We just announced the publication of our open database with nearly 100 news organizations with membership models and want to offer our reading of the data. We want this tool to provide useful information for your own programs with audience members and are eager to hear your takeaways, too.
Yesterday, we published a preview of our three key findings. Here are some of the features that distinguish “thicker” or more robust models of membership from the “thinner” (or leaner) variety.
1. “Thick” membership models are more common at news sites that are manifestly mission-driven.
These sites have a strong internal culture, including an “origin story” that creates loyalty and a raison d'être that is distinct and inspiring. To put it another way, no one has ever become an enthusiastic member of a commodity news site. That would almost be a contradiction in terms. Some examples of what this looks like in practice are as follows, and you can find more details on publishers’ sites and in the database.
Mission clarity: A focused, clear mission and strategy to go about delivering on it collaboratively.
Local and regional organizations like the Voice of San Diego, Berkeleyside, VTDigger, and Rivard Report all have hyper-focused missions centered around their local communities which they excel at covering and serving.
We’ve continuously heard that members serve as a constant reminder to organizations to work according to the missions they’ve laid out. Kate Myers, First Look Media’s executive director, said that as The Intercept expands to new audiences, the site sees membership as “holding [it] accountable” as an organization. Jesse Thorn, founder of podcast network Maximum Fun, said that although the network relies on several revenue streams, their members help the team keep in mind that “we want to be developing shows to make them the best for audiences, not advertisers.”
PolitiFact makes its goal — to fact-check public officials — central to its membership program and involves its entire staff in the effort. Members of PolitiFact’s Truth Squad can listen in on “chamber calls” on which “editors and reporters debate a fact-check and decide on its Truth-O-Meter rating.” They are also invited to regularly discuss facts with PolitiFact staff through “virtual coffees” and in its private member and staff Facebook group. (See more about their membership program in our database.)
Proactivity about filling news gaps: "Thick" membership sites take direct aim at the limitations and flaws in what's commonly available to news audiences.
Richland Source tries to reflect northern Ohio community needs in its coverage. Publisher Jay Allred and director of sales and revenue Jack Windsor said that their communities in Mansfield and Richland County largely feel misrepresented by the national and local media. In response, Richland Source was founded with “proportionality” as one of its core principles, meaning that the site makes sure to cover community problems proportionally and with a solutions-oriented approach. Allred said, “Eighty percent of our coverage is not crime, it’s what’s going on in the actual community. Readers value Richland Source because it’s reflective of what’s going on in the city that matters to them.” For example, recent coverage included an overview of Ashland’s mayoral debate and the story behind a Mansfield brewery’s new beer flavor inspired by a local retiree.
Atlatszo launched to counter stifled press freedoms in Hungary. Editor Tamás Bodoky told Future Media Lab: “The [Hungarian] government handles mass media as a propaganda tool [and] public service media is controlled by the political parties’ appointees. Commercial media companies become increasingly cautious, including print and online publishers [and] journalists are forced to avoid sensitive topics.” Bodoky said that through Atlatszo’s nonprofit model and its focus on collaboration and making an impact, the site is hoping to reinvigorate investigative journalism in the country.
The Ken, an Indian reader-funded, longform journalism site, launched out of the founders’ frustrations with a lack of depth in ad-funded media. “We had a sense of disillusionment with the way journalism has turned out, and we all personally hated what advertising had done to journalism,” co-founder Rohin Dharmakumar told Nieman Lab. Co-founder Seema Singh told the site: “We saw a lot of dissatisfaction in our extended network of readers. We found people didn’t know what sources to trust. It was a good time to actually test our main conviction, that people might be willing then to pay for quality journalism.” The site publishes one piece each weekday and focuses on in-depth longreads about tech, business, science and healthcare.
Demonstrating humanity: Being approachable as opposed to institutional, showing that individuals comprise the organization and its membership.
Charlotte Agenda covers a range of topics, from local events to new restaurants to Charlotte’s city council. They’re consistently inviting in their tone and humanize the people behind the publication. This is in stark contrast to the “faceless” news of old. (You can see more in our database about how this approach plays out in their membership program.)
The Young Turks has built its network of YouTube news shows on its down-to-earth approach to covering the news. "We're doing serious shows that you could find on traditional radio or TV. We'll be a bit more irreverent and have a bit more attitude. But we really have no rules," founder Cenk Uygur told Poynter.
