In the Membership Puzzle Project’s first year, we interviewed more than 200 people who support independent news with their time, ideas, expertise, and money. Most commonly their contributions are financial, which is highly valuable as advertising revenue declines and the costs of reporting news rise. Some people pay in other ways. We talked to supporters who serve as comment moderators, event participants and volunteers, fact checkers, volunteer graphic designers and audio editors, sources, grammarians, contributors of code, product testers, and more.
Our team sits down in person with small groups of these supporters around the world to hear about their needs and what frustrates them about mainstream news. Short answer: a lot. We hear complaints about news sites and stations that pile onto the same stories with soundbites, surface-level coverage of topics of serious consequence, and poor ad-heavy presentations.
As Seth Godin wrote recently, “Successful media (let's define 'successful' as media that can make a difference, make a connection, and possibly make a living) has four elements: Attention. Enrollment. Trust. And Permission. Too often, particularly online, people just worry about the first one.” The readers, viewers, and listeners we’ve met are on to this.
Beginning from the highly generative question around “what drives you mad?” our research team can then learn what stands out in the sites that individuals back financially and beyond. While there are local differences, there are highly consistent themes in what we’ve learned from supporters across countries and organization type ranging from traditional subscription-based publishers like Outside Magazine to member-driven, born-digital newsrooms like De Correspondent and The Texas Tribune. Over and over, loyalists to specific, carefully selected news brands say they seek out organizations — and want to see more projects — that exemplify these design principles:
Involve me...like you mean it
Sites that resonate are inclusive and participatory: they offer multiple ways for people outside the organization to take part and contribute what they know. There are relevant, personalized ways to be of service that aren’t the same old invitation to answer phone calls during public radio pledge drives. As one supporter of Chicago community journalism lab City Bureau, Hafsa, told us: "Play to my strengths."
This is a good reminder that our sites don't have one monolithic audience. We have members of different prospective audiences with their own needs, problems, and price considerations. As Carina Chocano wrote for the New York Times Magazine, “The countless, ever-multiplying communities of today are something different: not collections of humans functioning in unison but random assortments of people who do the same things, like the same things, hate the same things or believe the same things.”
It behooves us and our teammates to become engrossed in the important challenge of understanding what drives members of these different communities. User research is a great way to get started, and two stellar resources are David Sherwin’s Smashing Magazine article on a five-step process for beginning research and Erika Hall’s book Just Enough Research. You can put our project’s supporter discussion guide and exercises to work for your research, too.
Be real with me
We ask longtime supporters to name one or two people behind a publication’s work and usually hear the name of one high profile reporter or founder -- but not much more. This extends to their lack of insight into the financial health of the sites they support, and it’s not their fault. Publications and stations need to improve how much organizational clarity they offer. Instead of presenting as a disembodied institution, supporters want staff and freelancers to show who they are, including what they’re currently working on, how people can contribute to it, and where they’re coming from. “I appreciate that De Correspondent is open about the fact that journalists have opinions,” the Dutch site’s member Hakim Achterberg told us.
Supporters appreciate when site staff are transparent in showing how they make editorial decisions and how they spend supporters’ money and other sources of revenue. Even better is when they show what went into their stories (time, collaborations, travel, and more) and what actions audience members might take around stories they care about.
Be humble, rather than sounding like an omniscient narrator
People behind the organization are quick to correct themselves when they're wrong. They recognize that they don't have all the answers. They ask for help from others who might be able to offer it, including from their personal experience and professional expertise. De Correspondent has made a routine of soliciting what it’s readers and listeners know, and it starts with not treating them like an open ATM. Supporters also appreciate when reporters make themselves vulnerable — by, for example, acknowledging areas where they need help filling in gaps in their reporting — and consider it a sign of maturity and confidence. And they notice when journalists are eager to teach how they work so other people can create and produce coverage, too.
Stand out from the news of the day
Supporters use discretion in identifying news sites that produce high-quality coverage they can’t find anywhere else. They want those that offer smart takes on issues with depth, integrity, and a focus that is otherwise rare. As Preethi, a member of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, told us, “Listening to or reading your work is like listening to a good friend who really cares about the issues, has taken the time to understand one timely issue on a personal level, and wants to sit down and talk about why it matters.”
Make good use of my attention
The organization’s site, newsletters, podcasts, and/or apps feature a user experience design that is calm and considerate. This is different from the blaringly loud experiences that confront most visitors to news sites and television on a daily basis. Experiences worth having, our interviewees say, are those that don’t distract people from what they’re trying to do, whether it's communicate with other audience members, make sense of a complex current event, or complete or cancel payment.
Work always and only in the public interest
We hear a lot about the importance of transparency and trust, integrity and independence. Simply put, people increasingly want to back reporters and projects that they believe act in good faith and in their interest. As we're seeing in journalism, government, social media, and other spaces, keeping our processes closed mystifies people and frustrates them. It can make it seem like we have something to hide, and that (understandably!) leads to distrust and dismissal. We can do better.
Supporters of Outside Magazine told us they seek this authenticity in all of the brands they support: these are people who care about how organizations treat their staff, contributors, and the wider world. As subscriber Shun-Luoi Fong asked about a prototype for an Outside membership program that’s currently being designed: would it “provide something(s) that gives me a sense of belonging and participation…or, do I just feel like another nameless/faceless member receiving content in a one-way manner?”
We’re eager to visit more standout newsrooms that exemplify these and other principles that you think we should know about. Be in touch with your tips.
David van Zeggeren, Jessica Best, Gonzalo del Peon, and Leon Postma contributed to this post.