Comment sections get a bad rap. Often, they’re just a thing that exists that news orgs don’t take seriously, while other times they can regularly turn into breeding grounds for toxicity and spam. Things don’t have to be that way.
The Argentinian newspaper Página/12 has made commenting and reader contributions the centerpiece of its recently launched membership program. And this week in Solution Set, David Akst, one of the Lenfest Institute’s outstanding summer interns, spoke to Página/12 and learned more about how it designed the program.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one cool thing in journalism, share lessons and point you toward other useful resources.
Also, a quick programming note: We’re going to taking the next two weeks off. We’ll be back again after Labor Day, and I’m going to spend the end of summer working on some other projects as well as tending to some housekeeping here to hopefully make Solution Set a better and more useful tool for you.
Now here’s David with the TLDR on Página/12’s membership program: —Joseph Lichterman
• The Challenge: Página/12 wanted to create a meaningful digital membership system that provides real value for those who choose to support the outlet financially.
• The Strategy: The paper introduced a commenting system (or a “contribution” system, as the outlet calls it) that’s only available to members.
• The Numbers: Since April, Página/12 has gone from zero to 7,000 paying members.
• The Lessons: Adding new, valuable features for members — instead of blocking existing features for non-members — makes membership attractive without penalizing free users. It helps to have ardent supporters, of course.
• The Future: Página/12 is planning to introduce another feature for members, an exclusive blog that only members can read and to which members can contribute. The team is also trying to learn more about its audience and what drives conversions to paid membership, to capitalize on their strong start.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down for more on how other news organizations have built successful membership programs.
Like most newspapers in this era, the Argentinian newspaper Página/12 needed to monetize its digital product beyond serving ads. The paper didn’t want to put in a meter or paywall and block readers from seeing its coverage, but Página/12 ran a reader poll online and found that more than 70 percent of respondents were interested in supporting the organization financially.
Mariano Blejman, chief digital officer of Grupo Octubre, the non-profit that owns Página/12, said the team was inspired by the Guardian’s model, which keeps its site devoid of a paywall but still offers paid memberships with supplementary benefits: member emails, access to live in-person and video events, and access to the premium tier of the Guardian’s mobile app, among other things. (You’ve certainly seen those yellow banners all over The Guardian’s site asking readers to join.) One of The Guardian’s selling points for members is access to and engagement with reporters and editors.
Membership or subscription perks differ widely across media companies. Some might score you a free tote bag, access to exclusive content, or a behind-the-scenes look at a recent story. But Página/12 had the opportunity to offer something new and rewarding to the people who wanted to support them: members could contribute to the conversation surrounding its journalism, a more active benefit than receiving a mug or tote bag in the mail.
Blejman and the team at Grupo Octubre launched the membership program in April. The idea of codependence, of mutual exchange, permeates Página/12’s membership page. “Si vos necesitás a Página/12, entonces Página/12 te necesita a vos,” the page says. “If you need Página/12, then Página/12 needs you.”
The crux of the membership system is that it allows members to engage with one another and with the paper’s journalists. The commenting system is central to that. Página/12 uses Talk, from The Coral Project, to run its membership and commenting system. Talk is used by a number of large American news organizations, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, to create, host, and moderate comment sections. It integrates with existing subscriber databases, among lots of other cool features, but that wasn’t necessary for Página/12.
Página/12 had no digital subscriber or membership database to work into, so it built its whole registration system on Talk. Its print subscription system is totally separate, and current print subscribers have complained about receiving no digital benefits despite the print subscription being more expensive. Blejman said the paper is working to address this.
“Talk is a very powerful tool,” Blejman told me. “The [Coral Project] team is very proactive and keen to help us understand our audience. Having their support long-term is great,” he added that the Coral Project is constantly pushing out new functionalities and updates.
Last month I talked to Andrew Losowsky, project lead at The Coral Project. He told me that Talk generally works best when newsrooms are willing to devote time and resources to closely monitoring and moderating their comment sections.
Blejman said Página/12 hasn’t had to use many resources to moderate the new commenting system. Because only paid members can contribute to the conversation, there have been few problems with trolling or spam.
“We don’t have anyone doing moderation, because moderation is done by the payment system,” Blejman said. “Occasionally if someone is insulting readers, we send something to them privately. This is rare, once a week or something like that.”
Blejman told me that the Página/12 team spends “more time on the developer side than the moderator side,” devoting one developer to the membership process — which includes Talk.
Talk integrates with Slack, so Blejman and his team can easily see when stories are attracting particularly interesting discussions or questions. In those cases, they may message the story’s reporter and invite them to jump into the conversation, providing direct, back-and-forth engagement between members and the newsroom. “People feel like the journalist is very close,” Blejman said.
