How Syracuse University’s student newspaper leaned on its alumni to launch a membership program

The importance of student newsrooms are often underestimated. 

As thousands of local outlets in towns and cities across the United States have shuttered or scaled back, student newsrooms have often stepped in to fill critical information gaps. 

In Syracuse, N.Y. the student journalists at The Daily Orange, the student newspaper at Syracuse University, have worked tirelessly to provide ongoing local coverage to the university and local communities. 

However, like many newsrooms, its finances have taken a battering from the pandemic, and as a result, The Daily Orange has turned to more direct community support in the form of a membership program. 

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to cover how The Daily Orange decided to start a membership program and explore how it’s increasing its fundraising efforts to serve the Syracuse community at large.

Solution Set is a weeklyish newsletter from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. We take an in-depth look at one worthwhile strategy in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources. 

Here’s the TLDR:  


TLDR

The Challenge: The Daily Orange was looking to replace revenue shortages from declines in advertising and print cutbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Strategy: The Daily Orange launched a membership program in September 2020 with four tiers of support starting at a $5 recurring contribution. 

The Numbers: There are 90 members in the membership program with an average monthly contribution of $18.76.

• The Lessons: The Daily Orange relied on a core group of supporters — its alumni base — to build early momentum for the program. 

The Future: The Daily Orange plans to expand its membership base to the entire Syracuse community.

Want to know more?: Scroll down for additional coverage of The Daily Orange and other resources for membership programs.

• Anything to add?: Want to boost your own organization’s membership program? Apply to join us for Membership 201, a new course from the Lenfest News Philanthropy Network and RevLab at The Texas Tribune.


The Challenge

It’s been a tough few years for The Daily Orange, the independent student newspaper at Syracuse University. 

For years, the paper was headquartered in a house on campus that it rented annually from the university. But in 2019, the university decided to tear down the building, and The Daily Orange had to find a new office. 

Then, in 2020, the pandemic hit. The Daily Orange became one of the many newsrooms across the world financially impacted by COVID-19 through a steep decline in advertising. The Daily Orange has always solely relied on advertising and donations to support its publication. It, proudly, doesn’t receive any money from the university. 

In recent years the paper reduced its print frequency to three days per week, and last April it cut back again eliminating one day of print publication. That was a difficult, but necessary, decision and it forced the paper, which has served the Syracuse community since 1903, to evaluate its priorities.                                      

“Now was the time to rethink our entire model,” said Haley Robertson, a former Daily Orange editor in chief, who is now the paper’s fundraising coordinator and a senior at Syracuse University.

That’s when The Daily Orange decided to launch a membership program. The paper landed on membership because it wanted to continue to be a free resource to the community, but it wanted to allow people to support its mission.

The paper used its move to a new office as one of its first forays into community fundraising, and it saw an increase in support from its alumni base. 

“We thought we could use that momentum this year when launching the membership program,” Robertson said. 

But as the membership program was set in motion, it needed to expand to the Syracuse community as a whole and needed to develop strategies to maintain and grow the program.


The Strategy

The planning for the membership program started in summer 2020 with the goal that it would generate revenue for The Daily Orange while simultaneously reaching alumni that weren’t already connected with the paper. 

The Daily Orange had an existing fundraising committee of students and alumni board members formed in 2019, and the committee conducted extensive research on nonprofit newsrooms who have a successful membership base. This group helped develop a comprehensive fundraising strategy several months prior to launching the membership program. Research included looking into case studies featuring other nonprofit newsrooms and their membership and donation programs, such as The 19th*, The Texas Tribune, and ProPublica

The team ultimately landed on a membership strategy that was realistically in its bandwidth, and hopefully financially effective: It created a four-level program that allowed members to contribute at a level that made sense for them while taking advantage of various benefits that would forge a deeper connection with The Daily Orange.

The program has four tiers: Sustainer, Booster, Advocate, and Champion, and members receive perks based on the amount of their recurring donation. The tiers ranged from $5 per month to more than $50 per month. 

The membership program launched on September 15, 2020 in honor of The Daily Orange’s birthday.

“We know that this institution is important to a lot of people,” said Katie McInerney, a 2012 Daily Orange alumni and an assistant sports editor at The Boston Globe. “It’s just making sure that those people know that there’s a place where they can get that stuff and if they join our membership program, they can support this work, too.” 

