Last year when the Membership Puzzle Project started studying news sites that were working with their supporters for revenue and to benefit their journalism, we heard two themes. Staff that work with members wanted to meet and learn from each other, for which we created two professional communities of practice and frequently direct them to other relevant conveners. And they needed funding to launch or expand their membership ideas. To help serve this need, today we’re excited to announce the Membership in News Fund with Democracy Fund and Luminate.
We’re launching the fund so that sites around the world can more freely experiment with membership as a way to develop sustainable models for the support of independent journalism. Together with our partners we aim to increase the depth, variety, geographic reach, and financial sustainability of different approaches to membership. And we’re thrilled to announce that Ariel Zirulnick, former director of The New Tropic in Miami and foreign correspondent, will be the face of the fund as our research operations manager. Ariel brings interest in experimentation alongside community members, rich reporting experience, and leadership in local news, all of which will help us study and advise innovative projects in the space.
The $700,000 fund will be open to sites around the world on a rolling basis to suggest what they need in funds and advising help. We encourage applications from sites that publish coverage that is local/place-based; national (and with further reach); and subject matter/topical. We’ll consider relevant projects from non-profit, for-profit, and cooperative news organizations, and please see regional details here.
Our fund partners are Democracy Fund, an early supporter of this project’s work as part of its efforts to support a vibrant public square, and Luminate, a global philanthropic organization focused on empowering people and institutions to work together to build just and fair societies. (Luminate was previously the Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative at Omidyar Network.) MPP is also supported by the Knight Foundation. We continue to work closely with De Correspondent as our newsroom partner.
What makes this fund different from other revenue projects
The Membership in News Fund is not likely to be a good fit if
…Your site is seeking money to operate, with no questions asked.
The venture support model is of key importance in this work and in our ability to study patterns in the industry. We’ll be providing regular coaching based on what we’ve learned. If you want a funder who is in touch with you only at the beginning and end of a grant period, you might look elsewhere.
…You want to be told what metrics to watch.
The fund is a global initiative in which participating sites will take responsibility for different parts of the experiment. MPP believes that pieces like metrics for evaluating success and deliverables at the conclusion of the experiment should themselves be part of the experiment.
We want and will ask applicants to suggest — and will work with them to improve — two to three quantitative metrics that make sense for what they’re trying to do and two to three qualitative measures of effectiveness that are worth paying attention to. (Types of measures proposed may include new participation pathways and collaborative story gathering routines designed and tried). To put it more simply, numbers and stories will both be required. But they should be numbers and stories that can be shared with the participating sites’ members and sites’ broader communities. Please note that MPP will take responsibility for sharing the experiments’ overall results with the membership-models-in-news community globally.
... Your project will serve your own site more than teach the field what works (and doesn’t).
While we encourage you to study your prospective members, pitching a research project that will serve your site’s growth--but won’t teach other followers of the project much that they can put into practice--is unlikely to be funded.
This fund could be a good fit if:
You have a suggested project in one of these domains: revenue; member/audience/reader participation; governance; learnings outside of news; and online-to-offline and offline-to-online behavior.
You and your members have valuable insights to uncover about participation path design, inclusion and equity, metrics, organizational listening, membership tools and tech, or other related themes.
You’re seeking funding, connections, and coaching.
You’re working alongside others: teammates, advisors, and, crucially, community members.
You’re proposing a membership project around a cause, not a charitable or product-oriented exchange. As we wrote in the Tow Center’s Guide to Audience Revenue & Engagement, we differentiate between three models of audience revenue generation:
A donation model encourages audiences to give their time or money to an institution in support of a common cause or common values. Donation conveys a charitable relationship.
A subscription model requires audiences to pay money to get access to a product or service. Subscription conveys a transactional relationship.
A membership model invites audiences to give their time, money, connections, professional expertise, distribution to their networks, and/or ideas to support a cause they believe in. Membership in its “thick” version represents two-way knowledge exchange between journalists and members. You might think of membership as a more committed relationship that is robust and active. We often hear that members are compelled to join to keep the core news product free and accessible to everyone, including non-members.
