Membership for local news has taken many forms in recent years, largely adopted by nonprofits and startups, while the largest newspaper chains have focused primary on consumer revenue from digital subscriptions.

However, as reader revenue evolves, Hearst Newspapers is betting on membership as the next growth phase. In the last six months, the company has hired staff in Albany and purchased a promotions company to set its teams up for success. The program is devised to be as inclusive as possible and offers members exclusive content, deals and experiences, including from sponsors.

Todd Peterson, director of membership for Hearst Newspapers, is leading this effort and shares more about the company’s interest and efforts to grow membership as part of their business.

Todd Peterson

First, give us an overview of Hearst’s newspaper portfolio today, your role with Hearst and what your team in Albany working on membership looks like.

Hearst Newspapers is the operating group responsible for Hearst’s newspapers, local digital marketing services businesses and directories. With more than 3,000 employees across the nation, Hearst Newspapers publishes 24 dailies and 52 weeklies, including the Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Albany Times Union and San Antonio Express-News. It also operates digital marketing services and directories businesses under the LocalEdge brand.

As head of membership for Hearst Newspapers and VP of consumer marketing in Albany, I’m responsible for the implementation of our member strategy including securing national deals across multiple markets.  The membership program that started in Albany was an incubator designed by my team and sharpened over the last two years.

The program is devised to be as inclusive as possible, requiring as little friction as possible for members to take advantage of exclusive content, deals and experiences. 

What is Hearst’s overall membership strategy? 

The overall strategy is to increase engagement with the individual brands while improving the value proposition of paid memberships. Our ideals are to include content and experiences, highlight our journalism, while including regional business partners that want to get in front of our very dedicated audiences as well as opening up national partnerships.

Membership can be defined in all sorts of ways. How do you define it? 

I don’t know if we have a definition of it, as much as we have an approach to it. Since every market has special attributes and partnerships, our memberships need to accomplish the strategy. It’s very fluid of what is proving to be successful content, and wanted experiences that strengthen the relationship they have with us. Just as the content is so varied, we want the programs to have a lot of variety to make sure there is something for everyone.

What was Hearst’s process to decide what features and benefits to put in front of users? 

We’ve done a lot of surveying before launching and after of what people like. We’re also watching content interaction and deal interaction and modifying from there. Some of it will always have a try-and-see mentality, especially since some of the partners have to decide what they are willing to give our members.

When you look at all of the revenue opportunities out there today, why did Hearst decide to go all-in on membership? 

Changing the business model to memberships is about having more than a subscription. Just as Hearst has diversified across the entirety of our business, this is one part of the Hearst Newspapers diversification. The membership strategy is more than deals. It looks at overall content, and events, and whatever can drive value and engagement.  The consumer side of the business can no longer be a pay-for-print-and-digital strategy. It has to expand and break free of the legacy model.

Who did you look at for guidance in pursuing this model — in or outside the media industry? 

We really looked outside of the media industry as much as possible. We asked what membership or loyalty programs people enjoyed, and then did some extensive research on successes and metrics. Starbucks and Sephora are major brands we looked at that have built immense programs that make their customers feel very special. Those were the stories and companies we were trying to model ourselves after. We want our members to find the pieces that impress them or reward them in different ways.

Peterson will share more on membership, and why Hearst is so bullish about its importance to sustainability, on LMA’s virtual Consumer Revenue Innovation Mission, March 23-25.