Membership doesn't just have to be a transaction. It can be meaningful.

The conversation so far

This is our first week talking about membership programs. Last month, we talked about what it takes to keep journalists in local newsrooms. Next month we'll talk about how to scale big ideas down to fit your newsroom and resources. 

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

When Emily Goligoski was 12, she created a family newsletter. It was called Gollie's Follies. And she charged for it.

“I didn’t get the pricing right,” she said, “so it was more expensive to subscribe than it was to buy per issue.”

Since then, Goligoski has spent a good part of her career thinking about membership, including at The New York Times and now as research director at The Membership Puzzle Project.

In every edition so far, we’ve heard from local journalists about our monthly topic. But to start off this conversation on membership, we’re starting with Goligoski because The Membership Puzzle Project’s work around what makes people support news organizations gets way past membership drives and into what it takes to create successful programs that support newsrooms through money and more.

Since she started studying memberships, Goligoski said, the biggest change for her has been this understanding that it isn’t just about a transaction.

“Subscriptions and donations are great ways for lots of organizations to make money, and we appreciate that,” she said.

But they’re also finding newsrooms where people want to give money, time, ideas and experience. Here are some quick takeaways:

What it isn’t

First, let’s start with an important distinction that Jay Rosen highlighted last year: Membership isn’t subscriptions.

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

What it is

Not all membership programs are the same. They exist, instead, on a scale that goes from thin, or lean, to thick. Most of what we see now are thin models, Goligoski said. Users pay money to support the work and move on. That’s not bad, she said.

“It’s just that we’re really excited about places that go well beyond that and foster more robust sense of belonging.”

Some examples:

MinnPost has trained members to be content moderators.

What The Fuck Just Happened Today members are grammar police, volunteer video editors and podcast producers.

In the Netherlands, De Correspondent members offer feedback and proofreading.

Members of ProPublica share professional expertise.

La Nacion in Argentina has trained subscribers to be fact-checkers.

In Scotland, The Ferrett has community engagement events around education, helping the community better understand the news. Those events are now standing-room only, Goligoski said.

“We very often talk about membership not just being a campaign.”

How could you do it?

If you’re considering membership but aren’t sure where to start, Goligoski recommends starting by gathering supporters, people who used to be supporters and people who might be and asking them what it would look like to participate with you.

“They are the ones who can help decide what kind of benefit you can offer, if any, what ways to tap their knowledge and what appropriate prices are.”

Consider membership at the beat level. Membership Puzzle Project is trying this now with “Join the Beat,” a project that’s testing how people might support individual reporters.

Tap your audience to help you test products, Goligoski said. Reveal has done this through emails that share early ideas and ask for what’s working, what isn’t, measure user experiences and test products before a launch.

Chicago’s City Bureau tried a version of this with its membership platform, sharing a live prototype and asking for feedback and ideas.

But watch out for this

Membership programs need buy-in at all levels, Goligoski said. It’s not just for marketing.

Also, it’s not a switch you can flip and fix finances instantly.

“We very often see one to five years as what it takes to have some sort of meaningful return on investment of time and energy,” Goligoski said. “Patience is sort of the name of the game there.”

And you have to listen. Actively. Membership Puzzle Project’s research has found that members care about that. You’re not giving them editorial control, Goligoski said. But you’re talking with them, listening to them and working to understand what you can make better.

Membership Puzzle Project has a few databases open for contribution, and if you know of places with membership programs that they should know about, let her know.

Next week, I’m going to try to get your questions about membership answered. So, what do you want to know? Let me know!

In the meantime, today is the deadline to sign up for the Carter Center’s mental health journalism fellowships. Nieman Lab is hiring and has this great read on membership at the local online level. And this upcoming online seminar from Poynter has a great title: How Your News Organization Can Compete in the Digital Age — Finally.

See you next week!

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