Matt Kiser started the newsletter “What The Fuck Just Happened Today?” as a way to track and keep up with the deluge of news coming out of the Trump White House. His one-man effort to understand the past 24 hours in American politics quickly grew to become Kiser’s full-time job, made possible by his Patreon members who pay a monthly contribution to keep the project going. Kiser sees transparency and an approachable tone, as well as his efforts to engage with his audience, as central to his newsletter’s success. “It 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.” WTFJHT has open source code on GitHub and audiences submit pull requests to recommend changes. This has resulted in one suggested correction daily since the site launched, which demonstrates a new form of publisher - audience accessibility.
2. A robust membership program engenders an operating style that supports it.
These sites experiment a lot, as they search for the best ways to engage members and their changing needs. They are humble about what they know. They invite user participation, but also have a high quality bar—which members appreciate. Membership tends not to be the responsibility of a single department.
Humble approach: Willingness to ask for and recognize member help and contributions.
ProPublica’s Get Involved initiative allows readers to help journalists in their reporting. In introducing the initiative, the organization wrote: “Wherever you see Get Involved, you will find ways to contribute to ProPublica’s journalism, through discussions, community groups, calls for stories, crowd-sourcing projects and more. We care about likes and shares, but we care more about connecting with people like you with insights, expertise, and stories to share.” Recently, ProPublica has heard from nearly 1,000 people as part of their investigation into rising drug prices. They’ve included reader-submitted stories to provide a clearer sense of the causes and effects of the rising costs. In their ongoing series about the US’s comparably high maternal death rate, crowdsourced stories have been used to add anecdotal evidence to the statistics about the problem.
Blank Spot in Sweden encourages a dialogue between journalists and audience members to improve their coverage and manage topic-specific Facebook groups where audiences can contribute their knowledge on specific subjects. Reporters worked with a Facebook group on stories about the deportation of Afghan asylum seekers from Sweden. The site has also created groups to help in reporting on topics ranging from Swedish arms exports to democracy in West Africa.
Maximum Fun’s involved audience offers guidance on both podcast content and company growth. “It’s not just lip service — the [show] teams are always trying to deepen the connection with the audience,” founder Jesse Thorn said of high frequency audience involvement in Maximum Fun show production. Thorn added that their community has also played a central role in what the network’s lineup itself looks like today. “The discovery of much of our current network of talent has actually been guided by audience.”
Emphasizing experimentation: Bringing creativity, time-bounded testing, and iteration to work for and with members.
Zetland in Denmark is regularly trying new ways to improve its journalism and delivery for its members. It describes its events as “performances” and has tested products including e-books to audio versions of its stories in advance of publication and airing. (You can read more about Zetland’s varied approaches to their journalism’s form in our database.)
Andy Wallmeyer, publisher of MinnPost, said his staff is curious about how they might confer special status on readers who offer “non-monetary effort” in the form of significant social sharing of and discussion about their articles. MinnPost has trained five of its loyal readers and one former staffer to moderate comments. They provide moderation guidelines for these volunteers and have found it to be helpful service to the site and other readers.
Quality control: Why would members participate in the journalism at a mediocre or error-filled site? They wouldn't!
German site Perspective Daily’s members are highly encouraged to contribute their expertise, though editors maintain oversight in determining what will ultimately be published. “We have high demands on the professional knowledge of our authors,” they write. “So you have to explain to us why you think [you should] be the author for the planned contribution."
Greece’s Inside Story often relies on members’ pitches, and it has experimented with having members co-report stories with the organization’s journalists. You can read more about ways that members pitch stories for community voting and publishing in this post.
Membership doesn’t only involve the marketing or fundraising department.
A sure sign of a more robust membership program is that membership isn't siloed off. Talking to and designing for members is a responsibility distributed across the organization.
We’ve written about how both Slate and Radiotopia approach membership with buy-in from the entire organization; both organizations have built internal cultures where editorial leadership takes initiative with membership efforts. Slate’s entire editorial team takes turns contributing to Slate Plus members-only stories, and Radiotopia’s podcast hosts lead fundraising efforts, using their storytelling skills and audience connection to boost the development team’s work.
