When done well, membership can be fantastically impactful. But it can also be incredibly resource-intensive and can’t be turned on and off like a campaign. Fundraising and marketing are difficult: with few exceptions, news consumers are habituated to not paying for access to digital news. Access to news is often subsidized—by advertisers, platforms, private funders, and reporters themselves—in ways readers often don’t realize.
Based on our research so far, I wish we’d discovered a simple formula. I’d love to say “charge x, hire y membership-responsible staff, partner with these types of publishers for z stories annually, then watch the money and audience collaboration opportunities come in.” But our study of news sites’ revenue and participation programs around the world suggests that there are too many complex external forces at play to offer one “rule” to everyone. We see significant diversity in funding landscapes and access to capital; local, regional, and national attitudes around giving and paying for news; public media literacy levels; incomes and ages of the members that sites serve; and more.
Despite this diversity of experience, our research shows that robust forms of membership can be a path toward financial sustainability and audience relationships that improve a site’s journalism. We’ve seen wide-ranging ways that sites have adapted to their particular circumstances to develop highly collaborative (“thick”) forms of audience involvement. We’ve met site staff who truly serve their community members, know about their habits and interests, and work together closely.
We recommend membership as one of several revenue streams and one that will likely generate less than 10 percent of total revenue in its first year. Still, we’d be remiss not to share other membership limitations with you—and warn that it may not be rosy under these conditions.
If your site can’t invest resources in working with members
“Thick” models of membership are not currently the norm, but reporters who try interacting in meaningful ways with their audience members have mostly been well served in doing so. The people behind ProPublica’s research with readers about maternal mortality, De Correspondent’s investigation into Shell Oil, and David Fahrenthold’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into Trump’s philanthropic giving all invested significant amounts of time in their work alongside readers: much more time than it would take to work with sources and editors only. This work involves identifying relevant people, communicating with them, and synthesizing and recognizing their contributions. We’ve seen journalists hack their own tools for collaborator management as there aren’t currently great off-the-shelf tools available (software developers and designers take note).
Sometimes it can take longer to train volunteers and edit their work than seems “worthwhile.” It can feel vulnerable to share story ideas and work and progress. But the output of projects like the Argentine newspaper La Nación’s investigation into public corruption, which involved readers coding politicians’ expense reports, ultimately proves hugely valuable. This demonstrates deeper two-way knowledge exchange and a real paradigm shift in the ways sites interact with their audiences. It's more curious, humble, and generative for journalism.
Before pursuing it, consider who on your team may be most applicable to work alongside members, knowing the clearly defined scope, project organization, and enthusiasm for distributed work that’s required. If your team does not have the time or bandwidth to invest in working with members, or immediate interest in boosting that capacity, reconsider whether this is really the right path for you. The answer may be “not right now,” which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pursue membership in the future. It’s time-saving for all of us to consider whether we’re able to fulfill the requirements for a robust membership operation before undertaking it badly.
If you can’t “find your fifteen”
In news and in other industry membership, several organizations have identified 12 to 20 “power volunteers” as a target range for giving non-staff members meaningful responsibilities, including committee leadership. Let’s call it 15: a numerical goal that will encourage you to find and collaborate with individuals who bring different types of expertise. They don’t all have to give in the same ways or the same number of hours (and their participation should be personalized to their strengths where possible). Local students who need experience are worth pursuing. You might also ask particularly committed or talented members who they would suggest reaching out to and post public calls for time-bound projects. Once you’ve found your crew, be explicit about what each side gives and gets.
We’ve been talking to sites in our research affiliate program about identifying which skills they need most, both paid and unpaid. Being specific about needs from coding to comment moderation is key, as is calling out the skills that your newsroom might be able to teach people in turn. Consider making a continuum of needs that you share with member volunteers, ranging from “one time, little to no training needed” (such as staffing events) to “recurring responsibility with expertise needed; some training offered” (like hosting a show, offering visual design capabilities, or working on website or mobile app development).
If you don’t talk to your potential members about the role you play in their lives and what they’d be willing to pay for your work, you may launch a program that doesn’t reflect their involvement. Save the money, time, and pain by talking to them early in your membership exploration process.
Maybe you make some people who give their time, energy, and ideas—those who “pay in participation”—members in lieu of taking their cash. Or, per The New York Times’ gift subscriptions for students, perhaps paying members can financially underwrite the involvement of deserving prospective members.
If you worry about giving members too much of a say
Northern Utah public radio station KRCL has experienced community involvement to an extent that many stations would love to have. Members volunteer extensively as DJs and fundraisers, and, inevitably, it can feel that every station decision is up for community comment. Membership director Haley Wightman said, “I was unprepared for the amount of feedback people want to give about the radio station and what we’re doing.” A former evolutionary biologist, Haley said, “As a scientist I solicited a lot of feedback about my work. But very rarely does someone say ‘hey, on your website it says you’re looking at this particular gene evolution and I really think that’s a dumb one you should go with a different one’...But here people feel so much ownership over the station that they feel really strongly about a lot of things.”