She also compared the membership to her role at The Boston Globe, where one of the key strategies is to provide coverage and insights that ensure that subscribers value their subscription. She was able to apply this same idea to The Daily Orange’s nonprofit product by tweaking the messaging and reaching people differently, but still making sure readers know The Daily Orange is always trying to serve the university and Syracuse communities. 

The first step in instituting membership was to make sure The Daily Orange had the technical system to actually pull it off. Prior to the program, the newsroom was using a page launched in October 2019 that had a plugin that facilitated one-time donations. However, they already had a handful of alumni giving monthly through PayPal (from an old donation system), but the donation page prior to what is used now didn’t make recurring giving a clear option for supporters. 

“We realized that was part of the problem because when you’re doing it that way, the data was in spreadsheets and there’s a lot of manual work,” Robertson said. 

The design team agreed on using Donorbox, which makes donor profiles and allows the fundraisers to not just work off of Excel spreadsheets. 

“Now that we use Donorbox, it’s much easier to stay organized on our end,” Robertson said.

The Daily Orange’s designers spent time working through the actual page of dailyorange.com/donate. With the Donorbox embed, they needed to design it so that people knew that they could still make one-time gifts if they didn’t want to be a member. 

“Right before we launched, we were stuck on what spot. How do we explain to people that they don’t have to be a member just to donate?,” McInerney said.

The second major step in the execution was figuring out what the membership would actually look like with tiers. As mentioned above, the program consists of four tiers:

Every member receives a Daily Orange sticker, and the perks increase from there based on the given monetary donation. Other perks include an invitation to a Zoom session with the current management, a monthly newsletter, and an online or print ad for a local charity. 

While planning the program, the team had to ensure all logistics were set in place for allowing the perks to actually occur. This also meant making sure that stationary was bought for thank you cards for everyone who signed up. Talia Trackim, a student on the fundraising committee, designed the cards and then Robertson ordered them in bulk. Robertson also handled ordering the stickers in bulk, which were designed by student Nabeeha Anwar, who was presentation director at the time, through Sticker Mule for new members. In the first round of thank you notes when the program initially launched, the management team and a few other students helped Robertson write notes. Now, the thank yous are primarily handled by Robertson and The Daily Orange’s general manager. 

“It’s exciting when we had a lot of people sign up in September, especially at the launch, but it’s important that we were prepared because we can’t not deliver on the things we were promising,” Robertson said. 


The Numbers

The initial influx of members was primarily alumni, as the program first saw a lot of success from people who already were giving to The Daily Orange, Robertson said. Within the first 12 hours of its launch, The Daily Orange membership program had 50 members.

“It has only been a few months. I think I can speak for all of us when I say this has been so great and really blew our minds at how many people said ‘yes, this is something that’s important to me, too,’” McInerney said. 

Currently, the program has 90 members with an average monthly contribution of $18.76.

A member is considered a Sustainer if they donate between $5 to $9 a month. A Champion member must donate $50 or more per month. 

The Daily Orange had total revenue of about $243,000 and operated at about a $15,000 deficit in the fiscal year ending in July 2019, according to its most recent government filings

About five alumni actively participated to help set the membership program in motion. 

“We really loved our experience and we want to make sure it continues and also we want to make sure it gets better, too,” McInerney said.

The team also had a push on Giving Tuesday and through the holiday season. Most of its Giving Tuesday contributions were focused on one-time donations to its December Giving campaign, so there wasn’t significant growth in the membership program during that time. $16,339.72 was raised during that campaign.

“When we have a full year of the membership program, we will bring in as much through that as we have probably brought in from our first fundraising program five years ago,” McInerney said. 


The Lessons

Lean on your biggest fans at the start: College newspaper alumni are incredibly loyal to their alma maters, and Daily Orange graduates are no exception. Alumni of the paper were a significant help in bringing the membership program to life because of the important role that The Daily Orange played in their journalism careers and their love for their experiences.

“It’s a place that’s so important to so many people and something we believe that it’s very crucial to the industry as a whole and that we all work in,” McInerney said.

Their goal is to ensure that the student journalists can focus on creating meaningful journalism and build their skills without worrying about the paper’s longevity. 

