What can newsrooms learn from churches? More than a month in, the Membership Puzzle Project is asking big questions

At the turn of the century, newspaper executives didn't need to innovate to keep the cash flowing. Google was still a fledgling company, Facebook hadn't been founded yet, and profits remained strong and steady.

Now that the traditional business model for legacy media has been gutted, New York University professor Jay Rosen says newsrooms need to look across different institutions to figure out a way forward. For example: Churches, orchestras, activist organizations — all groups that have managed to build and keep devoted, paying followings.

"In the news industry, it's very common for managers, when confronted with something different, to say: 'Who else is doing this?'" Rosen said. "But what they mean by 'who else is doing this' is, 'who else in news?' And, more specifically, 'who else in our category?'...They tend to look horizontally at their own kind."

That's one of the strategies behind the Membership Puzzle Project, a new initiative from Rosen's Studio 20 program at New York University and de Correspondent, a member-funded journalism platform in the Netherlands.

With funding from the Knight Foundation*, Democracy Fund and First Look Media, the Membership Puzzle Project aims to chart a sustainable course for news in part by applying the lessons in membership from de Correspondent to other newsrooms and researching what makes membership programs successful.

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Since announcing the project at the end of March, Rosen has hired a research director and visited de Correspondent HQ in Amsterdam. We caught up with Rosen to figure out what he's learned about membership since the project began, and where it's going next.

So, how goes the project?

Well, I'm enjoying it because I'm working on a startup, in a way. I'm learning a lot about de Correspondent and what makes it tick and the culture there.

And with the help of Emily Goligoski, who is our research director, we're starting to get a handle on the membership landscape in the U.S. I think we're just at the beginning of that work.

At the outset of the project, you published a piece in which you outlined the goals of the program. In it, you used de Correspondent as an example of an organization that does membership right.

It sounds like you believe this is a business model that holds a lot of promise for news organizations — if they can get it right.

The fact that they succeeded — they're not only sustainable in the Netherlands, but growing — is a very promising fact. That's why we want to bring the lessons of that experience to the U.S. We're still learning what the differences in culture and market and competition might be. But I still think it's a very promising model.

So, what have you learned so far?

One of the things I've learned is that de Correspondent has, in a three-year period, created a very strong internal culture. It's a very fun place to work. The people are all on the same page.

They don't have a lot of cynicism about their organization the way a lot of journalists do at metro newspapers. And they have leadership that's very much respected. The principles of connecting with members and engaging with people as knowledgeable readers and the idea that everyone's an expert in something are principles that the correspondents really do embrace, for the most part.

There's a few dissenters and a few doubters. But for the most part, the people who are the correspondents at de Correspondent are learning that this kind of engagement is very useful and helps them do a better job. And they're enthusiastic about improving it.

There's three contracts that make de Correspondent go. There's the contract between the site and its members, between the editors and the correspondents and then there's a contract between the correspondents and their followers.

The next thing we're going to do in July is, Emily and I are going to Amsterdam for a week, and we're going to talk to de Correspondent's members. And we're going to find out what their motivations are. How do they see this contract? I think that will be really instructive.

How do you think this knowledge can be applied to United States organizations?

A lot of membership programs in the U.S. focus on donation. They focus on readers giving money to support the site. That's good. That's necessary. But the membership program tends to be a separate department from the newsroom completely. And it's almost like the recreation of the business side, or a church-and-state model.

And I understand the reasons for that. But that limits the potential of membership. Because when it's when people are engaged with journalism and they feel a part of it, that the strongest bond is created between members and journalists. So we're trying to figure out: How do we introduce a more muscular notion of membership than simply, "Donate money to support this site?" That has become our headlight observation.

Meanwhile, we're trying to assemble a fairly comprehensive spreadsheet of all the sites that have membership as part of their model. We've got some paid researchers that are helping us define that universe and begin to gather information about these sites. The next step after we have the database fairly complete is, we're going to try to create a typology of different kinds of membership strategies.

What do you mean?

Well, we don't know how many types we'll find. But it'll be a limited number. We'll try to give them names. We're also beginning to figure out which membership models beyond news we want to look at for inspiration. We want to think about other kind of organizations that have membership programs. Because membership is pretty common — especially in the United States, with our strong tradition of voluntary associations and philanthropy.

So, you know, you had membership models in orchestras and cultural institutions. Activism, of course, and religion. I think churches might be a very interesting one to look at. We're trying to figure out which other forms of membership might hold interest for news.

Why do you think news organizations have been slow to adopt the lessons of those other membership organizations that you mentioned?

In the news industry, it's very common for managers, when confronted with something different, to say: "Who else is doing this?" But what they mean by "who else is doing this" is, "who else in news?" And, more specifically, "who else in our category? What other big-city newspaper," or, "what other public radio station?"

They tend to look horizontally at their own kind. And it is just not a common tradition to look beyond their own industry, to do this. But it's partly because, for a very long time, the news industry was pretty stable and a pretty reliable generator of profit. And it takes a long time to get over the habits that arise from that.

Right. Why would they look elsewhere? They were doing just fine.

When you can do the same thing you did last year and make a 25 percent profit, you don't ask, "What are other industries doing?" Other industries would love to be making a 25 percent profit. That was literally the case in daily newspapers and in local news for quite awhile.

Are there any other lessons that folks in the U.S. could learn from de Correspondent?

I'm very interested in the beat-writer-plus-knowledge-community-model. And I think that's something that more news organizations here could experiment with. I think it goes very well with membership models.

What is that?

Correspondents at de Correspondent in the Netherlands, they all have sustained reporting projects. As I wrote in my original piece, they are required to do weekly emails that explain what they're working on and the knowledge needs they have.

They ask for help from the membership. And so they're constantly drawing information — knowledge, tips, contacts, links — from the members. That's just basic to how they do their jobs. They treat the members not just as financial supporters, but as a knowledge community.

If you do that, don't you run the risk of tipping other news organizations to your story ideas?

Did anyone steal David Fahrenthold's story?

That's a good point. And part of that is, you have to be working on something that's not commodity news.

That's right. And that's also part of their model — they're not working on commodity news. And if you find something that is a revalation that nobody else knows while you're doing your project, it's not that you have to spill the beans before you're ready.

It isn't a dumb policy. It's a smart policy. There can be exceptions. There can be back-channel communications with writers who are with sources. But I think that this fear — someone's going to steal my story — has held back what I would call networked beat reporting for more than 20 years. And it isn't necessesary.

So, what are the next steps after you meet with de Correspondent's members?

We're writing about what we're learning at the Membership Puzzle Project site, which is membershippuzzle.org.

And we'll be putting together some products — we're not exactly sure what they are, yet — it could be guides, it could be white papers, but it also could be products that help journalists here benefit from what is being learned about membership. We have a very open attitude right now about what those products could be, but we're certainly going to share what we know.

It's not proprietary. We also hope to work with, in some way of another, organizations that want to experiment with some of the things that de Correspondent has been learning. And I'm already talking to some about doing that. And so, that would also be knowledge transfer. Not a white paper, but an experiment.

Editor's note: The Knight Foundation also funds Poynter's coverage of local news.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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