People we talk with about our work frequently say some variation on this: “Membership sounds like a good idea. But how do I make sure we don’t over-serve members?” In reality, our project is yet to identify an example of members being able to turn their own agendas into published journalism. Tracey Taylor, co-founder of local news site Berkeleyside, said that a few people have asked Berkeleyside “what does taking funding [from audiences] mean for your journalism?” She replies: “We’re journalists first. It’s not going to be an issue. If we did start to show favoritism we'd lose our readers' trust, then we lose everything. They have to take us at our word.”
This isn’t to say that members exerting influence hasn’t happened—just that it’s unlikely that professional reporters and editors can be easily swayed given the skepticism that their jobs require. Journalists’ connections with audience members may make them more empathetic to those individuals’ interests, but it’s our sincere expectation that story pitching and editing processes serve as a check on potential unfair advantages. As South African investigative site Daily Maverick wrote in its reader covenant, “Nobody will ever pay for our opinions, no matter the size of the chequebook. We will never sell your private information, or let somebody else dictate our agenda, or conspire behind your back.” I love this example of expectation setting on both sides.
Still, it’s imperative to watch for. Ask who from your communities is represented and who is excluded, both in your audience engagement efforts and in your potential future plans. How can you mitigate risks of over-reach? And ask yourselves these questions from Andrew Losowsky, project lead for The Coral Project about potential soft influence factors: “If members get more access to journalists, how do you make sure that journalists think beyond members when considering the focus and impact of the work? And if access is part of the ‘sell,’ do we need to ensure that member-like access is given to people who don’t yet have either the resources or the desire to support the organization?”
If you can’t be transparent
If your publication fails to be transparent about your needs and limitations, you might invite skepticism or suspicion from would-be contributors. Without knowledge of your processes and progress, potential supporters might even think you’re full of cash and journalistic contributions and don’t need their involvement. As our project director Jay Rosen has written, we take this as a call to open up.
In all of these communications, humility and transparency are key. Local news site BKLYNER issued a note that they’d close their doors if they couldn’t generate 3,000 subscriptions by the end of 2017: “We need 3,000 subscribers – less than 1% of our readers – to support us at $5/month. If we do not reach this number, we will stop publishing at the end of December.” The site then announced that they’d stay open with contributions from 1,745 people, about 60% of their goal.
As a subscriber, I was glad to see their initial ask along with a solid case for supporting their coverage of Brooklyn, then subsequently confused. I wanted their team to say more about their runway and strategic plan after the bump of almost 2,000 new paying subscribers. I was later glad to see Poynter reporter Kristen Hare detail more information: “It wasn’t the number they’d aimed for. But half of those people paid for the full year. They’d still need to get to 3,000 in order to hire another reporter and continue their work. But maybe they could take a bit more time.”
If you live in a country where funds and participation are limited
If you operate in low income countries and/or places where share of voice is restricted, member funds and participation may be harder to generate and sustain. In their Publishing for peanuts report, JJ Robinson, Kristen Grennan, and Anya Schiffrin of the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs write that “immature advertising markets threaten the viability of conventional business models, and lack of access to training and talent undermines the quality and credibility of editorial content.”
And yet: “The bane of the saturated media markets of the developed world—apathy—is less common in places where being well informed is a need rather than a luxury. This offers hope for quality media start-ups, even as they find financial survival difficult.” If this describes your site’s experience, please reach out to us so we can learn about the situations you’re facing (and hopefully attempt to better understand possible solutions here).
If you are seen as one of many membership organizations
If you publish in an especially crowded space, you may face an uphill battle. Public media business coverage site Current chose not to develop a membership program. As executive director Julie Drizin explained, “there are lots of membership organizations already in public media.” They “concluded that despite our best intense efforts, donor campaigns will not be a significant part of our business model. Some readers do feel passionate enough about our service to give, but as a trade publication that’s related to work, it’s been a really tough sell.” Advertising and foundation subsidies have kept the site running.
If you don’t know how to price and market membership (or want to learn)
If your membership feels overly complex or if you offer too many pricing options, you’ll invite confusion rather than contribution. If you are too reliant on membership perks, your staff may lose interest in fulfilling physical goods and other benefits. Keep the exchange you offer to members centered around the journalism. What perks might be low cost for you to produce but valuable to them?
Ben Thompson told us that he originally had three tiers for his tech news site Stratechery but chose to narrow to just one subscription option. Having numerous tiers was "way too complicated" for both his supporters and for himself as a one-person publishing operation. Having one tier simplified his internal incentives — he didn’t like the pressure of delivering this value to the highest tier, hated meetups (the highest tier "reward"), and wanted people to just pay for what he wrote. Ben said: “If you present people with choices, people will fall off the funnel, and if there’s one choice, they take it or leave it.” Go for simple.
Jessica Best, Gonzalo del Peon, Maaike Goslinga, Anika Gupta, Susan Forde, and Leon Postma contributed to this post.