December 5, 2017

Both last year and this one, Jay Rosen has watched a realization ripple across the media: Digital advertising alone isn’t going to support strong newsrooms.

“It would have been possible to come to that conclusion much earlier, and some did,” said Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University.

As Google and Facebook continue gobbling up digital ad dollars, and as those dollars fail to replace print ones fast enough, some other approaches have bubbled up. There are paywalls. There’s non-profit support. And there’s membership.

It’s the last one that Rosen and Emily Goligoski have spent the past six months studying with the Membership Puzzle Project.

Here’s what they’ve figured out so far.

Subscription = pay money. Membership = join the cause

Membership Puzzle Project didn’t start as a kind of science fair project with a theory to prove or disprove. It started because Rosen had been following a news site that was thriving off a membership model.

The Correspondent, based in the Netherlands, raised $1.7 million from 20,000 supporters, according to its site, and now has 60,000 members and zero ads.

When Rosen learned that the online publication wanted to expand to the U.S., he saw an opportunity. He proposed that NYU and his graduate program, Studio 20, partner with the site to help introduce them to the U.S. and work on an expansion plan. He also wanted to bring the lessons of what’s working there here.

With funding from the Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund and First Look Media, Membership Puzzle Project launched and hired Goligoski, previously at The New York Times, as research director. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation funds my coverage of local news innovation.)

The goals include understanding different types of membership models and bringing the lessons of The Correspondent to the U.S.

From the start, Rosen drew a distinction between subscriptions and memberships.

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

In October, the project published a database of what they’ve discovered, including different approaches from around the world. They’re still adding to it.

Here’s how Rosen thinks of what they’ve found: Membership programs exist on a continuum from thin to thick.

“Thinner models are just basically – donate your money and that’s all we need from you, versus  thick models where you do support the site with money, but there are also other forms of participation,” he said.

Those other forms include events, advisory groups and being part of distributing the work itself.

The project also researched members themselves to understand their motivations for supporting news sites. They spent time in Amsterdam with members of The Correspondent, time in Austin with members of the Texas Tribune and they’re talking with other sites now about interviewing their members.

“One of biggest discoveries is that members don’t want a gate around the journalism they’re supporting,” Rosen said. “Part of the reason that members of The Correspondent in the Netherlands support it is that they want others in Dutch society to have this journalism available to them, even those who are not members.”

That’s obviously different than exclusive or high-priced subscriptions, where part of the value, Rosen said, is you have something others don’t.

The Correspondent does have exclusivities, including that only members can comment.

“But we find that in strong membership sites, the availability of the journalism to the public at large is part of why people are members.”

Feels and needs

News organizations need a professional community to understand how membership programs can best work, said Goligoski. They want confidence that memberships will put them on solid financial ground. They want a great product. And they need for membership to be a company-wide value, not just something for the business side to worry about.

Members need news organizations to make good use of their unique skills, she said. It’s not just about taking their money, but figuring out what else they have to offer.

Matt Kiser, founder of What the Fuck Just Happened Today, is a great example of this, Goligoski said. A member suggested a podcast and offered to produce it. Kiser also gets help editing from his members.

“People don’t just want to donate,” she said.

They want to see behind the scenes: How do newsrooms decide on what they’ll cover, for instance? Honolulu Civil Beat regularly opens their newsroom up. And they want to see something different than the commodity coverage they see everywhere else, something that helps connect them to where they live.

Starting next year, Membership Puzzle Project has an experiment that builds on all those ideas.

Join the beat

Rosen has been fascinated for a while now with the idea of a networked beat — a reporter with a network of people who can help that reporter cover that beat.

It’s more than just good sourcing.

“With the internet, it can become a genuine network,” Rosen said.

So next year, Membership Puzzle Project is testing the idea of membership out at the beat level with a program called “Join the Beat.”

The project will work with five or six newsrooms to develop an approach. So far, those newsrooms include The Correspondent and The War Horse.

Here’s what he hopes to find out: What kind of tools and workflows are necessary to make a beat like that work? What problems does it bring up? What editorial products can members help make, including maybe a curated reading list?

Another experiment for 2018 is the study of a group of newsrooms from niche to local to national and international that have membership programs. The five that are involved, Goligoski said, are La Diaria in Uruguay, The Correspondent’s U.S. newsroom, Guardian US, Texas Tribune, City Bureau and Chalkbeat.

The Correspondent still has to raise money to expand to the U.S., and Rosen expects that will start in the first half of next year.

There’s a lot more to come to, from studying the traditional public media models for membership to expanding the idea of how members can contribute to figuring out pricing guidance for news sites that want to start membership projects.

In the project’s first six months, there are a lot of pieces out there already. But one thing that’s clear from what the Membership Puzzle Project has pieced together so far — it’s a puzzle a lot of people think is worth solving.

“We really are inspired by the many ways that we see reporters working very closely with members of their audiences,” Goligoski said, “and engaging in richer interactions than maybe we’ve seen in years past.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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