One size: Does Not Fit All: How publishers are creating the right membership model for their readers.

Author:Mateos, Evelyn
 
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Today's news publishers are facing difficult situations, among them selecting the best membership model suited for their consumers. One anticipated model that made its appearance earlier this year was Apple News+, the successor to Texture, which the company bought out last year and plans to close at the end of this month. The platform includes more than 300 magazines, a handful of digital natives, but only three newspapers: the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Toronto Star.

Although the Apple bundle might be what consumers are looking for, news publishers are extremely wary of joining.

Damon Kiesow, Knight Chair in digital editing and producing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, agrees that news publishers should be waiy. "If you look at the (Washington) Post, the (New York) Times and others, they're not in, and they're very vocal about why they're not in. It's disintermediating them even further from their audiences. It's a loss of control of user experience. It's monetizing potentially the rate they can get from direct subscriptions."

In a note to employees, Matt Murray, WSJ editor-in-chief, offered insight to the newspaper's choice in joining Apple News+. "The Apple venture is about more people seeing and paying for our journalism," he explained. This is a tempting argument for publishers as Apple currently dominates the smartphone market at 63 percent, according to the "Mobile Web Intelligence Report" by Device Atlas.

Television, movies and music have all recently morphed from their prior forms into these bundle subscriptions that have performed exceptionally well. Netflix closed 2018 with a whopping 139 million worldwide subscribers, according to CNN. Is it time for the news industry to fit into such an in-demand structure?

Structuring the Right Model

Lucky for news publishers there is so much data available to aid in choosing the right membership model; at the same time, it can be easy to become overwhelmed with case studies and vendor phone calls. Damian Radcliffe, the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism as well as a professor of practice at the University of Oregon, reminds us that in the midst of scouring data to not forget about our relationship with existing loyal consumers.

"So often it feels that the emphasis is on growing subscribers and new ways of bringing people in," Radcliffe said. "We need to have more of a conversation about super serving existing subscribers and be prepared to provide other mechanisms to engage with them."

In 2012, the Buffalo News in New York jumped on the paywall bandwagon, so they choose a vendor, put up a paywall and did what every news organization does--hope for growth.

'We hit roughly 2,500 digital subscribers, but then we plateaued and we never were able to grow beyond that," David Adkins, vice president of technology, said. "It didn't matter what we did about content choices or anything."

While the vendor they chose had its perks, the paper was not blind to the holes in the paywall. Clearing cookies, incognito or private browsing, changing devices, viewing cached copies of pages on Google and utilizing ad technology are all ways consumers can sneak around a paywall--so Buffalo News set out to fix these issues by creating their own product.

In a nutshell, Buffalo News decided to make use of IP addresses (significantly harder for the user to change) to send the information back to their server and count the consumers articles there, closing nearly every hole and compelling users to subscribe.

"Building a paywall like this was really hard," Adkins admitted. "We had three developers that worked on the software and they all had to go to school to learn some of the more advance technologies that exist today because we had to make sure this thing was fast."

Adkins also said they found a few other resources to help guide...

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