This autumn we’ve been asking news sites to share their experiences with membership in their own words. This started with talking to creators of freshly hatched and forthcoming programs.
Amid their frustrations and mini-triumphs, we’re reminded how membership design and growth processes are highly complex and best worked through collaboratively. Mary Walter Brown, founder of News Revenue Hub, shared guidance early in our project’s life that resonates in these teams’ experiences: “This cannot be a development team initiative…everyone has to be involved.”
But what happens when you’re a one man band?
Enter Matt Kiser, a Seattleite who curates US executive branch stories in the form of the once-a-day, single-subject newsletter and blog WTF Just Happened Today. A former product manager at Business Insider, he intended for his interest in understanding the first 100 days of the Trump administration to be a side project. But he inadvertently spawned a major online community.
The project had a humble start: Matt introduced himself as a “guy trying to do this [small] thing. People responded to the human story. It grew and has been growing exponentially.” The popularity of the endeavor and the financial support of Patreon donors helped him turn it into a full-time job.
With expanding reach, why not host advertising? Matt said it would contradict his service-oriented approach. “Advertising serves no purpose: users hate it, click-through rates are low, and the logic behind digital advertising doesn’t make sense,” said Matt, who sees online advertising as a misalignment of incentives between publishers and readers. “If advertising is a major record label, then running ads is like selling out – except you're selling out your audience.” He says that he felt more compelled to try to develop relationships with individual readers, which made a membership proposition seem feasible.
His proposal to readers: “I create value for you. If you get value from this, support it.” (Ben Thompson of Stratechery shared a similar idea with us about offering, and being paid for, the delivery of unique value.) The concept resonated well with some of his readers, including the 1,000 who signed up for his lowest Patreon campaign almost immediately. “I think the coup in my fundraising drive was to offer both a dead simple option to donate (PayPal) as well as a recurring membership opportunity for sustained support with a kickback (stickers, postcards, T-shirts) via Patreon.”
Matt said that the two options cater to different audience types. “Some people prefer the PayPal route because they want to help but don't care about stickers and stuff. Or, they know PayPal and are unfamiliar with Patreon (trust or confidence in a third party platform taking your money is a thing). Or they just want to do a one-time thing. Patrons often are looking for a deeper relationship on paper, but their behavior follows the law of the internet in reality: 99% lurkers, 1% participants.” He expanded: “Recurring donors are interested in providing sustaining support for the mission. One-time donors are more transactional: I like this and want more of it, so here's some money.”
No matter how their behavior is categorized, dialogue with readers takes a great deal of time and attention. Matt is in (very) frequent touch with his audience through social media, the newsletter, a member forum, a monthly survey using the Coral Project’s Ask tool, and a direct feedback mechanism through chat.io. He makes a point of being transparent by sharing metrics as well as sentiments that readers share in surveys.
What supporters give in return: word of mouth referrals, open source project editing help in the form of 42 GitHub issue pull requests to date, ideas for additional causes they might collaboratively support, and moderation of the member forum (which can be fraught in the case of political topics, and requires distributed management and guidelines for participants). One of the site’s members, Joe Amditis, offered to produce a new WTFJHT podcast. Matt is looking to grow the site, pay partners, and potentially be able to take days off himself.
“I think this is a model that is generally applicable to a 1-2-3 person operation with very niche topics with a bit of fanaticism,” Matt reflected. “How can this apply to a larger team of journalists doing original news? That remains to be seen.”
Ben Nishimoto, director of philanthropy at Honolulu Civil Beat, has a few thoughts.
Reconstituting a Symphony
When Civil Beat changed its status for-profit to nonprofit in 2016, it needed to undertake a good deal of public education around what the shift from subscription to membership offerings entailed. Ben said, “People have a hard time understanding why we’re different than the local for-profit newspaper. Most have always seen journalism as a product and not as a service, and it’s hard to drive that messaging when we’re the only local nonprofit media.”
As representatives of the sole nonprofit newsroom in Hawaii, Ben and his membership and events manager colleague Mariko Chang frequently make comparisons to PBS or public radio when talking to locals. Yet their organization is distinct from these examples in two important ways: not having federal funding and focusing exclusively on hard news.
Email has been Civil Beat’s primary educational tool for explaining how becoming a nonprofit has allowed the site to deepen its work and to be more mission aligned. On average, supporters are now donating double the previous subscription price. This year, total revenue through individual gifts and grants is likely to be four or five times what they’re earned in previous years.
As much as we all wish it might, this expression of confidence through cash doesn’t happen accidentally. Civil Beat devotes significant energy to engaging readers through live and remote events. Its monthly community events, reporter “office hours” on Facebook Live, and Community Voices website section are aimed more at listening to readers’ ideas than talking at them. Readers feel comfortable sharing “issues they have in the community and also with Civil Beat,” Mariko said. Throwing open their newsroom doors is an important component, and regular “morning coffees” offer chances for readers to meet reporters face-to-face and share their reactions to work-in-progress.
The August coffee gathering was held at the Honolulu judiciary center following revelations about secret meetings of the local police commission. Readers were direct in emphasizing Civil Beat’s role in doing even more on the topic of government accountability and pushed them: “‘You folks can do more,’” as Mariko recalled.
Matt has learned a similar lesson in his WTFJHT audience interactions. “[Engaging] with people who take the effort to subscribe and give feedback creates trust, shows transparency, humanizes the whole thing,” he said. “The more I show I’m just human, that I’m fallible, the more trust I build. That’s what is comes down to: creating value and building trust.”
Civil Beat encourages members to donate because they believe in its mission and want to help more people access the journalism. This suggests a major theme we’re hearing in our conversations with members about their motivations for supporting news sites, monetarily and otherwise. They want to encourage the expansion of the unique value that they see the site offer...more than get merchandise, VIP access, and pretty much anything else.
Watch this space for more on members’ values soon. Rock on until then.
Thanks to Gonzalo del Peon for research help with this post.