The response to The Correspondent’s decision to base its HQ in Amsterdam this week is a learning moment for all of us working in the membership space. The organization with the most participatory journalism crowdfunding campaign ever and one featured on The Daily Show made a decision not to open a second office in the United States, against some founding members’ expectations.
The Correspondent’s supporting staff will be based in the Netherlands but correspondents will work in other countries, including here. The reaction is about more than where the team will sit. (You can read more from Jay Rosen and Mathew Ingram on the topic. The Correspondent has said that out of 49,000 members at present, fewer than 40 or less than .08% have asked for a refund, and the majority of member feedback has been positive.)
This is about more than any one news organization. It’s about the fact that members anywhere can feel misled when they don’t see the trust and transparency they expect. It's also about the challenges of mass communication--and the practicalities of involving people at scale--that member-focused organizations have to navigate. There aren’t clear historical expectations for members of journalism sites about how they or site staff should behave. I want to use this reflective moment for the field of audience-funded, collaborative news to ask about alternative and advisable paths. It’s important because we’re seeing more organizations across the globe pursue these models in earnest than ever before, and there isn’t a playbook.
As researchers who work for the wider industry, our team at the Membership Puzzle Project had questions for other media organizations: What steps do you take to meaningfully involve members in decisions like these? What processes and workflows do you practice regularly to be in dialogue with them? Essentially: what’s reasonable on both sides?
Ten journalism pros shared their thoughts, and excerpts with their advice and own hard earned lessons are below. First, a few disclosures:
This is quick-and-dirty anecdotal research! It's self-reported! It's solutions-oriented by design. And in a participatory spirit, I asked sources to proofread this post before publishing. Some of them are soon-to-be-announced grantees of our Membership in News Fund, but I asked for their input because they’re practiced and smart.
I’m a professional partner, personal friend, and ambassador to The Correspondent. I’ve interviewed their Dutch member base at length with my colleagues and examined their crowdfunding, including the things that didn’t work. I’m not deflecting attention away from this week’s situation, and my intention is not to be opportunistic. I genuinely want to know: what should organizations that rely on their members for their expertise and revenue do better?
This is part of a larger, previously planned study of workflow and process at newsrooms around the world. Many organizations are grappling with these considerations for themselves, and the influx of interest in membership in journalism makes it incredibly important to get it right.
Here are some news entrepreneurs’ responses edited for clarity, and emphases are mine.
Be clear about members’ expectations of consultation (Decât o Revistă, Romania)
Catalina Albeanu, Digital Editor:
“Recently at DoR we have started to consolidate the bridge between DoR as an organisation and our community, which includes paying print subscribers and event attendees. We are working to create a feedback loop with members. We haven’t had a lot of experience with putting big decisions in front of our community members before they happen, and we will be experimenting with this as we start shaping our digital offering. Face-to-face events are really important to us for establishing trust: they expect them to happen and they feel they can share their opinions on our strategies and offer constructive comments.
“One of the biggest questions we will be grappling with this year is to what extent we will have exclusivity (some sort of paywall) as a benefit for digital members - we will put this question to our community over the coming months to get a more representative idea of how they view this matter.
“I don’t think our community at this point expects to be consulted on big strategic decisions, but so far we haven’t built a campaign around transparency. I think once you set the expectation that the community has power and then you take it away on certain matters, or it is perceived as such, you’re in a tricky place.”
Communication isn’t handing over the reins: it’s bringing people along
(WTF Just Happened Today, US)
Matt Kiser, Founder:
“When you're member-funded, you're obligated to ask for permission when shifting course, because you work for your members – you're in the relationship business. The framework is closer to that of a cooperative or collective where every member is invested in the organization's success. Failing to engage and consult your members about topics they find important is a trust buster. (Had the Correspondent been a subscription business or even a non-profit, the change would have generally been a non-issue, because that's the expectation in a transactional relationship.)
“As a leader, your role is to raise ideas and then allow the community to weigh in, vote, or whatever mechanism setup from the beginning for soliciting feedback and decision-making is. The key point is that you outline how your organization functions and where members of the community can engage and provide input (i.e., define the relationship model and where it starts and stops and where members are empowered and where they're not). Then you listen and either ask a refined follow-up question or make a decision and communicate it clearly. This doesn't mean that your members are the only stakeholders in the decision-making. After all, you're the one setting the agenda, framing the topics, and have the power to bring business up for discussion as you see fit. But members generally should have an outsized voice since it's their prerogative if you are worthy of their voluntary contributions.
“With WTFJHT, I'll often ask if I should do X or Y. Then I listen. Maybe I ask a follow-up question for clarifying reasons. Then I make a decision based on feedback and present that to members. One example is last summer I suggested a summer schedule, which would reduce publishing from M-F to M-W-F. Members hated the idea, even though I explained that I was very burned out and wanted a break. In the end, I didn't change anything but I communicated with the community, learned a lot about members’ motivations and made sure we all understood the goal, reason, and resulting (non-changing) outcome.”
Poll your people
(Splice Newsroom, Singapore)
Rishad Patel, Co-founder:
“When we were grappling with about 6 different ticket pricing options for our upcoming conference Splice Beta, we wondered if our $900 ticket was overpriced. We did a quick — and somewhat messy — poll in our Telegram group and discovered we were way off on pricing: too expensive. We cut it down by two-thirds almost immediately and thanked our community quite publicly. We also regularly carry newsletter stories that our readers and subscribers recommend, and again, attribute them for the input.”
Alan Soon, Co-founder:
“I'm happy that we surveyed our community [in this way] and then acted on their feedback. These calls are scary -- you have to be ready to act on the feedback, even if you don't want to.
“I think it's also important to have a small, safe group of loyalists where you can test some of these tricky decisions. It's important to have that insiders group.” (Author’s note: another example of a regular test pool is Reveal Insiders from the Center for Investigative reporting detailed here.)
Jakub Górnicki, CEO:
“I approach this in three steps:
“1. Understand the base situation
We have to consider current political and societal situations. If you run a campaign in a country which wants change in media –you should know there will be assumptions made. Leaving parts of messages out leaves room for interpretation. That is sometimes helpful but also dangerous. What is left to the imagination? In our case if we know we go into a super sensitive topic we have to be three times for more careful with communication, questions, and engagement.
“2. Ask & give choices
‘Should we work on a story A or B?’ isn’t as useful as ‘We work on story A, we have to go to one city. We have two options: Berlin or Warsaw. Which one we should choose? Why and can you help us in this city?’ Everybody feels good exposure of the process, the seriousness of the question (they’ll actually be a part of something, not ‘What should we name our new fish in the office?’), having an immediate promise kept, and community engagement with the story. It’s a win-win.
“3. Keep the promise
All the research about civic engagement shows that the key component of getting people to engage and then to trust you is to provide imaginable / doable action and then deliver on it. It's key to build on it, grow trust, and have better engagement for further questions. If you asked a question and some of the answers were immediately unrealistic you will fail to deliver even though intentions were in a good place. If I would ask today where Outride.rs should have reporters based - I can immediately say 90% of the community replies will be unable for us to deliver. At the same time we would be met with criticism and comments like, ‘Then why do you ask?’
“We understand that what we think and what our audience, community, and social media followers think are two different things with some overlap. It’s crucial to ask open questions: ‘Why have you supported our campaign, why do you read us, what do you think we do, what do you think our budget is, who do you think funds us?’ In many cases we’ve been surprised, and listening has helped us to grow accordingly organically.”
Meet IRL & be curious about finding the best online proxies
(The Bristol Cable, UK)
Lucas Batt, Membership Coordinator:
“For nurturing the harmony between members and the organisation they support, finding ways to be in tune with, empathise with, and understand members is key. Speaking with them is useful, but being like them is better (but comes with its own issues). It’s probably a lot easier to be in tune with 2,000 people living within 10 miles of me than tens of thousands of people from more than a hundred countries. We often talk with members, though not as many as we’d like to, or for as long as we’d like. Also, crucially for the Cable’s growth, we’ll need to be having more chats with people who aren’t members, so we can develop our intuitions towards their needs too.
“For the Cable, asking members to participate in decisions is currently mainly done at our AGM (annual general meeting), though in the past we’ve done decision-making at members’ meetings, on an online forum, and through online polls. But doing things online, at scale, makes ‘meaningful’ much more difficult, since the personal interaction that enriches conversations is almost eliminated.
“We’re still figuring out how to do meaningful online engagement. We recently ran a month-long campaign where we asked members to vote for one of two editorial campaign options, drawn from member consultation. We ran articles advocating and exploring the issues, published blog posts sharing members’ voting rationale, sent loads of emails, and we achieved 28% of members voting. It was a lot of organisational effort for a pretty simple request (though we beat our target for 25%).
“But we really wanted to know what members wanted us to prioritise and why, and the effort we put into the campaign signaled that. I was concerned about whether the vote felt would be received as sufficiently meaningful as we presented just two options. But when we asked for feedback the response was glowingly positive. I think that was because we asked for more than their vote – we also asked why it mattered to them and how they could help with the campaign. We made sure their participation didn’t just feel like a number, but an opinion we had a duty to inform and voices that mattered.”
“My learning from our experience of sending difficult communications is to do the same stuff De Correspondent is very familiar with: be vulnerable, be transparent, reiterate our values and the value of members, and empathise. Find a way to grasp the opportunity out of a crisis (isn’t that our job, after all?). For the Cable, we’ve had at least two crises where we’ve been able to build trust by owning up to our mistakes. Though they were different to The Correspondent’s situation, as they weren’t strategic decisions which were out of harmony with some member expectations. They did however require thoughtful and empathetic responses which were great opportunities to show how we’re different.”
Show up on social, or: being responsive to criticism is a vital transparency mode
(Aos Fatos, Brazil)
Tai Nalon, Director:
“Last year, due to the elections, we have suffered some criticism and actual attacks from the extreme right and extreme leftists. I decided then that I would be completely open about criticism on social media (on Twitter, mostly): I would directly answer readers (even if I didn't think they were right), I would explain our decision-making process, I would expose myself in order to show that we don't have anything to hide.
“It of course generated some hatred, because people are polarized and they don't like to hear that they're sometimes wrong. However, it was mostly positive: I started 2018 with some 7,000 followers, now I have almost 20,000. I could actually hear/read more and make decisions based on our followers' impressions about Aos Fatos' work. It was time (and mind) consuming, but it was important. The outcome is that people felt heard, and not by a customer service attendant.
“I know it is a one-of-a-kind experience: I own Aos Fatos and I can afford to make this kind of decision. I think, however, that other news outlets should allow its executives to be more active on social media. It's great for engagement and accountability.”
Clearly explain how & when members can exercise their power
(Coda Story, Georgia)
Natalia Antelava, CEO:
“I suspect this may be a really good opportunity to shape the relationship with the members and also define the boundaries of their power. I think it’s possible to successfully explain to the members that a collective as large as this cannot be in charge of business decisions, however if thinking behind these decisions is communicated before they are taken and members feel like they are part of the debate that might help. Letting members know before a decision is taken, letting them on the inside of the decision-making process while owning the decision, is the lesson I learn from this.
“We have tried to keep our communication personal, which is hard as you grow. In my head I have been also wondering about some more experimental ideas for organizing membership structure, for example trying an approach where membership is organized in cells, an adaptation of sorts of any political revolutionary movement. Sounds crazy…but maybe it isn’t.”
See how members are consulted outside of journalism
(Solution Set, US)
Joseph Lichterman, Senior Business Associate, Lenfest Institute:
“The question of meaningfully involving readers in decisions made me think of supporters’ trust in British soccer. Essentially, the groups are designed to provide a voice for fans in the teams’ decision-making process. Different groups have had various levels of success with this model. Many of the groups operate independently from the clubs, but the ones that I think are most interesting involve the supporters trust maintaining a small ownership stake, which allows it to represent the voice of the fans in a significant way. I wonder if there could be some model in journalism for a group that represents the members to be involved in decision making in some capacity. Could that model empower news orgs to give members a seat at the table?”
Make it someone’s full-time job to pay attention to members
Chani Guyot, CEO:
“Among our 15 people team we have a Members Editor, Belén. She is not a journalist, but a great project manager, with listening skills (both technical and human). She is the voice of our members within the newsroom. She is also de pushing-process that is spotting every opportunity to add an action button, connects us with members and other people and organizations outside the newsroom. She is also acting also as a participation editor. It makes me think of phrases we should start using:
If you want to get people’s attention
First, you have to pay them... attention
Cuz if you want to be heard
First you have to listen
“I should make it the mantra of my newsroom.” (Author’s note: The Correspondent is hiring a Membership Director. And you can hear Chani’s music on Spotify.)
Thanks to Ariel Zirulnick, Jay Rosen, Jessica Best, Greg Allen, and Katharine Quamby for collaboration and suggestions. Lukas Kouwets, Leon Postma, Aldana Vales, and Gonzalo del Peon helped with images.