Perks, not paywalls

The Voice of San Diego's new membership strategy ties funding to "family"

According to its motto, the Voice of San Diego is “irreverent, honest and engaging” in its pursuit of community news. It got even more engaging with a membership overhaul in April that allows readers to sign up as members of the Voice community for a negotiable fee. So far, 1,242 have joined, and the aim is to have 1,500 by the end of the year.

“In the past we did a pledge drive, like public radio,” says Scott Lewis, the Voice’s CEO. “But we realized that we don’t have to shut off programming for a funding drive in the same way as radio. Instead, we can have a constant conversation about our needs.”

Those needs, in a word: money. Readers can choose among four levels of membership, ranging from “Conversation Starter” ($35-$100) to “Major Donors” ($5,000 and up). The scale is flexible, and includes a $20 hardship option. The Voice is even looking at ways that people can earn membership by volunteering at its events, and it allows existing members to sponsor membership for other readers. The goal, Lewis says, is to expand the size of the site’s community and hope that people value the experience enough to pay for it.

Those who do pay receive proportionate rewards, including access to events, invitations to roundtable discussions, and acknowledgement on the website. Donors of $501 and above receive a monthly Voice of San Diego magazine, curated from the best stories on the website that month, plus the opportunity to post ads for nonprofit causes they support in the daily newsletter, on the web and in print.

That’s where honesty comes in. Lewis believes that as long as the Voice is always clear about who is paying for what, the new scheme gives both it and its readers a better deal by bringing them closer together. “How do you raise money while raising hell?” he says. “By being as transparent as you can be.”

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield.