Many newspapers today are looking for ways to replace the their old business model of advertising and circulation revenue.
The thing that seems most attractive is the membership model.
It's an intriguing idea. People aren't customers any longer, but members.
But what does membership mean?
Newspapers are struggling to find an answer to that question.
From what I can tell, many are simply taking the old business-customer model and adding a few perks, things like special insider information, e-mails from the editor, access to journalists, or coupons available only to those who join.
This doesn't go far enough. If the membership model is really going to work, newspapers need to re-think their relationship with their readers.
They need to offer something else besides a newspaper, in print or digitally.
And what is that?
They need to offer something that provides no direct benefit.
Something that is less tangible, that provides an emotional, or even a spiritual, payoff.
Something that provides a sense of having done the right thing.
Say what? Why would anyone give money for something they don't benefit from?
Actually, it happens all the time. It's called giving to charity.
When people give money to charity, they don't expect to receive something in return.
They give because they want to help others, improve the quality of life on the planet, advance research into a disease, or some other charitable purpose.
They may benefit indirectly because they gave through things like cleaner air, a medical breakthrough for a disease they may get, or fewer people bothering them by panhandling downtown.
But aside from a tax deduction—which for most people is not the driving reason for donating to charity—there is no direct benefit.
People give because it's the right thing to do, and because they believe, or hope, it will make the world a better place.
That, and a feeling of well-being from having done the right thing.
Can something similar work for newspapers?
I think it can.
After all, people already value something intangible made possible through journalism: Democracy.
A survey done earlier this year by Angus Reid found that 94% of Canadians believe journalism is important for the flourishing of democracy.
The New York Times seems to have figured this out.
When they send me e-mails, they don't just offer me X number of days of a subscription for Y number of dollars.
Instead, they invite me to hold power to account.
They offer me something real, but intangible, in other words.
They offer to do something on my behalf that I cannot do myself.
And that's the essence of charity.
If I am moved by the plight of starving people in South Sudan, I give to an NGO that can use my gift to provide them with food.
I will not benefit from this gift. But others will, and I will feel better for it.
Can newspapers take a lesson or two from the philanthropic sector and apply it to their model?
I think they can.
But it will require a change of perspective.
It will require editors and publishers to do what British author and philosopher G. K. Chesterton wrote about over 100 years ago to fix a foul London slum called Pimilco.
Today, Pimlico is a nice place to live. But back at the turn of the last century it was a vile place.
Chesterton’s solution was novel.
“The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico,” he said. “To love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason.”
If that happened, “then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles,” he wrote.
“If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.”
Some people, he noted, “will say that this is a mere fantasy.”
His answer? “This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great . . . men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”
What does this have to do with newspapers?
If we loved our community, then we would want the best for it.
And for a community to be its best, it needs a vibrant and robust local press.
That's why people should become members of a newspaper. Not because they get comics, sports and the crossword, but because it makes their community a better place to live.
In other words, what I might do for starving people a world away I can do for people in my hometown—and, indirectly, myself.
Not because we get something tangible out of it, but because it makes life better for everyone.
In what Christians call the Old Testament, and what Jews call the Tanakh, the story is told in the book of Jeremiah about the people of Israel being taken captive to Babylon.
As it turns out, they will stay there a long time. What should they then do?
Says the prophet Jeremiah: “Pray to the Lord for it,” he said. “Because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
I would say the same thing about local newspapers.
If it prospers, we all prosper.
That's the essence of membership, in my view, at least.
For more information about membership models for journalism, visit the Membership Puzzle Project.