In the early months of the Membership Puzzle Project, we interviewed audience development staff who revealed a distinct desire to connect with other professionals who shared their “bridge role” responsibilities and interest in working closely with their sites’ audience members. We convened the research affiliate program as a testbed for one of the original project goals: to “track what happens when news organizations that participate in the Project's work launch [and grow] membership campaigns.” Seven months and one additional group (for beat reporters) later, we share what’s worked, what we’d change, and how convening people through communities of practice achieves some industry goals--but shouldn’t be the only or default approach to knowledge sharing.
While our team members had led groups before, the research affiliate program was our first foray into convening a community of practice for journalism. We launched the program in 2017 with five sites, City Bureau, De Correspondent, Texas Tribune, Chalkbeat, and La Diaria, to explore the most pressing questions they had about their membership. Participating members have titles including community engagement director, director of membership, product & growth manager, CEO, operations lead, and editorial coordinator.
Our intentions with the research affiliate program were two-fold: to have sites learn from one another as they face challenges at different phases of their membership program iteration, and to have MPP study and share information about what they’re trying. Andrew DeVigal and the Agora Journalism Center launched the excellent forum Gather for community engagement people working in news around the same period that we began the research affiliates group, but at the time there were few free open networks for audience development staff and their editor colleagues to wrestle with these topics. (Note that we didn’t develop this model or come up with it in a vacuum. The Coral Project and Open News communities have been ongoing sources of inspiration to us. We’d also heard positive experiences from people who learned from their peers as part of the News Revenue Hub and Institute for Nonprofit News, among other networks.)
We enlisted Amy Ashida, a School of Visual Arts graduate design student who was compelled by efforts to involve underrepresented voices in news, to coordinate the program. She and research director Emily created a memorandum of understanding document outlining expectations for both MPP and participating sites. (Dear reader: you’re welcome to remix or repurpose the doc!) It explains that, because we knew how many responsibilities membership-accountable staff have, program participation would be limited to five hours of monthly staff time. Program participation would be at no cost to sites and staff were not expected to share visitor data.
Each site worked with us to identify a discrete challenge they would focus on during the program. For example, De Correspondent is asking these questions of themselves and us: How can we bring a “one organization” approach to international expansion? What form(s) of editorial collaboration will best serve our members in different markets?
To make good use of our shared time, we also worked with the affiliate sites to identify the five themes they were most collectively curious about, including growing a membership-focused team culture and setting effective membership pricing models. Over six months the research affiliate community has met once a month via video chat as a group to learn from guests. Amy and Emily also met with each site for one to four hours monthly to strategize on messaging, research, and other ongoing work.
We then used this model to bring together the Join the Beat community of 11 reporters from nine news organizations based in the United States, Canada, Scotland, and the Netherlands. We brought on Melanie Sill, an experienced news leader, who was eager to work with reporters to try to improve the quality and relevance of their journalism through “reporting with” approaches tapping their audience members’ interests and expertise. For this group we hosted a call for applicants through social media and word of mouth, and we asked reporters to write brief pitches about their ideas for reaching existing and potential sources and communities to “join the beat.”
In Join the Beat, each reporter covers a specialized beat or community of interest, including commuting and mobility in Los Angeles (Meghan McCarty, Southern California Public Radio), environment and sustainability (Lauren Kaljur and Alia Dharssi at The Discourse in Canada), and the new face of hate in America (Will Carless and Aaron Sankin at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting). Despite variations in the subject matter and geographic area they cover, reporters share common questions and concerns: how to draw on knowledge and expertise from “members of the beat” while maintaining journalistic independence; how to manage ongoing interactions with members/contributors efficiently, like how to use Google Forms to collect responses to callouts; and how much work they might reasonably ask unpaid members to undertake.
Over the course of dozens of video calls across continents, this is what we’ve found. We’ll keep sharing what we learn and welcome your thoughts on groups you’ve gathered.
The people matter most
Skilled membership practitioners are in demand from news sites large and small. Yet those same organizations are sometimes unable to offer the resources and direction they need to make their programs thrive. From the research affiliates group we see that the field needs more strategic individuals with strong qualitative and quantitative data skills who can work across news organization silos and earn the respect of audience members, reporters, editors, marketers, fundraisers, and customer service staff. (As Lucinda Southern recently wrote for Digiday, “The switch to reader revenue is in full swing, and a talent squeeze is following as publishers hunt for experts in areas like product design, user retention, and data crunching.” We could add a few areas to that list!)
