Why membership is an Old Media solution to a New Media problem

A few days ago, Jeff Jarvis wrote a post on the idea of a ‘membership model’ for news organisations.

With journalism desperately seeking ways to pay for itself…the membership model is a co-optive alternative to the two other predominant ideas: 1) Paywalls (as employed by the WSJ, the FT and others); and 2) Using events to make up for the profits that ads aren’t yielding (as employed by TechCrunch).

As Jarvis outlines, a good membership model would mean “contribution [by members] 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.”

He argues that this model is “no salvation…but a fine idea”, so long as the organisations didn’t think of themselves “as the owners of this club but instead as just another member.”

I disagree with him. I don’t think it’s a fine idea at all…and here’s why:

In an age of abundance, few will commit
Any concept of membership relies on loyalty. We interwebbers are fickle. If something is interesting, well written, imaginatively delivered, or just pretty… I don’t care where it comes from. I enjoy reading the Guardian, The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Times of London, Fox News, Gawker, and (gasp) sometimes even the odd Daily Mail article. In fact, I frequently have no idea where I am heading when I click a link… many of them are anonymously provided by url shortening sites on Twitter. I actually quite like the surprise.

So why would I choose to settle down and buy up some real estate in one particular corner of the web? I want to see the world! The new generation of news consumers are too greedy and too easily distracted to care deeply about one media source. We are all portfolio news consumers now! We can click around without worrying about what others think of us (unlike in the days when you had to hold a giant piece of branded paper in front of your face)! We’re goddam floosies! And floosies aren’t particularly good at committing.

You can’t rely on class or politics to inspire membership

In the recent old media days, people would talk about what newspaper they “took.” It was a badge of honour. And broadly speaking, this old media world was defined by class… in the UK the upper classes ‘took’ the Telegraph, the Guardian and Independent were for the middle classes, and the tabloids for the working classes. A horrible, archaic delineation.

If this horrible, archaic delineation still existed… yup, newspapers would have plenty of prospective ‘members’ waiting to sign up. If we had a socially stationary society, where one generation of card-carrying Guardian readers would inevitably give birth to another, yup, there would be a decent, stable demographic of ‘members’ for the newspapers to work with.

But we don’t. We live in a socially mobile, aspirational, increasingly classless age. The internet’s lack of class divisions – tangible in open comments sections, crowdsourcing, Twitter – is a wonderful expression of this. It’s a meritocracy… quality is king; politics are irrelevant.

Consider the entry points. Yes, I know the political affiliations of the various newspapers that I read online, and for me telegraph.co.uk comes with the affiliations of the Telegraph newspaper. But I’m convinced that younger internet users are increasingly unaware (read: blissfully ignorant of the baggage).

They don’t care about the political history of a paper, and it certainly won’t stop them reading something they really want to read, especially if it is free to access. For example, does a youngster on the London Tube care that their Metro, with marvellous pictures of a wasted Amy Winehouse, is distantly related to Lord Rothermere, who was one of Hitler’s greatest fans? Does a young football fan, stumbling upon the Guardian’s brilliant YouTube roundup series care that the Guardian is one of the world’s leading liberal voices? No they don’t, they just want good stuff.

Banking on loyalty – a loyalty forced by superimposing ancient dividing lines – is dangerously presumptive. I don’t ‘take’ a particular newspaper, I ‘take’ the internet.

No-one likes the ‘in’ crowd
And finally, on a very basic level, membership is alienating. If newspapers are to reach out to as broad a readership as possible in order to save themselves, it seems like a pretty bad idea to form a “cool gang” of members within the establishment. Isn’t this just oligarchy lite? Won’t it reinforce reductive identity assumptions… i.e. if you are a ‘member’ of this newspaper, then you must believe everything that comes out of it? I certainly wouldn’t like that. I don’t like going to members clubs to drink, because they generally reside up their own arses. I like bar-crawling.

The ‘solution’
So forget membership models (and, indeed, individual paywalls) as you simply cannot rely on loyalty in an age of classlessness and abundance. And forget events too, because it’ll turn your news into a loss leader, and loss leaders are generally crap. Everyone should lump together, forget their disagreements, implement a giant collaborative micropayment system and be done with it. Just don’t ask me how to do it. 😉

UPDATE: A few interesting nuggets from a recent Peter Preston (former editor) article in the Guardian:

• “[O]nly hardened readers of newspaper editions, including journalists, read the websites as though they were digital papers. And that the rest just click quickly through in pursuit of some fact or picture. No branding or devotion: only utility.”

• “Your enthusiasm for glitzy celebrity gossip, and very expensive celebrity photos, has made the Daily Mail’s website number one in Britain, even though its relationship to the core Mail has become vestigial.”

…seems to back up some of the above. Newspaper website does not equal newspaper. We use them…but that doesn’t mean we support them.

Related posts:
Events, my dear newspapers, events will never be the bread and butter
The future of journalism, and why Beauty is still searching for a new Beast

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