O’Reilly may be an idiot, but his team gets membership concept

By Steve Outing

Disclaimer: I think Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly is a big-mouth wingnut who spouts dangerous ideas. (Yes, Glenn Beck is worse.) I never thought I’d compliment O’Reilly, but I’ve been pondering voluntary membership models for news websites lately, and I like what O’Reilly and his team have created with the BillOreilly.com Premium Membership. Overlook the arrogance and there’s an online business model there.

O’Reilly’s website for his The Factor show is, of course, mostly free. But if you’re an O’Reilly fan and want more of Bill than you can see on TV or his free site, then there’s more to be had, for a price: $49.95 a year (auto renews on your credit card!) or $4.95 a month.

This is exactly the model that many newspaper and magazine publishers have been talking about lately, though many are having trouble figuring out what they’ve got that they can charge for.

Bill’s got it figured out. Premium members get such “goodies” as:

  • Bill’s exclusive critique of the night’s show, recorded by him immediately after the show ends.
  • Exclusive video clips.
  • Access to audio archives of The Radio Factor show.
  • Weekly backstage live chat with Bill exclusively for Premium members to ask him questions.
  • Access to exclusive photo albums of Bill with celebrities and doing his thing.
  • Priority e-mail. Your message to Bill will not get tossed in with all the other e-mail he gets, and Premium members are promised “priority treatment and a guaranteed review.”

In all there are 16 benefits to being an O’Reilly Premium Member. Some are comical, like the “Rate The Factor With Viewer Voting.” I doubt his loyal fans who are paying members give him much flak. The Bill O’Reilly screensaver Premium offer with the great one in front of a bunch of American flags likewise made me laugh. (Unlike Stephen Colbert, O’Reilly’s not doing this stuff as satire.)

The O’Reilly Premium Membership isn’t especially innovative, in that some Hollywood stars, other celebrities (and especially porn stars), and athletes do the same sort of thing. E.g., Miley Cyrus‘ special fan site will cost you $29.95 a year or $2.95 a month.

But you don’t see much of these paid online fan clubs or premium website memberships for news people. Journalists are too serious, and this just proves that Bill O’Reilly is an entertainer, not a newsman, right?

Actually, as the news industry ponders news membership models, creating Premium memberships that get you more from a favorite star journalist and access to the person could be worth paying for. As I reported here a few days ago, Men’s Health magazine turned its Jimmy the Bartender advice feature into a paid iPhone app; that’s sort of a premium membership, albeit a cheap one at $2.99 to buy the app and no recurring fees. Other magazines may be able to turn their star columnists into Premium memberships.

Even for newspapers I think this has potential. Consider a paid Premium membership for New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman for, say, $20 a year; or a Financial Times niche columnist Premium membership for $100 or more a year. Friedman might offer extra content like full video or audio interviews of the world leaders he interviews, and exclusive webcasts or live chats restricted to paying Premium members. The FT columnist, because of his focus on an arcane slice of the business world, can offer Premum members additional inside-baseball information and stats that business people will pay for. Ergo, a financial niche columnist might be worth more with the Premium Membership model than a rock-star columnist like Friedman, who covers more generic news topics.

This could even filter down to the local level. Could a newspaper reporter who covers city council and city politics have a Premium Membership that offered paying members extra insider info and reporting, in the way that inside-politics newsletter editors of decades past charged political junkies and people affected by local politics for their in-depth knowledge and digging?

It’s worth exploring. My gut reaction is that individual premium memberships might be an easier sell than a similar membership for an entire news brand. Or follow the cable model and offer basic news-site memberships, but charge a la carte additional fees for valuable columnist or specialty-reporter member benefits.

Who’s up for experimenting with this? Who’s already doing this? Is Bill O’Reilly (I find it hard to fathom) onto something important?

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!