Yet, when they’re in place, membership-responsible staff often juggle multiple priorities and compete internally for resources. Back-to-back fundraising campaigns exhaust them and the community members they’re attempting to reach. No one in our research affiliate program enjoys the support of a membership department (sometimes as part of a deliberate choice to distribute member interactions). Often they split their time between other product, audience development, and editorial projects. This puts the knowledge they’ve gained at risk: both in having the capacity to put it to work and in preventing their turnover as coveted professionals.
Reporters are wrestling with how to reach people who might become “members of the beat.” Reporters in the Join the Beat group are heavily reliant on social media and their own websites for reaching people who might contribute professional experience, personal expertise, and time. Many think the best emerging tool for aggregating a community of interest and potential members is email newsletters. Reporters have taken tips from guest speakers such as Terry Parris Jr., ProPublica’s deputy editor for engagement, who suggested ways to track impact of specific tactics and results: for instance, noting what time of day prompts go out and comparing results, or tracking how prompts or callouts posted to different social networks perform. They also have begun turning to others in the cohort, including Maite Vermuelen and De Correspondent’s advanced member engagement lessons, for advice as they seek ways to structure their interactions with audience and community members to provide the best value for the time invested.
A “paired programming” model can work here. Reporters need partners: during Join the Beat, Reveal’s Hate Report callout was planned with participation from editors and as part of broader strategy, and also with internal support. The Discourse’s two reporters were able to strategize together and compare notes, and Eric Berger’s Rocket Report newsletter for ArsTechnica was planned as part of site strategy even as Berger took the lead. In other cases, reporters needed to try to win internal buy-in for beat networking tactics, adding another layer of complication. We’re eager to see more examples of duos and triads collaborating, and we’re watching the economic justice project Broke in Philly closely for examples of cross-organizational reporting.
“Impact” needs to be more clearly defined -- and shared. We find a lack of clear membership key performance indicators within news sites, in part because this work is relatively new and because ad-driven business interests complicate what gets measured. In both groups we’ve heard questions about whether the number of people donating and joining is actually a useful indicator of “involvement” or program sophistication. To date, many programs’ experiments and knowledge on what works are kept guarded and not shared with other organizations for the sake of perceived competitive advantage. We spoke to a few sites that were reluctant to join the affiliate program because of the expectation of sharing what they were trying. Yet we see that membership programs that have the greatest chance at growing are those that share their lessons learned with others -- and make membership a shared responsibility internally, not just the domain of the marketing department.
Impact and value come not from the quantity of interactions, but their quality and relevance. Within Join the Beat, several reporter callouts early in the program generated high-quality responses, and in some cases, a high volume of replies. Reporters who were initially skeptical have been pleased by their results. Stephen Babcock, who covers the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., tech communities for Technical.ly, says an email callout offering to buy lunch for members resulted in just one response — but that member, a lawyer and investor, has become a good source of leads and feedback. In this experiment we’d expect a higher rate of things that don’t work, and some callouts have resulted in few responses.
Sites are starting to get creative about asking for more than money. News organizations that sent staff to represent them in these two groups largely realize that membership in its most robust form goes well beyond financial transactions. After working with these sites to study their prospective supporters and design for the things those individuals care about, the sites are starting to offer more ways for members to volunteer as event programmers, comment moderators, advisory boards, and more. For example, during a recent redesign of their paper La Diaria used their newsletter to put out a call for readers who were interested in giving feedback on designs. (In exchange, supporters frequently tell sites that they expect transparency in how their contributions are being used and valued.) We are eager to see more creativity and action here.
What needs improving
The industry needs simple software for community relationship management. Audience-facing staff in the research affiliates group (and beyond) regularly talk about the need for easy-to-use tools for managing fundraising and member relationships, ideally with open source software. Some research affiliates use off-the-shelf tools like Pardot by Salesforce while others are building software in-house, noting that there are key differences between tools that are focused on making sales and those that enable easier collaboration and knowledge sharing between audience members and newsrooms. As membership tasks are ideally shared across departments, including newsrooms, this software needs to be simple for collaboration with people who have never used a CRM tool.
In the Join the Beat group, reporters have mainly used Google Forms and email to collect responses to their email newsletters, both of which require manual monitoring and organizing. Reporters ranged from having very little to deep community engagement experience and all were looking to better encourage public contributions to their reporting. Most of them have used callouts on social media or in articles as part of or adjacent to coverage, such as Reveal’s callout to contribute to its “Hate Report” newsletter and beat, which has drawn 30 responses from “citizen sleuths.” For several digital startup sites, such as The Ferret news collective in Scotland and The Discourse in Canada, this is an extension of what differentiates their sites: direct report + member relationships are part of editors’ expectations of reporters’ jobs.