Honolulu Civil Beat hosts monthly “Conversation and Coffee” event for members, where the primary goal is to to get the newsroom to participate in regular face-to-face conversations with members and the community. “It’s a way to build trust [and] get ideas in the door,” said Mariko Chang, Civil Beat’s membership and events manager. Community conversations at these events have led, for example, to the site doubling down on its coverage of secret police commission meetings and to an event series on news literacy in partnership with the state’s library system.
3. Participation takes many forms in the more muscular models for membership.
Not one way to contribute, but many entry points. Staff is curious about what members might want to do and doesn’t assume that it has the system right. Feedback is constantly requested from members and programs are adjusted accordingly. These organizations are flexible in offering different participation possibilities for different kinds of people (a theme we’ve also seen in our analogous research into domains beyond news) with varying levels of commitment required.
High curiosity about what drives members.
Genuine interest in researching what matters to members and an organizational commitment to learning from and serving members. Membership programs aren’t set in stone; rather, they consistently evolve based on feedback.
WhereBy.Us, which operates the Evergrey in Seattle and the New Tropic in Miami, is a startup that’s designing its membership programs with an eye towards delivering on user needs. “Understanding user interactions is going to be how we grow,” said co-founder Rebekah Monson. “I’m seeing that members are center of your target no matter what you’re talking about.” According to Nieman Lab, WhereBy.Us got its start through a series of design thinking workshops on civic issues. “Information and community were the things we heard from everybody,” co-founder Christopher Sopher told the site. Monson said that WhereBy.Us sites still continuously make editorial decisions by gauging member interest.
In the UK, The Bristol Cable’s members have a say in everything from editorial to strategic and business decisions according to co-founder Adam Cantwell-Corn. The organization has monthly meetings at which members and staff vote on the topics they want to see covered that month. Similarly, Republic in Russia hosts weekly events for members with guest experts; these frequent events vary topically, but are always driven by member needs, requests, and questions. Republic has hosted events featuring experts on topics like artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, and virtual reality, as well as experts on the local education system and finance.
The Charlotte Agenda features monthly op-eds with members’ opinions on timely city topics, and Honolulu Civil Beat features a Community Voice section through which it encourages “broad discussion on many topics of community interest” by users, including members, in “a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds.” Civil Beat director of philanthropy Ben Nishimoto said that because they are a small newsroom, “there are issues that need additional analysis and coverage.” Allowing readers to contribute through Community Voice helps to fill that gap. Nishimoto said that about half of reader submissions are responses to their coverage and the other half are about issues the site isn’t already covering. This allows the newsroom to gauge what topics being covered drive responses, as well as what their coverage blind spots are.
Participation takes a range of concrete forms: Creating multiple means for members and organizational reps to be in dialogue to benefit the journalism.
VTDigger relies heavily on tips from its readers. Anne Galloway, the site’s founder and editor, said this stems from staffers’ efforts to connect to the communities they cover. “The only way you get tips is if you build relationships with sources and readers,” she said, adding that a key part of this is reporters’ accessibility and eagerness to learn from readers. “We’re not in an ivory tower, we’re just on main street in Montpelier.”
The Bristol Cable and The Ferret both offer a wide range of journalism trainings and participation opportunities to members that help the sites’ journalists and members alike. The Bristol Cable offers free workshops for members in journalistic skills like interviewing, video editing, and conducting investigative journalism, while The Ferret often hosts popular fact-checking workshops for members. For both of these organizations, teaching members journalistic skills adds value not only for members, but for the organization as well, as they both regularly involve members in the editorial process. Bristol Cable members can attend monthly meetings where they have a say in the stories that the site plans on covering, and The Ferret openly shares data with members for reporting help.
The Skimm, which launched with a daily email newsletter product, has a membership program that doesn’t involve members paying to be involved. “Skimmbassadors” give their time by helping in marketing the company to their communities and testing and giving feedback on new products.
The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans, has a call-out for their audience to get involved in ways beyond membership, in ways that include donating, volunteering, sponsoring, signing up for their newsletters, giving feedback, and sending tips. (Take a closer look at The Lens’s approach to member participation in our database.)
With these principles in mind, please have a look at the Membership Models in News Database. Let us know what you think and what other organizations should be included. We also hope to learn what you interpret from this work-in-progress data. Thanks!