Promotional Spotlight Special Edition: Pittsburgh City Paper

Promotional Spotlight Special Edition: Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh City Paper promotes membership program during COVID-19 pandemic

When Pittsburgh City Paper lost more than 50% of the advertising dollars for its Spring Guide in the first week of COVID-19-related social distancing and stay-at-home orders, employees at the publication knew they had to act quickly. “It’s something that a lot of weeklies across the country are already doing,” said Jasmine Blussick-Hughes, advertising director at City Paper. “We knew it was time to get our membership program off the ground.” Blussick-Hughes recognized that while the idea of a membership program wasn’t entirely new, it was new to City Paper, which is what held the team back from launching the program prior to the funding issues related to the COVID-19 crisis.

On March 18, City Paper Editor Lisa Cunningham kicked off the membership program campaign with an article titled, “No news is bad news.” In the article, Cunningham shared her thoughts on the then current state of the city and all things loved by her and her fellow Pittsburghers, and the concern she felt for those businesses and organizations to survive the coming economic hardships related to the shutdown sanctions. Cunningham told readers about the serious financial impact that City Paper was currently, and was likely to continue, experiencing in the coming weeks and months. She implored the readers to consider becoming members of the publication by providing one-time or recurring donations.

The community’s response to the campaign was very positive, and Blussick-Hughes and the City Paper team, while elated with the initial response, are now working to continue the trend. “We have had over 500 new members come on board,” said Blussick-Hughes. “Our donations have ranged from $5 to $1,000 dollars, and total received in the first month was $18,000.” She reported that she and the publication team are working hard to increase that, with good reason.

Blussick-Hughes said that as per the most recent census data for the Pittsburgh region, approximately 20% of the citizens in the area are without consistent or readily available and reliable internet service. “It is incredibly important that we put out a (free) print product for those individuals as well as a digital product,” said Blussick-Hughes. “It is a truly scary realization that if we shut down the print product, it is going to be remarkably difficult to bring it back.” Blussick-Hughes said City Paper constructed membership levels that related to actual hard costs for the publication. For example, the lowest membership level states, “$60 annually, or $5 per month, pays for a single copy of City Paper for the year.” Blussick-Hughes said feedback indicated that readers appreciate that information as it pertains to the use of each donation and how it helps to provide the publication to donors and the community.

The City Paper membership program benefits consist of several “perk products” including photo prints from the City Paper photojournalist, T-shirts and mugs, as well as invitations to join the City Paper team in private events (post COVID-19) and get sneak peek editions of the publication. All of the “perk products” are hand illustrated by City Paper designer Abbie Adams. While Blussick-Hughes reports a strong response to the membership benefits, she also noted that some new members had requested to not receive the “perk products” based on a plea from City Paper contributor Lynn Cullen on one of her recent podcasts. “Lynn spoke candidly to her listeners when she told them about the membership program,” said Blussick-Hughes. “She explained that there are hard costs associated with the ‘perk products’ and she asked them to join and donate with a note that said that they didn’t want them.”

The City Paper team has brought additional exposure to the membership campaign through testimonials from well-known Pennsylvanians and Pittsburghers, and Cunningham was interviewed by Mother Jones recently for an article. In addition, the team has been working on new subscription types, including a discounted six-week quarantine subscription, and has partnered with a local business to create COVID-19 T-shirts and share the proceeds.

In May, City Paper will be printing a cookbook featuring local chefs and celebrities with 50% of the proceeds going to 412 Food Rescue, a local food bank. Blussick-Hughes said the City Paper team is combining its continued effort to drive additional membership with new initiatives for advertising, subscriptions and partnerships to keep abstract revenue coming into the publication. “Every little bit makes a difference,” said Blussick-Hughes. “We are trying new things every week, sometimes every day.”

For additional information, contact Jasmine Blussick-Hughes at 724-288-8035 or