What does this distinction (described in more detail in Poynter) mean for you?
We think these distinctions are helpful for understanding what membership is, but we also understand that in practice subscription, donation and membership are often combined. The Guardian, for example, has subscribers for its print product, and members for its online edition— and it accepts donations from fans. These different forms of support all work together.
For us, "membership" means you are looking not just for money, but participation, interaction and knowledge from your strongest supporters. So we’re open to working with organizations that are pursuing hybrid models. We’re not trying to encourage newsrooms to rely on members alone for revenue and engagement, but to explore how membership can help journalism organizations sustain themselves and better represent the needs of communities whom advertisers aren’t interested in reaching.
Frequently asked questions
I don’t see a deadline. What’s the timeline?
We’re accepting applications on an ongoing basis through December 2019 and will review them in batches several times throughout the year. Please check back here for updates on that timeline.
Your first step is registering your interest via the (very brief!) form below. We’ll be following up with those organizations whose projects seem like a good fit to gather more details.
If you applied before Dec. 15, 2018, you can expect to hear back by Jan. 15, 2019. If you apply between Dec. 16 and Jan. 15, you can expect to hear back by the end of January. We’ll update this section regularly with the latest timelines.
How much money will you award to each project?
This will vary by project scope, goals, and other factors. In subsequent conversations we’ll be talking with applicants and regional advisors about project requirements and costs. We’re open to projects beginning in the $10,000 range and will consider requests up to a maximum grant of $80,000.
What do you mean by membership? Can I pitch a proposal to help bolster my site’s subscriptions?
At the Membership Puzzle Project, we differentiate between memberships, subscriptions, and donations, the three primary ways that readers provide financial support to news organizations. Please see more detail above under “This fund could be a good fit if…”.
What constitutes a project or experiment?
If your newsroom has already landed on a project to give membership a go, that’s great. Please detail it in the application.
But you don’t have to be that far along to work with the fund. We are looking for organizations at different points in their work with members. Having a strong hypothesis about what will resonate with your audience members and help with your organization’s sustainability is adequate at this stage. What questions do you have that we could help you answer through a combination of funding and coaching?
Some examples of projects that are unlikely to fit the parameters of the fund: editorial projects that do not involve members; general site improvements; internal tool development; and projects to expand production capacity. We’re here to provide financial runway and other support to help your site build meaningful relationships with your audience members, and potentially derive revenue from that stronger relationship – and help expand the journalism field’s understanding of what works.
Here are a few examples to get you thinking (and please see the section above titled “The Membership Model Experiment” for more guidance on relevant projects):
Converting the most engaged subscribers of a news site with a strong subscriber base into paying members who will get to weigh in on editorial coverage priorities and other newsroom decisions;
Creating a database of members’ knowledge, expertise, and skills that newsroom staff can draw on;
Building a discussion platform that can live on a newsroom’s site, where members can talk with each other and with editorial staff;
Providing enriching in-person experiences for members that deepen their connection to their locality and to the journalism produced for it;
Asking readers to invest in the newsroom (a direct public offering, not a donation) in exchange for some participation in newsroom governance, like shareholders in a company.
These are not meant to be recommendations, or prescriptions for how membership should be done. They’re merely examples that can give you a sense of the parameters of potential projects.
Can we apply for funds to create and hire for a new position?
As we’ll fund projects one time only, we don’t recommend this approach (what will you do when the funds run out?). But we’re open to projects that use funds to bring someone on temporarily who can take some daily tasks off a project lead’s plate to allow them to focus more on membership and engagement.
Interested? Share a project paragraph & a link below to get started
To register your interest in being part of the fund, please submit details on your work and proposed membership experiment through the form below. We’ll look forward to reviewing a short description and relevant link about your proposed project, and we’ll be meeting soon with people who propose projects of interest.
If you have other relevant ideas or expertise to offer the fund, please contact us. We will answer questions about the fund and wider project there too.
If you might want to apply, please click the START button below.
Ariel Zirulnick, Corinne Osnos, David van Zeggeren, Jessica Best, Lukas Kouwets and Gauthier Derilleux-Bes contributed to this post.