One California newspaper’s route to survival is an innovative ‘membership plan’

June 21, 2019
Category: Business & Work

IDYLLWILD, California – It’s been a tough year for the newspaper industry, with hundreds of jobs lost at large publishing companies like Buzzfeed, HuffPost and Gannett, whose ax falls particularly hard on some smaller U.S. markets already scraping by for decent news coverage. Community news is dying, or so goes the narrative for many.

After decades working with newspapers large and small, I can’t help it — my eye is drawn to local newsstands and boxes when I travel the country. Thus my interest was piqued earlier this year during some downtime in this idyllic mountain town, a little more than an hour uphill from Palm Springs. At the checkout of a local grocery, the Idyllwild Town Crier called out to me, hot off the press for the bargain price of $1.

At 16 broadsheet pages the week I visited, the paper struck me as healthier and more engaging than the Gannett dailies I’ve picked up in recent months while visiting clients who publish in the same markets. (The shockingly anemic web width adopted by the chain’s broadsheets does no favors toward assessing its papers’ health.)

The Town Crier boasts some serious California news done right, on a hyperlocal scale: residential and commercial growth, wildfire and forestry management, tourism, the pot industry, water management districts. In all, the paper keeps its eye on eight public agency boards. Sure, it profiles folks about town and lists things to do, but it takes its watchdog role seriously.

Per the 2010 census, the Idyllwild-Pine Cove area (two small neighboring communities that are usually ganged up together) has a population of 3,874, though that number probably jumps by at least a few thousand in summer. The town supports plenty of tourism and part-time residents — retirees and outdoorsy folks and others who like the mountain life.

The Town Crier is not the only engaging or stable weekly paper out there, by a long stretch. But I was intrigued to learn that it may be one of only a few that has resorted to an innovative “membership” model to stay afloat.

Becky Clark has been the editor and publisher of the Town Crier since 1996. She and her husband Jack bought the paper in June 2013 and became co-publishers (he’s also the general counsel, she remains the editor).

In August 2017, they realized they weren’t going to make it on subscription and ad revenue alone, and put out a call to the community: “Either the paper retires when we do (and soon), or, you’ve got to help us out.”

They began selling “memberships” in the paper — similar, perhaps, to a public broadcasting fund drive — and quickly found solid footing. Membership tiers range from $100 annually for Sustaining Readers (replacing the previous annual subscription fee of $29 for 52 issues, including postage) up to $1,000 or more for Heroes and Angels levels.

I reached out to the Clarks via email to learn more about this strategy, which they say they are not aware of anywhere else in the country, and their hopes for the future of the paper. Jack also shared why he thinks his model would not be appropriate for every struggling newspaper out there.

Ron Reason: You regularly publish updates about the steady growth of your membership tally, but can you tell me where you stand today?

Jack Clark: We are at 744 active members (July 2019), up from 648 on Sept. 1, 2018, which was our one-year anniversary of the membership model. Of course, some of our original members did not renew (or have not renewed yet), but more than that number of brand new members have joined, hence the net gain. Far from membership falling off as with a novelty wearing out, we actually will experience a healthy net increase in active membership this year, perhaps 17 to 18 percent.

Believe it or not, most of our members (about 55 percent) don’t have primary homes up here. They have second homes, or WANT to have second homes, or just want to retire here someday, or they just love to visit enough to take out a membership.

Do you know of many other papers who have pursued a model like this?

(Photo by Ron Reason)

No. We do know of nonprofits who have done this, and we know of a small-town paper that “went public,” but we don’t know of another small-town, “for-profit” paper that has tried this. We do not feel that a nonprofit newspaper would work well here — two many special interest factions would do what they could to occupy and control the Board of Directors.

In addition to wanting to keep the newspaper going via the membership model, you are also looking for new owners, who presumably would need to keep that model going as well. What are your hopes and challenges for that search? Who’s your ideal candidate?

Our first goal is to find someone who seriously wants to keep a real newspaper going for our community, and who are capable of doing that. As we’ve said several times in print: “A newspaper is a community watchdog that publishes the bad with the good. It warns of danger, advises of opportunity, challenges authority, praises accomplishment, investigates irregularity, marvels at art, celebrates lives and publishes its readers’ letters. If a publication doesn’t do all of these things, it may be something else, but it’s not a newspaper.” We have eight local public agencies up here that nobody monitors but the Town Crier. We have had to do some tough, aggressive investigative reporting as to two of them in recent years. The new owner(s) would have to be ready and willing to take all that on.