“The amount of time that students have to spend on the business stuff — the stuff away from journalism, is just more and more every year,” McInerney said. “That’s not ideal, you want people to focus on what makes it fun which is doing great work.” 

By leaning on alumni to help organize the program and become its early members, they were able to give the membership program an early boost. While most local outlets don’t have loyal alumni bases, they certainly have core supporters, and they should ask them for support.

Broaden your community: The Daily Orange knows that its readers stem from the Syracuse community at large, whether it’s people supporting the university sports teams, people who are employed by the university, or students who want to know what’s happening locally. 

To continue serving them, the newsroom understands that the community can help its mission through financial support. This means giving the community benefits for buying into their product. 

“I’m personally learning the value in getting people to sign up for products,”  McInerney said. 

The Daily Orange is working to continue reaching members beyond newsroom alumni because its readers stretch far. To grow and maintain its program, the newsroom knows that engaging and connecting the community as a whole will allow it to preserve.

“We know that it’s really important to engage the people who are benefiting the most that the product is putting out, which is the Syracuse university community,” McInerney said.

Membership is cross-functional: Both McInerney and Robertson emphasized the importance of working together with everyone The Daily Orange to bring the membership program to life. 

“This was such a team effort. So many people had to be involved for this to happen, mainly the board of directors and fundraising committee,” Robertson said. 

Everyone played a role in the project, and the students helped out especially with the big picture strategic aspects in its development. 

McInerney also shared the gravity of listening to one another as it was Robertson’s push to ensure that the website had a “donate” button so that donors would be aware that they could make a one time donation if they weren’t a member.

“It’s offered us a lot of flexibility and elevated the program to be more professional in a good way,” she said.


The Future

Non-students and residents in the broader Syracuse community are already readers of the paper, and The Daily Orange is hoping they will become members as well. It’s looking to include more of the community as well as students and faculty, in addition to the alumni of the paper who already joined. They also want to reach general Syracuse alumni outside of The Daily Orange. 

“It’s an easy sell, we know this product is good, it’s just about getting the information in front of the people who consume it the most,” McInerney said.

The paper’s design staff were also working on creating physical postcards that explains the program to place in faculty mailboxes on campus and will execute this plan in the spring. They also are working to reach alumni who might not be on social media.

The newsroom is focusing on maintaining its benefits and working on getting to a point where it’s easier to maintain it hands off and get on a schedule. The idea is to appoint a dedicated person to help with this maintenance, either a student looking for a larger role or a volunteer alumni. 

“After that, how do we grow?,” McInerney said.

The team also plans to amp up membership perks in the long term and to hopefully further develop tiers and to get feedback from members on what they would like to see. They want to make sure that the offerings are what people are looking for, as it’s still a small sample size.

The newsroom recognizes that some of its perks right now are geared toward alumni, which they plan to continue researching as the membership base grows.

“We’re trying to be responsive and to make sure [the members] are getting what they want,” McInerney said.


Want to know more?

• For more background on the launch of the membership program, check out Poynter’s terrific The Lead newsletter: Why the student newspaper at Syracuse University launched a membership program.

• Interested in launching a membership program, too? Check out The Membership Guide, an interactive resource and toolkit with everything you want to know about launching and growing your membership. We partnered with The Membership Puzzle Project and the Google News Initiative last year to publish it.

• Here’s another cool example of how college newspapers are fundraising: The student newspapers at North Carolina and Duke leveraged their schools’ rivalry to build fundraising support


Anything to add?

Hey — it’s Joseph Lichterman taking over from Elise. If The Daily Orange inspired you to work to improve your organization’s membership program, then I have good news for you. In partnership with RevLab at The Texas Tribune and the Membership Puzzle Project we just opened applications for Membership 201, a free course to help newsrooms advance their membership programs.

Space is limited, but you can learn more and apply here.

Membership 201 is part of The Lenfest News Philanthropy Network’s broader slate of programming focused on supporting fundraising in news. We’re also offering classes this spring on grant writing and building a major donor base — with much more planned. You can learn more and apply to all the classes here.

Photo by Malgosia S / Shutterstock. A man sits on a bench in Syracuse University campus with a view to Hendricks Memorial Chapel in Syracuse, New York.

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