigative reporting, and want the special news-related stuff that they wouldn’t get for free. If the Times is willing to have an elite, small paid membership, it can stick only news-related goodies in the online membership bag.
But if Times executives want to build a significant paid membership base that amounts to a revenue stream that means something to the company’s long-term survival and health, then it must ALSO include commercial offers for freebies and discounts into the memberships. Say, a free dinner when you buy one every month at a list of NYT-advertiser restaurants in New York; that alone would make paying $150 a year for an NYT Gold membership worth the price.
And if the Times gets a ton of members wanting deals, not news, so what?! They’ll get the extra news premium goodies. If they don’t use them, or even if they seldom even visit NYTimes.com, their money can go toward paying the Times’ wonderful editorial staff. And that’s what we’re trying to do: protect their jobs and the quality of the Times’ journalism. So what if bargain hunters who couldn’t point to Afghanistan on a world map are paying in part for that.