Nancy Papathanasiou, a busy psychologist and university lecturer in Athens, has little time to participate in community events or online conversations. She disdains partisan media. But she pays to be a subscriber of the investigative site Inside Story. “I feel very strongly about having a completely independent site for Greece, one that doesn’t depend on ads.”
Nancy likened helping to underwrite Inside Story’s reporting to her pro bono work as a psychologist. “A lot of my pro-bono work is made possible by paying clients, and I’m pretty open about that,” said Nancy, who serves on a national LGBT helpline among other unpaid work. “That is part of my responsibility.”
Members of news sites around the world have reiterated this theme to us, saying they feel a strong sense of shared responsibility. They expect the site(s) they support to tell stories that others don’t, particularly on topics and in regions that get little major media coverage. They want these stories to be presented in compelling ways and to be accessible to non-paying people whenever possible. In return, members say they feel called to give as they’re personally able to: with their time, talents, and money. (They want to be kept apprised of how that money is being spent, too. They say that tangible evidence of the use of member contributions makes some organizations stands out.)
While Inside Story has a paywall, many supporters of open access news sites say they’re aware that they’re paying for the site’s work as a voluntary act that subsidizes journalism for others. But this is a point of pride, not frustration, for most of them. Slate Plus member Beth Rushing, a longtime contributor to local public radio stations, explained her decision to donate this way: “Most people don’t support it, but when I have some money, I really want to do that. There’s something about knowing that public radio is public that makes [giving] easy to do.”
Here we share what we’ve learned from individual and group interviews with 60 individuals who have joined sites including City Bureau, Texas Tribune, New Hampshire Public Radio, Slate Plus, and Follow the Money. (Don’t fear: we’re asking for much more input as we go.)
A methodological note
Or, as numeracy writer Sanne Blauw from our partner organization De Correspondent writes, a “Nerd Alert” for people who read the fine print.
This work is a continuation of our summer inquiry into why De Correspondent members join. It’s a precursor to upcoming survey research to collect data from more—and more widespread—members of news sites and related organizations.
We recruited these interviewees via email asks from the organizations they’re involved with. We conducted interviews face-to-face in Austin and Chicago and remotely as needed. We used appropriately contextualized versions of the research tools detailed here and added a new one: a membership motivations worksheet that is ideal for group sessions. It’s intended to spur discussion more than serve as a diagnostic. Please repurpose the worksheet for your own conversations and let us know how you improve upon it.
Painful experiences with other news sites could bring you members
While we have more work to do in understanding market and cultural preferences around the world, we’ve seen three important similarities across countries so far.
Members’ investments and decisions to spend time aiding certain sites suggests a profound dissatisfaction with other media. They told us that they often see news sites as abdicating their civic duty by chasing eyeballs rather than offering important analysis. Some sites stand out from this, often by specializing in a single topic or a set number of topics that they focus on explicitly. “Don’t try to be all things to all people!” we heard more than once, referring to member demand for more sites to focus on subjects and spaces they’re uniquely capable of covering.These members feel a clear sense of ownership for the sites they support. Several Texas Tribune members spoke reverently about seeing CEO Evan Smith on television talking about the publication’s reporting, and members felt at least partially responsible for making the work possible. Similarly, Beth told us she felt a "sense of pride" in Slate’s work as a longtime podcast listener and paying member. About Slate podcast hosts she had frequently heard and seen discussing their work on social media, she said: “You feel like you know that person, in a little bit of a different way. To me that brings what they’re reporting on a little bit closer."
Members aren’t “budgeting” their annual or monthly contributions—monetarily or in kind—to the extent that we initially expected. “Wouldn’t that be logical?” Jean Gottesman, a New Hampshire Public Radio board member, said with a laugh. Like many other members we spoke to, her spending and participation choices are more emotionally motivated than reflective of a finite set of resources. As Jean explained, “My time is inexhaustible if it’s something I believe in.” Supporters are creative in finding ways to be involved when a site speaks to them—or, better yet, with them by soliciting their ideas and expertise to benefit the journalism. This isn’t to say that their behaviors are impulsive. Rather, a site’s demonstration of valuable work when combined with a timely appeal can compel more giving than supporters might have thought they’d offer. (For some, non-flashy ways to recognize their efforts help too: think handwritten thank you notes and speaking to supporters less generally and more specifically once they’ve become involved.)
Why members want to participate in something “new and different”
No matter where we go, two of the responses we hear most when asking members what motivates them to join are “offering the world something that I think should exist” and “a sense of uniqueness.” At a recent membership program co-design event with City Bureau, supporters described this in their own words as “feeling like I’m participating in a new and different relationship that’s meaningful.” We call this a unique value mindset. (Other motivators that move the needle: appropriate price, visibility into operations and the journalists behind the stories, and design, both brand and user experience.)
An example of this idea in action is a majority of readers surveyed by The Intercept identifying the site as covering stories that can’t be found elsewhere and presenting those stories differently. This data helped the organization design and recently launch its membership program.
The emphasis we hear members place on unique value is in contrast to a more product-oriented motivator, a utility mindset. An example is paying subscribers being able to access all of the content they want instead of working around a digital paywall, a time-saving approach (and a more ethical one). Similarly, Melanie Coulson, executive director for member station services at Greater Public, described that one-time and lump sum donors often donate to pay for what they use or to support a community resource that they value greatly. She differentiates them from recurring or “sustaining” members who use a site’s journalism as a primary source and have deeper and more emotional reasons to participate—what we’d call unique value.
Seeking more spaces for interactions...and playing to personal strengths
In considering their side of the social contract—what do members give, and what do they get?—we heard two other requests:
More places where “high quality” interactions (their words) happen, not just member + staff but member + member. This extends beyond hearing from other like-minded supporters: Inside Story member Nancy said she is interested "not necessarily [in] a sense of community, but a sense of common purpose, or common values.” Opportunities for rich interactions take the form of events, on and off platform opportunities for well moderated discussions, and more.
More non-obvious options for participation. “Play to my strengths,” City Bureau supporter Hafsa Razi explained in wanting more personally relevant ways to be involved as a community member and writer. Consider how your site might tap individuals’ creativity and connections, as well as whether you might make a “pay in participation” option available alongside monetary payment.
How you can use this intel
We’re taking these themes and turning them into design questions for news sites to use in their or your own planning. Our intention is to create prompts for team ideation, whether it be to design for price transparency or market how a site is different from general news publishers. Please tell us what else you want in the meantime! Thanks.