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 2019. We will publish our findings here throughout the year. Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates directly.
What will the project do?
collect what's already known about making membership work in the U.S., by seeking out the people who have deep experience with membership models and asking about best practices.
research all the ways that readers can contribute, not just their money, but their knowledge and expertise.
synthesize the key membership lessons learned by De Correspondent in the Netherlands, and make them available to American journalism.
With this knowledge, help De Correspondent launch a U.S. edition in the near future.
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.
De Correspondent is a Dutch news organization optimized for trust. Their membership model is working extremely well in the Netherlands. De Correspondent has over 56,000 members paying either 60 euros a year (about $65) or 6 euros a month ($6.50). Members follow 21 full-time 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 asking for help. De Correspondent is transparent about its budget and growth, and bills itself as an “antidote to the daily news grind.” De Correspondent aims to launch a U.S. edition in the near future: The Correspondent.
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.
First Look Media is defined by its bold, independent spirit – from journalism that holds the powerful accountable, to art and entertainment that shape our culture. Launched by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, First Look Media is built on the belief that freedom of expression and of the press, diverse voices, and fiercely independent perspectives, are vital to a healthy democracy and a vibrant culture.
How can I help?
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 or would like to support this work with a donation, please let us know.
We’ll regularly send updates about new findings. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay in the loop.