The top problem facing public service journalism has been the same for over a decade: the collapse of outmoded business models and the search for a sustainable path. At first it seemed that as readers moved online and the news went digital, the ad dollars would follow. Now we see that the big digital platforms – Facebook and Google – are capturing most of that money, because they own the data that allows for better targeting. Clickbait, ad blocking, invasive tracking, and fake news only add to the misery – and all take their toll on reader trust.
So where is the sustainable path? It seems increasingly likely that readers who value a public service press are going to have to sustain it themselves – by contributing money, sharing knowledge, and spreading the word. A good term for this is membership. But membership won't work if it's just begging for cash. There has to be a social contract between journalists and members. Working out what that contract should say is the core challenge of the Membership Puzzle Project.
This is a public research project that runs from May 2017 until May 2020. We will publish our findings here throughout the year. Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates directly.
What does the project do?
The Membership Puzzle Project:
Collects what's already known about making membership work by seeking out the people who have deep experience with membership models (including members themselves).
Researches all the ways that community members can contribute, not just their money, but their knowledge and expertise.
Funds innovative membership models that are being tested at news sites as part of a global experiment to identify best practices for sustaining independent journalism in the 21st century.
Synthesizes the key membership lessons learned by journalism organizations around the world.
Who are the founders?
The Membership Puzzle Project is founded by NYU professor Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 program and De Correspondent.
Professor Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 is a digital first graduate program (MA) at New York University with a focus on innovation and adapting journalism to the technology we use today. The curriculum emphasizes project-based learning. Students, faculty, and visiting talent work on editorial and web development projects together – such as the Membership Puzzle Project.
The Correspondent will be an English language platform for unbreaking news and will launch on September 30, 2019. It is created by De Correspondent, a member-funded Dutch news organization. Members follow correspondents who have self-defined beats or obsessions, varying from climate change to the future of education. Correspondents bring readers into the journalism process by sharing what they are reporting on and involving their knowledge during their reporting.
Who are the funders?
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. It invests in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. The goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.
Democracy Fund is a bipartisan foundation that invests in organizations working to ensure our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Today, modern challenges – such as hyper partisanship, money in politics, and struggling media – threaten the health of American democracy. Democracy Fund invests in change makers who advocate for solutions that can bring lasting improvements to our political system and build bridges that help people come together to serve our nation.
Luminate is a global philanthropic organisation focused on empowering people and institutions to work together to build just and fair societies. It was established in 2018 by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. Luminate works with its investees and partners to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in, and shape, the issues affecting their societies, and to make
government, corporations, media, and those in positions of power more responsive and more accountable. Luminate does this by funding and supporting innovative and courageous organisations and entrepreneurs around the world, and by advocating for the policies and actions that will drive change across four impact areas: Civic Empowerment, Data & Digital Rights, Financial Transparency, and Independent Media. Luminate was previously the Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative at Omidyar Network and is now part of The Omidyar Group. To date it has supported 236 organisations in 18 countries with $314 million in funding.
Recently asked questions
Recently people who use our work — or support that work — had questions for us about the Membership Puzzle Project’s connection to decorrespondent.nl and to its English-language extension, The Correspondent. Last updated May 10, 2019
What is the exact relationship between The Correspondent in Amsterdam and the Membership Puzzle Project in New York at NYU? The Correspondent is an institutional co-founder of the Project, along with @Studio20NYU, a graduate program at New York University focused on innovation in journalism, which Jay Rosen directs.
Who funds the Membership Puzzle Project? Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund are the original funders. In 2018, they were joined by Luminate, a third funder. The Correspondent provides no funding to MPP, and MPP doesn’t fund The Correspondent. Checks for the project go from the foundations to NYU, which runs the grant that supports the research. NYU professor Jay Rosen is project director. He has what a professional newsroom would call editorial control.
Has anything about that relationship changed now that The Correspondent’s crowdfunding campaign is over? Yes. After two years of research, we have many more examples of member-driven and member-supported newsrooms. This is a growing field, into which The Correspondent fits as one (rocky) example. There are hundreds more. The explosion of interest in membership programs as one possible way to a sustainable path in journalism has given MPP more “customers” for its research (which is free and open source) and many more cases to examine.
Membership trials and membership errors have greatly expanded since De Correspondent launched in 2013. Today there is a whole ecosystem of sites learning from other sites, with projects like ours trying to keep track of it all and, when possible, assist. It’s an exciting time.
Membership as a sustainable path in journalism does not depend on the fortunes of any one company or campaign. It’s becoming a professional practice. MPP’s research is pitched to that practice, and to the wider ecosystem of membership tries.
How much of the research agenda is driven by The Correspondent? Zero. Jay Rosen as project director has complete editorial control of the Membership Puzzle Project, and our research director, Emily Goligoski, sets the research agenda, often informed by questions others in the industry bring to us.
Does The Correspondent suggest topics? No, but we sometimes collaborate in our research. At present we are collecting examples of routine ways newsrooms can involve their members in journalism and knowledge collection. De Correspondent has a lot of experience with that, so we are studying them, as well as others.
How do the two missions — MPP’s research mission and The Correspondent’s mission as a start-up — align or diverge? MPP produces new knowledge and useful advice for the entire ecosystem of member-supported news sites. As a public interest research project, we support a plurality of approaches to membership in news. The Correspondent is one participant in that wider field, trying to make it work. Many of the sites showing progress with membership have been inspired by what De Correspondent has been able to do in the Netherlands.
Public radio proved a long time ago that you could use a broadcast signal to sustain a membership that supported your local station. De Correspondent showed you could use the internet to sustain a membership that supports a newsroom of full-time correspondents working in partnership with members. That is how it inspired others.
Would the Membership Puzzle Project live on if somehow The Correspondent came to an end? MPP would have plenty to do if in some publishing future The Correspondent ceased operations. We do not expect that to happen. But it would not change the status of MPP as a grant-funded research project at NYU.
And what about vice versa? We do not expect MPP to last indefinitely. With our funders we designed it as an intervention— a moment in journalism when membership needed a research and development boost. So if The Correspondent in English is successful, it will live on after MPP has come to its planned end in May 2020.
What is the exact legal and contractual nature of the relationship between MPP and De Correspondent? There isn’t one. Just open consultations about what the other is doing, and some co-branding on the website.
Why do The Correspondent and Membership Puzzle Project’s aesthetics so closely resemble each other? Do they do your web design? MPP has contracted the Dutch design agency Momkai to design our digital and print assets. We pay them for this work. The Correspondent is also a Momkai client and they share a co-founder.
How can I be involved? We will need all the help we can get in documenting successful membership strategies. You can share your experiences in our comments section or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have special expertise that would benefit this project, please let us know.
We regularly send updates about new findings. Subscribe to our newsletter below to stay in the loop.