Membership has its meaning

Posted on 04. Sep, 2009 by in Collaboration, News Ecosystem, Revenue

In newspapers’ game of revenue roulette, there’s a lot of talk lately about their trying to create membership plans. The New York Times and the Guardian, to name two, reportedly have visions of tote bags, mugs, and events in their heads. And I think that’s a fine idea. No salvation. But a fine idea. I’ll wear a Guardian hat proudly. I’ll go watch Nick Kristof present a slide show of what he did on summer vacation. (Other papers are merely using the m-word to cloak a pay wall; you know what I think about that.)

What the Times and Guardian seem to be considering is membership in the NPR mold – give us money and get a T-shirt to brag about it. That works at NPR because the network is a charity and supporting it is a political statement. The same might be true of the Guardian, which operates on a mission (“the world’s leading liberal voice”) and is owned by a trust. But the Times, as the product of a profit-making company with shareholders? I’m not sure. We’ll see.

In any case, the membership bar has moved up. It’s not enough to let people give you money and promote you. Now you have to invite them to have a real and meaningful role in what you do, even a sense – if not a stake – of ownership and, consequently, control.

Take Wikipedia. At the Aspen Institute two weeks ago, Wikimedia Foundation head Sue Gardner said they calculated the value of the work people put into editing entries. They could measure only the time that went into edits and updates, not the time writers may have spent elsewhere researching and writing. Even so, the value of time spent added up to hundreds of millions of dollars. That is how this incredible asset was built: minutes at a time. Note well that Wikipedia did not become valuable because it extracted money from the market and its users pockets. It became a great asset by enabling people to make it, to take control of it, to have a sense of ownership in it. It thus requires very little resource to run – and it gets the money for that from these users. Now that’s membership.

Note that Wikipedia is trying to figure out what value it needs to add back to its community’s product, not as a controller but as a contributing member itself. That’s part of the secret to successful networks: everyone’s a member, no one is king.

Now take craigslist. Craig Newmark was also at Aspen, befuddling the media machers, as he always does. But he shouldn’t. They are the ones who created his model. Newspapers created value by becoming the marketplaces in their communities for home, merchandise, and job transactions. Craig created the successor marketplace the best way he could: by being free. He extracts minimal value to grow to maximum size; those are the confounding network economics I describe in What Would Google Do?. The point is that Craig did not create a marketplace he would control, as newspapers did; he created a marketplace the community built and he supports that with customer service. He serves the community as a member.

When I was last in London, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was contemplating membership and he told me about the Barcelona Football Club, which is owned by its fans and in which members have the privilege to vote on leadership and more. Can a newspaper be owned by its community?

This morning, I recorded the next Guardian Media Talk USA podcast with Baristanet founder Deb Galant and Star-Ledger editor Jim Willse and we discussed the CUNY New Business Models for News recommendations, which center on creating collaborative networks among the new players in the next news ecosystem. Willse riffed on the idea of creating co-ops, like New York apartments, where the community sets its rules and hires the super to make sure the heat is on. All benefit, all have a stake in the success of the community.

Add all this together: contribution 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. That is membership. Not tote bags.

How far would and should news organizations be willing to go with this extended vision of membership? I can see newspapers as they have existed being quite uncomfortable with the idea of handing over control and even membership to the community. I can hear their fears of being co-opted or gamed. But that comes from still thinking of news as the property of a single company. Those days are soon over.

When you think of news instead as the province of an ecosystem that is distributed and owned at the edges by many players operating under many means, motives, and models, then the notion of contribution, ownership, and control changes. People own their own stakes but they benefit by joining together cooperatively. They create a tide upon which all their ships rise. That’s a network, not a company. Everyone contributes, everyone gains value and so does the whole: Everyone cooperates in systems of enlightened self-interest. Thus greater value is created (see: Wikipedia v. World Book) because more people contribute value but it is not owned centrally and benefit moves to the edge.

In the new post-industrial economy, I argue that there are three opportunities for growth and value: building platforms, building value atop those platforms (as entrepreneurs), and building networks to help these entities optimize their value. That is how news and many industries will be rebuilt, I believe.

In this vision, then, the basis of news is the platform, not the newspaper company. The value is built by owner-members, more than staff. The infrastructure for the network is a service to it, not a barrier to entry.

Yesterday, I was down visiting Vivian Schiller and her management team at NPR – who, by the way, are clearly having great fun (unlike other folks I know in the business). We talked about the New Business Models for News Project and NPR’s role in this new ecosystem. I think NPR and its stations can provide a platform and network services to many players in local markets and take a key role in the future of the news ecosystem. And NPR understands the beginnings of what it means to have members, so long as they move past tote bags.

So, yes, news organizations, please think about membership. But don’t think if it as merely a revenue opportunity. That is doomed. It is insulting. It brings to value to its members. It’s only a new price tag for a new product: a mug instead of news. No, instead use this opportunity to think about opening up as an enabler and member of a new network, a new club, and don’t think of yourselves as the owners of this club but instead as just another member. (The New Business Models for News Project has been funded by the Knight Foundation.)


2 Responses to “Membership has its meaning”

  1. David Gerard

    04. Sep, 2009

    If the Guardian operated more like a nonprofit on a day to day basis, people might actually go for this big time.


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