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At local news site Berkeleyside, membership matters

by: Michele McLellan |

While membership programs have become a staple province of public broadcast and nonprofit online news outlets, a commercial site in California's Bay Area is building a sizeable revenue stream from member contributions.

Berkeleyside, which has established itself as a go-to local news source since it launched in Berkeley in 2009, draws about one-fifth of its total revenue from members, according to Tracey Taylor, one of three co-founders.

The site attracted a loyal readership from the start and averages 220,000 unique visitors a month while Berkeley’s population is 120,000, Taylor said.

The positive feedback and encouragement we receive on a daily basis from readers convinced us we should see if readers would also support us financially. We were proved right. When we ask for reader support the response is good,” she said.

The results so far? A membership of 1,000 that contributes $76,000, or 21 percent of Berkeleyside’s annual revenue.

Taylor said Berkeleyside stages campaigns via email to a list of 8,000 subscribers and on social media platforms to draw in members. The most successful campaigns, she said, are tied to coverage of major news events such as the city’s Black Lives Matter protests in December 2014.

“We reach out to readers during or immediately after high-impact news coverage and effectively remind them of what great journalism they are getting for free,” she said.

The second best time for campaigns has turned out to be traditional giving time during the winter holidays, Taylor said.

She said costs of the program have been minimal – her time to conduct campaigns and manage the membership database, an annual member party, and occasional giveaways of T-shirts or photos.

About two-thirds of the members make a recurring contribution, typically $5 or $10 a month. Others make an annual contribution, $70 a year on average.

Berkeleyside recently brought on a new staff member who will take over the membership duties as part of a broader administrative role.  With that help, Taylor said, Berkeleyside hopes to double its membership this year.

Taylor advises news organizations that want to start a membership program to get expert advice. A strategic plan that cost a few hundred dollars got Berkeleyside off to a strong start, she said.

The plan outlined key steps, including:

  • Building an email list and letting people opt in to receive an e-newsletter, including a tell-a-friend campaign to grow the list and improving visibility on the website of the email signup.
  • Growing the list by having a table at key events, by partnering with other organizations that promote one another to their respective lists, and collecting emails while canvassing for donations.
  • Launching membership drives keyed to major news coverage or end of the year giving, with two or three campaigns a year optimal.
  • Keeping a good donor data management system in place and with a system for reminding members to renew, which is a lot less effort than finding new members.

Taylor said the donor management piece is important. She said Berkeleyside did not start out with a good database. It is moving to one now but it’s a cumbersome process.

Taylor said the program has been well worth the time and money invested. She thinks any site that is valued in its community should consider membership. (Publishers who want to request a copy of Berkeleyside’s plan can contact editors at berkeleyside dot com).

“I think if the news site is providing a valuable service that is appreciated by — maybe even becoming essential to — the community it serves, reader support via a membership should be successful.”

Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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