Forming a community means challenging engrained models of programming and organizing. Even for MPP. One of the primary goals of the research affiliate program was to bring newsrooms together so they could learn from one another. Yet we quickly fell into traditional one-way information sharing in structuring programming for our calls with the five sites. Despite how often we say “bring people into your production processes earlier!” most of our monthly group meeting time was devoted to a guest sharing out to the group. We hosted thoughtful guests presenting on topics including newsroom talent management; volunteer-driven communities; and international expansion. Each month people would grab a cup of coffee, sign onto the call, say hello, and dive immediately into a presentation from an external guest. While the presentations were informative, they began to feel more like private webinars than relationship-building opportunities.
Amy and Emily asked participants what could be improved, and after a few iterations on the meeting format, we discovered that a simpler meeting format of individual member updates and a semi-moderated discussion helped add the “of practice” part to the group. Making presentations less frequent lowered the stakes for participation and offered more regular opportunities for affiliates to share their work, including projects in process. In the future, we’ll ask participants earlier about their learning styles and preferred forms of sharing information. We’ll also prioritize meeting IRL at least once at the beginning of our work together so people have more informal knowledge of one another’s roles and backgrounds.
Convening organizations across types and at different phases in their membership evolution can be more confusing than helpful. We’ve recognized that learnings are somewhat unbalanced across the research affiliates group, in large part because they’re at different points in their membership program development. Some affiliate sites are still prototyping their membership programs, including pricing and member pitches based on reader research, while others are expanding years-old programs to new markets. And while they all have membership as part of their revenue, there were wide discrepancies in how participating sites earned their revenue, meaning that guidance on becoming less reliant on advertising or seeking matching dollars from funders, for example, was irrelevant to some participants whose sites didn’t earn money from these sources. In short: trying to appeal to many business models risked diluting takeaways for everyone.
Practical lessons learned
Being purposeful in communication between meetings. For the research affiliates group we set up a Slack instance for the group, which was nice to have for communication but not used frequently or clearly enough to be indispensable. To be vibrant, Slack convenings require as much programming care as meetings and email communications (though less than in person meetings). The researcher community Mixed Methods and its thoughtfully created channels are a good example.
On expectation setting. When applications came in for the Join the Beat group, we saw that we hadn’t sufficiently clarified that (like the research affiliate program running in parallel) each reporter or reporting pair would bring separate projects for publication by their own organizations. We could have stated from the outset that they’d be working together on professional development, including experimenting around what methods work best, as opposed to collaborating on one shared project or deliverable.
More learning groups than cohorts. We realized after both communities launched that we could most accurately refer to them as learning group than cohorts, as their brief contacts via the meetings and Slack were more transactional (i.e., sharing examples of fundraising language and callouts for others’ benefit) and we didn’t explicitly make “relationship building” a goal of the program. It’s worth considering how much this is needed depending on your program goals: having professionals share what works and their cautionary tales is useful, but it shouldn’t be confused with a closer network of people who have had a common experience.
The Join the Beat project will run through October 2018, and you can see reporters’ updates on their projects through this Twitter list. We’re bringing the research affiliates program and its six-month experiment period to a close this summer. Participants have said they’ve appreciated the chance to hear what has and hasn’t worked for their fellow affiliates in a candid capacity they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. City Bureau is in the process of revising their membership pricing and program tiers to make the funding model as inclusive as possible. Chalkbeat is synthesizing research they’ve conducted with prospective members to launch their membership program later this year, and The Correspondent is preparing to launch a global membership campaign from the US. Several of the participating organizations are considering ways that their members might be involved in their journalism in addition to helping underwrite it, and we’re eager to collaborate around the concept of members “paying in participation” with them and other newsrooms.
We see value in identifying sites with less variation and more concurrent challenges next. We’re considering the potential industry value in bringing together born digital place-based sites as a user participation learning group. In the interest of strategically focusing on sites and stations that might benefit most, our criteria will be highly specific so participants can learn from sites that are experiencing growth phases that more closely resemble where they’re at, too. Watch this space for more details.
Jessica Best, Emily Goligoski, David van Zeggeren, Jay Rosen, Leon Postma, and Lukas Kouwets contributed to this post.