August 18, 2021

Nearly five years ago, I heard a simple analogy that changed how I thought about newsrooms, audience and revenue. Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University, put it this way: Subscription models have gates and membership models do not. Those who support membership-powered newsrooms through money, time and expertise want other people to have access to that work — so, no gates.

“Subscription is — you pay your money and you get a product and it’s a product relationship,” Rosen said in 2017. “And membership is — you join the cause because you believe in the work.”

One cause he and many others have believed in since then is membership itself and understanding how it works, if it’s replicable and if it can sustain newsrooms. They explored this through something called the Membership Puzzle Project.

It’s worth pointing out that the newsroom that inspired this all, The Correspondent in the Netherlands, crowdfunded to have a U.S.-based newsroom and then opened a Netherlands-based site to cover the U.S., which it then closed in December 2020.

That saga aside, there are some solid lessons from four years of research and community-building from the Membership Puzzle Project, which will officially close at the end of this month (a move that was always part of its plan).

The first, and probably the easiest to understand, is the distinction between membership and subscription. This matters as more and more newsrooms make the shift from being mostly ad-supported to being mostly customer-supported.

What does that relationship look like?

Paying money and getting access to information works well for a lot of newsrooms, said Ariel Zirulnick, MPP’s fund director. The public radio model of donating works in a lot of places, too.

But MPP found that robust membership includes members who give time, energy and ideas, not just money.

“And I think that is a really key difference there,” she said. “What do you give and what do you get in exchange?”

There’s not one answer.

Which leads to another lesson: Membership will look different depending on the community and the newsroom.

The relationship between a newsroom and its community involves figuring out what people want, offering it, seeing if it’s working, refining it and testing again and again.

“People are incredibly complex and every news organization’s audience has multiple audiences within it,” Zirulnick said. “There’s a lot about the process that can’t be copy and pasted.”

And that leads to a third lesson: The newsrooms that found success in membership were really good at trying. 

“They are constantly bringing in new information and data,” Zirulnick said. “They are always open to receiving feedback and when audience members and members give them feedback, they synthesize it and show how.”

I asked Zirulnick about her hopes for local newsrooms and membership, and she shared a few powerful ones.

 “I hope newsrooms stop copying each other and instead turn to their communities,” she said.

MPP saw the power of this approach particularly in its last year working with newsrooms outside the U.S., where they knew trying what worked here might not work there.

Another: Share your mistakes, not just your successes. Because MPP had to document everything, it created a community that was discovering what worked and what didn’t together.

And one more:

“I think we need to take a step beyond ‘local journalism is good for democracy’ as the value proposition for local news into ‘what is the vision your community has for itself and how is membership to your newsroom one of the steps they can take toward fulfilling that mission?’”

You can check out MPP’s work and Membership Guide, which builds off of projects from newsrooms around the world.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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