Skip to content Skip to footer
Washington City Paper

‘We’re meeting each other at the table’: Washington City Paper proves that alt-weeklies and memberships mix

By Katie Hawkins-Gaar

Washington City Paper’s origins are similar to that of many alternative weekly newspapers. The publication was founded in 1981 as an independent and irreverent local news source for Washington D.C., and quickly grew a loyal fanbase among D.C. residents. Unlike many alt-weeklies created decades ago, though, City Paper still exists today.

Over the years, City Paper has experienced its share of ups and downs. The paper, which covers local news and culture in D.C., expanded in the 1980s and ‘90s as classified and print ads grew; contracted in the late 2000s as advertising sales declined; and, in 2017, was sold to local philanthropist Mark Ein. Under new ownership, City Paper staff reimagined their mission statement — promising to “center the people and culture of our hometown in our reporting, reviews, and columns” — and started brainstorming ways to connect with their audience on a deeper level.

City Paper launched its reader membership program in September 2019. Eight months later, in June 2020, they joined the News Revenue Hub for additional membership support. Today, the alt-weekly boasts some encouraging stats: Since 2019, more than 1,000 readers have stepped up to support City Paper; since joining the Hub, City Paper’s annual membership revenue has increased by 40%. Far from an unpredictable program of single donations, 80% of their donors are recurring, giving monthly or annually.

Caroline Jones, editor of City Paper, is thrilled with the membership progress they’ve made so far. “I get really excited and pleased when I look at our [financial] statements every week,” she said. “We’re holding fast to this promise that we made to our readers, and are meeting each other at the table. We’re saying, ‘We want to be here for you,’ and they’re saying, ‘We want you here.’”

An encouraging start

When Ein purchased City Paper in late 2017, it marked a new beginning for the decades-old alt-weekly. “We were putting out the same product, but were essentially a brand new company on the business side,” Jones explained.

Jones, who was then-managing editor, began brainstorming ways to better connect with readers with her former colleagues, Alexa Mills, Will Warren and Duc Luu. “We really wanted to make a commitment to our readers, and we wanted to try different business models,” Jones recalled. Before long, the staff began researching what it would take to create a membership program, looking at similar models at news organizations like Honolulu Civil Beat, Berkeleyside and THE CITY.

“We conceptualized the idea of a different relationship between our readers and their community newspaper,” recalled Luu, who was City Paper’s chief revenue officer & publisher at the time. “Starting from the foundation that City Paper is meant to be free to the community, we pursued a membership model in order for us to fund the community journalism that our readers want and need.”

Two years later, in September 2019, City Paper announced its membership program. Although it took a while to get the pieces in place — including marketing materials, pricing tiers and a go-to-market strategy — readers immediately lined up to show their support.

“It was really heartening to see the support in the initial phase,” said Warren, who oversaw City Paper’s membership program. “There was a group of people who were like, ‘Why didn’t you do this earlier? I’ve been waiting for a way to give you money.’”

“It was the best feeling,” recalled Jones. “Right from the start, we knew we were onto something.”

In its initial phases, City Paper’s membership program was “an add on” to both their revenue and editorial plans, Warren recalled. “It wasn’t something that was fully integrated in the newsroom and we didn’t have a huge strategy around it.” Still, the program plugged along — until March 2020.

It didn’t take long for Luu and the City Paper staff to realize the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on their advertising base. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to survive without our readers stepping up,” Luu said. City Paper leadership sent appeals to readers explaining the financial impact of COVID on their publication — and how reporters were working extra hard to cover the moment.

Like many news organizations, the outpouring of support from readers at the onset of the pandemic was an eye-opener for City Paper. “Our readers stepped up and drove dramatic increases in our membership base that transformed and saved our organization,” said Luu.

At the same time, City Paper was accepted into the Facebook Membership Accelerator Program. The program, which began in March 2020, involved three months of hands-on training and, subsequently, a grant for implementing lessons learned.

City Paper completed their membership training that May. The next month, the alt-weekly joined the News Revenue Hub.

