Securing a sustainable and effective business models dominated conversation in 2018, and we also covered this topic in some depth at our last Newsrewired conference.

Yet as local news organisations consider how best to fund their newsrooms amidst uncertainty, one publisher in the US has taken a fresh approach to membership.

Local business site BoiseDev launched their membership BoiseDev FIRST in November 2018. It is a voluntary membership and content remains free as the point of access, similar to The Guardian.

However, this month the publisher has sweetened the deal with further perks and exclusive features, a bit like The Independent's subscription model.

"I think the problem is that people hit a paywall, and they get annoyed,” said Don Day, publisher and editor, BoiseDev, and John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University.

"When you lock away the content for people who read more than five or ten articles a month, you are actually telling your most loyal readers that you don’t want their business."

The biggest bonus under the new membership is what Day calls a ‘timewall', as opposed to a paywall. This offers the potential subscriber early access to their content, generally one day in advance.   

"This allows me to bridge the divide and provide something which is a tangible benefit to members, without telling my other readers that they aren’t important anymore."

Day admits he had his doubts about whether people would reach for their credit card.

However, his 'assumptions were busted' as he realised just how much value readers placed on local news and their willingness to pay for priority.

"I had the idea that we’re the news outlet and we’ll tell the audience what’s important,” he said. "But what I’ve come to realise is that this is the wrong approach. I, as a journalists, should be taking what the community finds to be interesting and try to report that out to them."

In addition to advance articles, BoiseDev FIRST members also gain access to a members-only Slack forum and a conference-call series. These are places to discuss and participate in community-orientated stories.

"One of the best sources of editorial content is simply asking people questions. They’ll ask questions which I don’t think are super relevant. But what I’ve tried to learn is that the audience knows what is interesting, and what me, reporting with my traditional journalism hat on, might not have thought is important."

As an example, Day talks about a community-requested story on a closed-down restaurant as a big turning point, which he did not initially see as newsworthy but was revealed to have more local value than meets the eye.

"That story was the most read article in August, it changed my perception," he said. "It’s not important, it’s not going to impact somebody's life in a major way, but they care. That really came about because I did the user research to know that people really care about what’s happening on their block. So it’s been a journey that changed that mindset."

All this, he says, are reasons why the membership has shown early promise. Moving forward, Day aims to keep seeking feedback on his membership model and learning more about his readership with follow-up surveys.

"They want the journalist to be a facilitator, someone who can help them navigate the issues that are important to them and that’s something I’ve tried to take to heart and apply to BoiseDev - and it’s worked out really well," he concluded.

Want to reach more digital readers? Find out how to kickstart an effective digital strategy at Newsrewired on 6 March at Reuters, London.

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