Of course, we want people with some newspaper experience. Too many people out there “have always dreamed of owning their own newspaper.” When they buy one and find out how much time, work and headache is involved, they have buyer’s remorse and want out. We want people who know the business and are in a position take on the Town Crier to keep it rolling — we hope with their own improvements.

Also, new owners would have to have the wherewithal to be able to keep it operating during any downturns. The first three months of the year are pretty slow. But we haven’t had to actually add capital to the paper for about three and a half years now — a vast improvement over the first two years of our ownership. And the membership model really gave us a major boost starting nearly two years ago, enabling us to meet expenses and pay the editor (my wife, Becky) a bit over a minimum wage for the first time. We feel this was an essential point to being able to attract new ownership. We hear regularly that our readers are counting on us to find the right purchasers for the Town Crier.

You open your weekly news meetings on Wednesday mornings to the public. Can you describe the interest, enthusiasm or attendance you’ve experienced?

There will be anywhere from eight to 16 regular readers at any given news meeting. About eight to nine people seem never to miss. They were willing to attend Wednesday 8:30 a.m. news meetings even when we held them in the cramped quarters of our office. The Idyllwild Library has graciously allowed us to use their much more comfortable surroundings. They are all interested in discussing the current issue, which also comes out on Wednesday mornings (although it is dated Thursday), and they are very much interested in what we already plan to cover for the next issue.

What do you get out of this public meeting that you might not otherwise get, say via email tips, chat around town, etc.?

We still get email tips and there is still chat around town, but most of that is unverifiable rumor. When someone brings something up face-to-face in a news meeting, we get instant response from the others present. Sometimes news stories develop out of these conversations. The news meetings are used as a vehicle by people who would really like us to look into something. They let us know what the folk in town are most interested in knowing about. We also get feedback on stories we have published as well as comment on stories we intend to publish. The better we know the people of the community, the better the paper can serve them, the better the paper will be appreciated by the people of the community. They speak of “our newspaper,” and we think the public news meetings promote that feeling, that it is their newspaper.

You’ve recently seen an uptick in advertising. To what might you attribute that?

We do a weekly column about our membership, often listing our members by name (if they haven’t requested anonymity). We think that advertisers are becoming more and more impressed with the number of people who are interested enough in our community to take out memberships. The uptick has been slow and gradual so far, not overwhelming.

In addition to your membership numbers, it’d be great to learn your current circulation as well as the population of the town (and if there’s a big bump in that number for the summer tourist season).  

We print 2,100 papers each week. Our circulation runs around 1,900 to 2,000 each week. Idyllwild itself has about 3,300 people. But we also serve Pine Cove, Mountain Center and Garner Valley areas — a total of perhaps 5,000 people of all ages. (Perhaps only about two or three thousand families, although I haven’t seen a survey as to that.) We have heavy tourist weekends during the colder months, especially when it has just snowed. And holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, the big Fourth of July community parade, and Labor Day — are big with tourists.

But we are mostly a summertime tourist community, so, yes, there is a big bump in the summertime. We have hiking trails of all degrees of difficulty, rock climbing, just walking in the great outdoors — or simply exploring the town of Idyllwild. Tourism has increased tremendously during the 33 years that I’ve been here. During spring-summer-fall, ordinary weekends are often swarming in the downtown areas. We have very few chain businesses, no chain restaurants, but well more than a dozen really good individual restaurants and coffee houses.

I think perhaps I should add that I doubt that our membership model would work for every community newspaper. The membership model was virtually a last resort for us after having tried a myriad of approaches to increase advertising, none of which worked. It turns out that we had people’s trust and goodwill well before we embarked on the membership model — we both were surprised at how much good will we apparently had with folk both on and off the Hill. Very gratifying.

But I wouldn’t want to recommend this membership approach to a start-up community newspaper, for example. I think the newspaper needs to have community trust, goodwill and interest first.

Ron Reason served as Poynter faculty member and Director of Visual Journalism seminars, publication and research from 1995 to 2000. He served in 2015 as the Pollner Distinguished Professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at ronreason@gmail.com. His blog, Design With Reason, has hundreds of case studies, tips, and ideas for editorial publishing.