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As should be obvious to anyone who has even glanced at the newspaper business recently, much of the media industry is gripped by paywall fever, with outlets of all kinds trying to recreate the success of a New York Times or Financial Times-style subscription model. But I think there is something more interesting going on in a few places, namely an attempt to create something more like a membership model than a blanket paywall around all of a publication’s content — and one of the more interesting of these recent experiments is the one from Talking Points Memo, the political blog network founded by Josh Marshall. Whether it is a financial success for the site or not remains to be seen, but I think there are a number of reasons why it is worth paying attention to.
As Adrienne LaFrance describes it in a post at the Nieman Journalism Lab, and as Marshall has described it in a series of posts on the site, the new membership program that is launching later this month is called TPM Prime — a nod to Amazon’s Prime, which gives members free shipping and other benefits — and will cost readers $50 per year, or a monthly charge that the site has not yet specified (there is also an innovative option that allows readers to sponsor memberships for others).
Members pay for a deeper relationship, not content
And what do members get for signing up? There are content-related benefits, such as preferential access to a line of TPM Singles — mini e-books that the site plans to publish on a variety of topics — and the signup page mentions future possibilities including discounts on other publications that Talking Points Memo might cut a deal with. But the main benefit of membership is the opportunity to get more involved with the site in other ways, including member-only discussion forums, as well as exclusive live chats and interviews with newsmakers and political influencers.
What’s interesting is how Marshall describes the rationale behind the membership layer, and the reasons why he chose to go that route instead of just putting up a paywall — including the fact that he was uncomfortable with how much the site relied on advertising, instead of using a model that was based on creating a relationship with its readers. As he put it to LaFrance:
“What I noticed is that we didn’t have really strong internal financial incentives focused on our core readers… I didn’t like that we were growing in a way where we didn’t have really clear parts of the bottom line that were tied to servicing that community.”
On the surface at least, this rationale seems like it could be used to defend a paywall just as easily as a membership layer. After all, a paywall or strict subscription approach like that taken by the Financial Times or the NYT also relies on readers for support — to the point where both newspapers have crossed (or are close to crossing) the line where they get more revenue from subscriptions than they do from advertising. Doesn’t that mean paywalled newspapers or media outlets are also tied to servicing their reader community, just like Talking Points Memo?
Membership is special in a way that paywalls are not
In a sense, that’s true. But I would argue there is a crucial difference: a membership layer treats readers as though they are special and gives them added benefits in addition to the regular free news content, while a paywall or traditional subscription simply charges everyone the same amount for the same content. One feels like a duty or an annoyance, and the other feels more like something unique that only those who are really committed to a topic or a site have access to — like a velvet rope instead of a wall. As I’ve written before, I think the idea of offering membership with special benefits, or access to additional content and experiences (such as live events, which The Atlantic and others have built into their model) is a much more appealing — and in many cases, potentially more lucrative — approach than a wall or pay-fence.
Former Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti, now at the Wall Street Journal, has talked about what he and author Jeff Jarvis refer to as a “reverse paywall,” where readers get preferential access to content and related offerings. And these kinds of efforts can do more than just generate revenue: by allowing a site like Talking Points Memo to deepen its relationship with readers, it allows Marshall to get to know those readers better, and that knowledge can become a powerful tool in its own right when it comes to advertising and other more traditional revenue-generation methods.
The approach that Marshall is taking is very similar to one that Techdirt, the technology-analysis site run by Mike Masnick, recently expanded — giving readers who join the club access to a host of special benefits including a reader-only discussion forum. And the Talking Points Memo founder said the early response has been encouraging: more than 1,000 people signed up in just the first 10 hours. That may be a drop in the bucket financially-speaking, but it is an impressive sign of reader engagement for a web-only political blog, and it will be interesting to see how TPM builds on that early support.