Can The Guardian become a membership organisation?

There’s been a lively response to the news that The Guardian is looking to develop a membership scheme. Benji Lanyado dismisses the proposal as “an old media solution to a new media problem” (via journalism.co.uk). Mr Lanyado suggests that online users do not have the pre-requisite loyalty required for a successful membership.

If anyone can turn online audiences into members it ought to be The Guardian – if only because they’ve got so many of them. But if Mr Lanyado is right, the case for organisations to invest resources in social media is weaker than many hope. More than one million people follow the Guardian across its Twitter accounts and guardian.co.uk has over 2 million absolute unique visitors a month. As Alan Rudbridger suggested in his speech to the Media Standards Trust if only the Guardian could get a few pennies from each of its online users, the crisis in newspapers would be calmed.

However, building a successful membership organisation depends on more than finding attractive services to sell to a large audience – and The Guardian has thus far failed to do even that. But an events-based membership would be an obvious proposition for membership.The paper does have some useful lessons to draw on. The Guardian already organises a series of revenue-raising conferences on specialist issues, including the Oxford Media Convention and Activate. The New York Times experimented with charging audiences a premium to spend time with businessmen, celebrities and the like although the a move attracted criticism from FT editor, Lionel Barber for its possible conflicts of interest.

There would be limited appeal to a membership offer based around events. In London there are plenty of free or low cost places to hear internationally renowned speakers so The Guardian would be a start-up next to the likes of the RSA, Fabian Society or even Compass. And of course it’s a detterent to non London-based members and goes against The Guardian’s Mancunian roots. It’s much harder to organise events outside London.

So it’s important that the ‘membership offer’ is attractive. But as Jeff Jarvis says:

“don’t think if it as merely a revenue opportunity . . . It’s only a new price tag for a new product: a mug instead of news.”

Membership of The Guardian could be based on a much broader, political appeal around identity. Mr Lanyado is right to point out the declining class identification has limited the extent to which people buy a newspaper because it’s targetted at ‘their sort’. But there is a clear view of an archetypal Guardian reader and insult or not, it broadly holds true – at least in Stoke Newington where I live. But as the Guardian discovered with the launch of Comment is Free, the people who engage with the Guardian do not necessarily share its values. Moreover, membership of the newspaper would be unlikely to have a wider social relevance. Those who read the paper as part of their identity will already operate in networks of other Guardian readers.

The most radical option would be for the newspaper to constitute its membership as an ownership Trust – along the lines that Jeff Jarvis describes as ‘membership with meaning‘. As Jarvis says:

“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.

The Guardian is already owned by a charitable Trust so an ‘FC Barcelona for the Guardian’ is not quite the radical step-change it appears.

One of the significant attractions with Comment is Free was the ability of ordinary people to contribute to The Guardian online. A memebership model which gave real influence on the content of the newspaper would almost certainly be attractive. And by limiting it to paying members, the paper would avoid the LA Times ‘wikitorial’ fiasco. However, that would again represent both a challenge to the Guardian’s ethics and a tension with the purchasers of the newspaper.

However, this vision reveals a central tension at the heart of some social media strategies. The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss uses Twitter, in part, because of the expertise of her followers. They are self-selecting and there is no barrier to entry. If these followers become more scarce (because the Guardian charges) then the wisdom of the crowd is diminished because it is smaller. So no longer can the Guardian practice its innovative journalism by crowd-sourcing data or user generated content because it will have to be the preserve of the membership.

Developing a successful membership is neither the logical next step when your social media following reaches a particular mass. And not all organisations can hand over control to members without compromising the service they provide – and the values which underpin this – to its wider stakeholders. This doesn’t make the Guardian’s proposals inherently bad. But if they are to succeed, it will be because they’ve been able to reconcile:

  • An attractive offer to members which means more than a financial transaction
  • Meaningful involvement in the output of the newspaper without compromising its reputation amongst those who sustain it without becoming members
  • The need to provide and enable networks amongst members which are possible only through the Guardian but where that exclusivity doesn’t damage the end product

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