The ability to make “contributions” isn’t the only perk of membership. Members receive exclusive newsletter content, access to certain events and discussions with members of the editorial staff, and can view PDFs of the print paper online. But the opportunity to contribute ideas and views in the comment section is the most constant and personal of the rewards, and Blejman thinks it’s especially appealing to their readers.
“People decided to be members just to be part of the conversation,” Blejman said. “People are very interested in being part of the conversation, and we think that the conversation is more interesting when people can contribute.”
Página/12’s membership program has gained 7,000 members in the less than five months since it launched.
A membership costs 200 Argentine pesos ($6.69 USD) per month That means that they’re already generating revenue in the ballpark of $46,830 each month.
The peso is among the world’s worst performing currencies with its value falling 38 percent this year, according to Bloomberg. When the membership program launched in April, 200 pesos was worth about $10 USD, and international memberships still cost that amount.
There have been about 5,000 or 6,000 comments on the site so far, Blejman said.
Blejman said they hope to reach 50,000 members in a few years, though they’re still working on the strategy to grow the membership base.
Many of the members were previously subscribed to Página/12’s free newsletter, which had 25,000 subscribers when the membership program launched. Blejman noted that it was often hard to convert older subscribers into members, because they assumed they were already members and didn’t understand that they couldn’t just put their email into the login and start commenting.
“We had hundreds of people like this, who had a strong relationship with us” Blejman said. “We had to address that directly.” (Now the FAQ addresses this issue, with “YOU HAVE TO REGISTER AGAIN” in capital letters.)
• Offer membership perks that matter to your audience: Blejman was quick to note that the specific mission, approach, and audience of Página/12 made this strategy work particularly well for its readership, but it might not for all media companies.
He said the paper’s left-wing position and its focus on reporting on corruption and government misdeeds garner a lot of engagement. Its audience is generally educated and interested in adding its own voice to the conversation. Many readers also have the means to contribute financially.
Readers who are civically engaged and have a deep interest in the issues covered by the paper will likely be interested in engaging with one another and hearing from reporters, so the ability to comment is a significant enticement to join.
If you’re thinking about designing a membership program for your organization, you need to know your audience and understand what will matter to them. Often times though, the most appealing part of a membership program is the ability to support an organization you believe in — regardless of the perks.
• Own your platform: Página/12 decided to invest in building engagement on its own site rather than on social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. It chose who could contribute to the conversation, and how. This let the paper fit audience engagement into its larger strategy, and it made the experience more rewarding for commenters (contributors, that is) and the newsroom alike.
Promoting engagement on its own site, instead of letting social media platforms scoop it up, also has a business benefit for Página/12: it builds loyalty, which ultimately will help grow the membership base, and boosts advertiser-friendly metrics like time-on-page and repeat users.
Social platforms have their role, of course, but by owning the relationship with the reader, Página/12 has been able to deepen its connection to its audience.
Página/12 is far from done with its the development of its membership program. Blejman said it plans to add a new blog to its offerings, exclusive to members. Members would be able to contribute full posts to the blog, creating a new platform for longer-length user-generated content less rooted in a specific article than the comments (contributions, that is) on the main site.
Blejman said that Página/12 is moving its registration system off of Talk. “The Talk check-in system was not very flexible,” he said, noting that they will continue to use the platform, just with an independent registration system.
Right now Página/12 only accepts credit cards online, but its working on a direct charge system to pull from the bank accounts of those who don’t have or want to use credit cards.
Página/12’s digital membership system will soon be integrated with its print subscriptions, too, so that subscribers can register and enjoy digital benefits. Blejman said that such decisions must go through the company’s union first.
The team plans to continue hosting events with members and journalists or editors and to work to better understand the demographics of its audience and its behavior online.
Recognizing that moderation may become more necessary as the paper’s membership grows, Blejman told me that Página/12 still doesn’t want to dedicate its resources to moderation.
“We are thinking of inviting the most active, trusted readers to be moderators,” he said. “That’s something that may be happening soon.”
Want to know more?
• The Guardian now has more than 570,000 paying members. In its annual report last month, the paper reported £108.6 million in digital revenue, which includes membership and digital advertising.
• De Correspondent is the Dutch news site that has built its entire business on reader support and contributions. In this 2014 post, cofounder Ernst-Jan Pfauth wrote about why the site views its readers as contributors.
• As part of its effort to expand to the United States, De Correspondent has worked with NYU to develop the Membership Puzzle Project, which is studying membership at news organizations. The Membership Puzzle Project has done some terrific research and developed great resources on membership, so if you’re thinking about a membership program for your news org, you should check them out.
• The News Revenue Hub is launching a Learning Lab to share best practices around membership and how publishers can maximize opportunities to build meaningful revenue through membership. The Lenfest Institute is supporting this work.
Anything to add?
We’ll include some responses in our next issue.
See you in September!