“The engine that drives membership is reader loyalty,” said Evan Mackinder, vice president of business development at the News Revenue Hub. “Alt-weeklies like Washington City Paper have been producing quality journalism for their communities for decades at this point. That kind of long-lasting relationship is exactly what drives a strong membership program.”

“But even with that kind of built-in loyalty, newsrooms still need help operationalizing membership,” Mackinder added. He explained that the Hub helps newsrooms do this by developing their value propositions, building professional fundraising campaigns, and growing their email lists.

From the big picture to the small details

For the small but mighty City Paper staff — currently at nine full-time staffers — joining the Hub gave them greater support and access to more robust membership technology than before.

“News Revenue Hub professionalized and transformed our membership operations,” said Luu, who is now director of business sustainability grantmaking at the Knight Foundation. “It gave us the technology, one-on-one help, analytics and rigor that we needed in order to integrate membership into every facet of our organization.”

Among the various tools and services offered by the Hub, City Paper staffers specifically noted how helpful it’s been to have access to audience and membership analytics and data — to give them a better idea of how they’re performing and what goals to aim for. Additionally, the team has taken advantage of the Hub’s fundraising templates and ideas for membership campaigns to drive new members.

Warren, who now works as a senior project manager at the Hub, also appreciated completing the audience survey and value proposition exercises that are integral to client onboarding. “We hadn’t really done anything like that before,” he said. “We learned things about our audience and ourselves that we hadn’t previously considered.”

Jones, who now oversees City Paper’s membership program among her myriad other tasks as editor, prizes her partnership with the Hub.

“I’ve needed guidance on all manners of things,” she said — from small tasks like figuring out a payment issue, to big-picture conversations such as how to keep membership part of the paper’s revenue stream without a full-time staff member dedicated to running it.

“For me, the feedback has been exceptionally helpful and exceptionally important,” said Jones. “I’ve been able to take my conversations with the Hub and make decisions on my own.”

Considering that City Paper’s needs and staffing have changed since they joined the Hub, Jones also appreciates the flexibility that the Hub offers. She explained that, sometimes, the alt-weekly will have passive membership periods (“we’re incredibly busy and aren’t going to run a campaign right now”); other times, they’ll have the capacity or momentum to launch a fundraising series.

“That flexibility has been really important for us,” she explained. “Because the Hub is so organized and accessible, we’ve been able to keep membership going. It feels like a safety net for us.”

To boot, Jones added, the team is nice to work with. “News Revenue Hub: Among the friendliest folks I’ve encountered!” she said, laughing.

“It doesn’t make me nervous as much anymore, but membership and money stuff made me extremely nervous when I became editor,” Jones shared. “The fact that everyone at the Hub is really friendly and approachable about it is a big assist.”

What other alt-weeklies can learn

If Warren has any regrets about City Paper’s membership program, it’s that it took them so long to get something off the ground. His advice for other alt-weeklies considering creating membership programs is “to start small and not overthink it.”

Looking back, Warren and his colleagues spent “a lot of time thinking and talking about their membership tiers.” When they finally announced the membership program, their first supporters were diehard City Paper fans — readers that, as Warren put it, “probably would have given to us under any conditions or circumstances.”

Many alt-weeklies, with deep connections to their communities and unique points of view, have similarly loyal fanbases.

Jones admitted that it can be scary to create a membership program and ask readers for money, but she encourages her peers to do it all the same. In addition to providing a helpful source of revenue, she appreciates how validating it can be to hear from members.

“When I interact with members, I feel like I have more of a connection with them,” Jones said. Whereas she would previously hear from readers how much they loved City Paper at events they hosted, today she gets “to have those conversations every day.”

“Whatever your anxieties are about starting a membership program, I don’t think they should prevent you from trying it,” Warren added. One worst-case scenario, he said, is that a newsroom wouldn’t make much money from it. Another scenario is that “it becomes too successful and you have to incorporate it more into your workflow. But that’s a very nice problem to have.”

Perhaps Luu said it best: “If you haven’t decided yet that audience revenues should be a part of your revenue mix, then I honestly don’t know what you’re waiting for.”

Case Studies

More Case Studies