This is part of a series about Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge winners in North America and how they’re putting funding to work developing sustainable business models, diversifying revenue streams, and increasing audience engagement. Watch the webinar from Wednesday, Nov. 18, which explores lessons from three TV broadcasters all innovating to connect with new and diverse audiences. Join us Dec. 9 to see how 3 local news organizations – Lookout Local, The Beacon, and Bay Area News Group – are innovating to build experiences that yield consumer revenue.

By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

Graham Media Group is out to prove that membership is also a viable business path for broadcast media, and early returns appear promising.

Television news stations in San Antonio, Detroit and Jacksonville are already testing Graham Media’s Membership for Broadcast Project, which received grant funding last year as part of the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge. The tests have gone so well that Graham Media’s Houston-based TV station recently started its own membership initiative.

“What membership does is bring strategy and discipline to a lot of the things we’re already doing,” said Catherine Badalamente, Graham Media vice president and chief innovation officer.

The project aims to deepen the relationship that TV news already has with its broadcast viewers by making it more one-to-one.

Catherine Badalamente

“We still have the loudest megaphone in town, and broadcast is at the top of our audience funnel,” Badalamente said. “We want to drive that audience down the funnel to become highly engaged online users, too.”

The goal is to diversify revenue while broadcast media still has a consumer stronghold on the marketplace. Membership helps convert those loyal TV viewers into daily online readers, who are particularly valuable, according to Badalamente.

Graham Media’s most-loyal online audience — people who visit the website at least three times per week — only make up 15% of all users but represent 60% of total revenue, she said. That is why Graham now tracks these highly-engaged users, or HEUs, to differentiate return readers from one-and-done visitors.

These HEUs are also prime candidates to become early members of Graham Media’s newest programs. As part of the GNI grant, Graham Media created a consumer data platform using the Arc Publishing platform to better track this loyal audience and other key metrics that indicate audience loyalty.

The project has had a pleasant side-effect of breaking down barriers between the broadcast and online operations within the company — as both sides unite around ways to convert loyal evening news viewers into online readers.

“This takes out the adversarial relationship and really creates value for both sides,” said Dustin Block, audience development lead for Graham Media.

Block said participating stations have been shocked to learn how insignificant the audience for a so-called viral content can be.

“As soon as you start to show them the reality, it’s hard for them to wrap their brains around the fact that we have that many people who come to a story and then never come back to the site,” he said. “The TV mindset is that we have loyal 11 p.m. watchers, but that’s not exactly how digital works.”

That data further motivated test markets to experiment with free membership options, and they are already tracking early success. The San Antonio station focused its pre-pandemic efforts on events that members could attend.

“They created an entire events division at the station, and then, of course, the pandemic hit and they’ve had to pivot,” Badalamente said.

Detroit, on the other hand, created a morning newsletter for its members, and Jacksonville started hosting exclusive Q&A sessions with staff. Those efforts helped drive up membership numbers 50% in Detroit and 25%-30% in Jacksonville since the pandemic started, Block said.


“So we fully expect this idea of audience development to be foundational — but I think every station is going to build on their strengths, and they should,” he said.

The next step, Badalamente said, is to find out what paid membership could look like for broadcast media networks. For example, the Jacksonville market recently charged for a virtual event to see what response it might draw. And in Houston, early efforts involve pairing the station’s lifestyle show with a wine club to host premium events and private tastings.

This effort to charge for exclusive access is more likely to scale as Graham Media expands its membership experiments.

“I don’t see us ever putting our content behind a paywall,” Badalamente said.