While I'm generally not one to make predictions, it's only a matter of time. The relentless march toward digitizing and monetizing our casual reading and news delivery is unmistakable. One day, the King County Bar Association's Bar Bulletin will go digital!
For a certain generation of lawyers, and during a certain time in our bar association's history, becoming a member of the county bar association was just something one automatically did after admission to the Washington State Bar Association. With county bar association membership, one developed relationships with local lawyers, learned from seasoned practitioners and just kept up with news in the bar. And of course, with membership, one received the Bar Bulletin, a monthly update on the local legal market.
But that sense of obligation and belonging has long since changed, as one might deduce from examining the Washington State Bar Association's recent member survey. If one thing stood out in the WSBA survey, it was that in the next 10 to 15 years a significant number of lawyers will transition out of the profession. This in turn will fundamentally change not only legal service delivery, but also bar association service delivery.
As the demographics of our profession change, voluntary county bar associations are struggling to maintain, much less grow, their membership rolls. The need to understand how to appeal to the new generation of lawyers is paramount.
For some county bar association leaders, the phenomenal growth of and competition from affinity/specialty bar groups is the challenge. I see it as the opportunity. Judging from this growth alone, younger bar members are disinclined to join their county bar association and more inclined to join smaller, affinity/specialty bar groups for networking and information gathering purposes. These same lawyers are already reading news from a variety of sources on smart phones, laptops and tablet computers, instead of newsprint.
In short, what was once the driving force behind becoming a member of one's local county bar association - camaraderie and news gathering - is no longer the essential reason for becoming a member. This, of course, begs several questions. Assuming the financial pressures on county bar associations continue, how will bar associations, like KCBA, develop alternate revenue streams in order to sustain their programs? And, how should county bar associations evolve to become more relevant to their membership? The two questions, for me, are intertwined.
From my vantage point as the average lawyer in our region (i.e., 48 years old, 17 years out of law school with a graduation date of 1995 - according to the WSBA membership survey), the answers to the above questions are found in understanding the needs of the largest growth sector in our bar association, while not losing sight of the overall needs of the membership. If the Bar Bulletin could become the local connector for the growth sector of our bar, the Bar Bulletin's readership (and therefore KCBA membership) would naturally increase and those who wish to advertise would likely do so more often. This would increase revenue and help sustain KCBA.
In short, besides revenue generated from membership dues, continued legal education seminars and lawyer referral programs, the most obvious opportunity for revenue growth is the Bar Bulletin itself. By decreasing the cost of production in moving from a print to digital format, and by increasing the revenue opportunities through various advertisement and subscription models attracted by new approaches to content management, the Bar Bulletin is the next best opportunity for KCBA to grow revenue in the future.
Of course, conversion from print to digital is not just about maximizing revenue potential. It's also about maintaining relevance and appeal to the membership. In other words, once the conversion has occurred, it is my belief that the Bar Bulletin has to increase its topical relevance, for example, by regularly including columns from the various affinity/specialty bar groups, in order to expand the membership's interest in reading it.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's conversion from print to an online-only operation is instructive in this regard. When the Post-Intelligencer cancelled its print edition in 2009 after 146 years, it became the largest American newspaper to fully embrace the digital age. It did so after several consecutive years of financial losses, including losing a record $14 million in 2008 alone. Ultimately, the P-I was forced to discontinue its print edition after The Seattle Times ended a joint operating agreement between it and the P-I.
For the P-I, whose principal sources of revenue (e.g., subscriptions and advertisements) were arguably not as "diversified" as KCBA's (e.g., membership dues, continued legal education seminars and lawyer referral fees), a sustained reduction in the P-I's two revenue sources forced a radical change in order for the paper to survive. After its conversion to an online-only operation, and as of 2012, the P-I had an estimated 3 million unique visitors and more than 210,000 visitors per day. By most accounts, the P-I successfully reinvented itself and found a way to remain relevant.
Now, for those who are wondering about my comparison between the P-I and KCBA's Bar Bulletin, there are a lot of reasons to quickly say that it's like comparing apples to oranges. Certainly, the Bar Bulletin is not a regional or national paper. It is not an independent business in itself. If anything, the Bar Bulletin is our association's essential member benefit. And finally, one cannot say that KCBA is laboring under similar catastrophic annual losses suffered by the P-I.
Nonetheless, for a number of years now, KCBA has repeatedly tightened its financial belt, while wondering from which direction financial relief will come. Those who are familiar with the inner workings of the bar have expressed surprise when told that KCBA's essential member benefit earns little to no money for the association. How can that be, one might ask? Well, the answer is simple. The outside vendor, Rotary Press (a subsidiary of the Times), which publishes the Bar Bulletin, does so at no cost to KCBA in exchange for keeping the advertising revenue.
For smaller membership organizations, such an agreement is typical with publishing companies. For organizations the size of KCBA and larger, management of advertising revenue, publication and mailing are generally handled in-house. The reason for this is also simple. It provides the organization with another reliable stream of revenue that will help sustain operations.
As a result, after much contemplation, KCBA has taken what it believes will be the first step toward creating an additional stable revenue stream to sustain operations, one which will enable it to move more deliberately toward the digital media age. Starting with the March issue, the Bar Bulletin will move from being published by Rotary Press to a KCBA-managed production. The transition should be seamless for members, with the Bar Bulletin arriving as it has in the past in its newsprint form, as well as appearing on the KCBA website.
The only difference is this. By moving from outside vendor production to KCBA-managed production, KCBA will retain the much-needed advertising revenue stream to support the association's programs. As KCBA becomes more proficient at managing the production, the revenue generated should then allow it to make the investments necessary to take the next step in producing a digital-only version of the Bar Bulletin.
This transition certainly has its challenges. But the opportunities presented by this decision are significant. I, for one, am looking forward to reading the first fully digital edition of the Bar Bulletin.