For more on the new plan, read our publisher John Derr’s case for the Local.

by Pete Mazzaccaro

On Jan. 1, the Chestnut Hill Community Association and the Chestnut Hill Local will introduce a new program for membership to the association and subscription to the newspaper. That plan includes a rewards program called “Passport to the Chestnut Hill Experience,” which is worth more than $1,000 in benefits through specific discounts at neighborhood businesses and institutions.

The Passport book, which will be included in every membership, is loaded with offers. From buy one-get-one tickets to the Woodmere Art Museum, to no-purchase-is-necessary free Schmitters – the McNally’s-made sandwich that has become Chestnut Hill’s most famous export – there are 74 discounts and freebies of which members can take advantage.

The new plan will see CHCA membership dues increase from $50 annually to $95. Members who renew will pay $75 next year and $95 the following year. All memberships will continue to include a subscription to the Local. Local subscriptions for non-members will increase from $32 to $55 annually. The newsstand price for a single issue will increase from $1 to $2. Subscriptions do not include the passport.

The passport plan was developed by the CHCA and Local in response to an analysis by Chestnut Hill Local publisher John Derr that revealed the CHCA’s payments to the Local for member subscriptions didn’t even cover the cost of mailing the paper to members. For every $50 paid to the CHCA for membership, $20 was paid to the Local to cover a subscription. While the Local maintains a subscriber base independent of the CHCA, membership in the CHCA has always included a subscription to the paper. The CHCA founded and still owns the Local.

Derr said he found that it cost $37 to mail papers to subscribers and members in Philadelphia County and $47 for those outside the county. And those figures, he said, were generated before a redesign of the paper in April increased it from two sections to three, making the mailing price even greater. Derr said that CHCA director Anne McNiff had been urging the CHCA to improve its membership value. The two began to develop the passport over the past year.

“We have probably talked about the passport or something like it for a year,” Derr said. But, over the past seven or eight months is when the plan really took shape. This has been a truly joint effort between the CHCA and Local staffs and boards. A lot of work went into talking to local businesses and explaining the passport to them. [Local staffer] Cindy Benzing did a great job on that end.”

CHCA president Laura Lucas said she supports the new initiative and thinks the passport will be the right vehicle to grow membership.

“We also looked at what value we could add to the membership in addition to the community events, activities, and stewardship already provided by the CHCA that would appeal to new, renewing, or lapsed members,” she said. “Working in partnership with the Local, the passport idea, a ‘value-added benefit’ that would have things of interest to all ages and demographics in Chestnut Hill, developed into a plan to increase membership that would benefit both the CHCA and the Local.”

The Local, like most newspapers in the country, has faced numerous financial challenges as advertising revenue and circulation has steadily declined. While the Local has seen advertising revenue increase over the last year, circulation has continued to drop an average of 4.41% a year for the past decade. The Local currently distributes on average less than 4,000 papers to subscribers, CHCA members and newsstand points of sale. Members account for just under 50% of all readers. Overall circulation has dropped nearly 30% since 2009.

“Newspapers, in general, have suffered greatly in the past decade,” Derr said. “Much of that, I believe, is because there is a ‘follow the leader’ mentality in the industry, even if they are being led off the cliff.  It’s hard for me to say why the Local has struggled over the past 10 years because I wasn’t here.  But I don’t see that the Local did anything different than the industry, and so I don’t think one can expect any different results than what the entire industry was getting, which was declining circulation and declining advertising revenue.”

The new membership plan, which follows a redesign of the paper earlier this year, is part of a plan to improve the Local’s fortunes.

“What we need to do is make the Local as interesting and useful as it can possibly be each and every week in paper and online,” Derr said, “which will help us to grow our subscriber base which will help us get our advertisers better results which will help us have the resources to make the Local more interesting and useful, and so on, and move further and further away from that cliff.

Derr said he believes the new membership initiative with the aid of the passport plan will help give the Local the resources it needs to counter those declines by giving the paper the money it needs to further improve the product and market it better.

“The increased allocation for each membership could add about $20,000 and will at least help us to break even on the production and mailing of the paper or to pay health insurance premiums that increased 48% over last year,” he said. “The real key is growing membership which grows our subscriber base, which means additional revenue for us and also more readers to act on advertisements from local businesses. The additional revenue will help us gain the resources we need to grow. It will help us make the Local a more attractive product for readers and advertisers.”

The membership plan and passport, however, does not address only the decline in newspaper revenue. The CHCA has also seen its membership numbers decline in recent years. Membership has declined by more than 12 percent between 2018 and 2019, falling from approximately 1,400 members to just over 1,200.

Lucas said she’s hopeful the new membership program will help boost those numbers and give the association the funds it needs to improve.

“As with any membership organization, it is imperative that that the organization continues to grow and attract new members so that the community’s diverse and extensive voices continue to be heard,” she said. “Membership fees are an important part of keeping the community association fiscally sustainable. In order to continue our mission to improve the quality of life and encourage a sense of community, it is necessary to increase membership fees for the first time in nearly 12 years.”

Moreover, Lucas said she and others in the CHCA and Local are excited for the plan.

“You can feel the energy and excitement from both the Chestnut Hill Community Association and the Local about our new Passport program and rollout,” she said. “A lot of careful study and planning went into discovering what residents, businesses and institutions wanted from their association with living, working and enjoyment of Chestnut Hill. We think the new CHCA passport program will hit on all those points and offer a year-long connection to discovering or rediscovering what makes Chestnut Hill so unique and special. We believe the new passport program fosters a sense of community, whether you’ve lived here for a long time or are just discovering what makes Chestnut Hill special. The CHCA passport opens the door to rewards, local events and new experiences.”

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