The Membership in News Fund
Back in May 2017, when the Membership Puzzle Project started studying news sites that were working with their supporters for revenue and to benefit their journalism, we heard two themes. First, staff that work with members wanted to meet and learn from each other. So we created two professional communities of practice and frequently directed them to others who could assist. And second, they needed funding to launch or expand their membership ideas. To help serve this need, we launched the Membership in News Fund in October 2018.
The fund was designed to help sites in 17 target countries around the world freely experiment with membership as a way to develop models for sustainable support of independent journalism. Our goal was to increase the depth, variety, geographic reach, and financial sustainability of approaches to membership. Applications were accepted on a rolling basis through June 2019.
Below, you can find an overview of our 17 grantees to date. We will be announcing our final six grantees at the end of October 2019.
The application section has more detail on the criteria and selection process.
Daily Maverick (Johannesburg, South Africa) – The Daily Maverick is an independent news, analysis and investigative digital publisher based in South Africa. We are supporting further development of its Maverick Insiders membership program and their exploration of the boundaries of audience engagement at an investigative site. We also provided additional funding to co-host a workshop on audience engagement and membership in August 2019.
The Devil Strip (Akron, Ohio) – The Devil Strip is an arts and culture magazine founded to help Akronites connect to their neighbors, to their city, and to a greater sense of shared purpose. Our support will fund their transition from an advertising-based business model to a community-owned cooperative that gives community members and local businesses a share in The Devil Strip’s future.
DoR (Bucharest, Romania) – DoR (Decat o Revista) is a narrative storytelling organization that produces a magazine and live journalism events. Our support will help DoR bring in experts from other fields – such as anthropologists, field organizers, and psychologists – to train their journalists on best practices in community engagement. Staff will then hit the road to test and further develop their skills through pop-up newsrooms around the country. These efforts will coincide with the launch of their membership program.
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) – The Dallas Morning News is a daily metro newspaper that has been serving north Texas for more than 100 years. We are supporting the launch of Experience Dallas, which will allow premium subscribers to contribute their own reviews of restaurants, bars, performances and exhibitions, and be paid via rebates on their subscriptions. The paper will also explore non-monetary on-ramps to the program.
Aos Fatos (Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo, Brazil) – Aos Fatos is one of Brazil’s leading fact-checking platforms, and works closely with community members to identify and correct misinformation. We are supporting their transition from successive crowdfunding campaigns to a membership model, and the development of a media literacy program to help members and the broader public become fact-checking partners.
Conexión Migrante (Mexico City, Mexico) – Conexión Migrante was founded immediately after the 2016 election to help Latino immigrants in the U.S. navigate the rapidly changing immigration landscape. We are supporting the expansion of their call center, where they respond to hundreds of phone calls a month from Spanish-speaking immigrants in the U.S., along with the launch of a membership program.
Outride.rs (Warsaw, Poland) – Outride.rs was founded to address the lack of quality, contextualized foreign coverage in Polish and the lack of journalism skills-sharing in Eastern Europe. They have a young, rapidly growing audience and run public workshops in cities across the region on topics like misinformation. We are supporting their pivot to a newsletter-first editorial strategy and their launch of a membership program that harnesses that growing one-to-one email relationship.
Mutante (Bogota, Colombia) – Mutante is a digital startup in Colombia that designs “social conversations” for Colombians to come together on social media and in person to talk, understand, and act upon thorny issues in society. We are supporting their transition from crowdfunding to membership, which is especially challenging for an audience that encounters its work mostly off-platform.
Health Analytics Asia (based in New Delhi, India) – Health Analytics Asia is a newly launched platform that will collaborate with the region’s health industry to produce journalism that addresses health misinformation. We are supporting the development of their membership program and their fact checking collaboration with doctors across the region.
Colorado Media Project (based in Denver, Colorado) – The Colorado Media Project develops partnerships and programs to increase newsroom capacity, support collaboration, and engage community in Colorado’s media ecosystem. We are supporting their exploration of a joint membership program among news, cultural, and civic organizations across the state.
Gaon Connection (Uttar Pradesh, India) – Gaon Connection is India’s largest rural news platform. Its mission is to make essential information available to those living outside cities. We are supporting Gaon Connection’s development of a platform specifically for rural audiences, and a membership program that gives rural and “rural-minded” Indians better access to that information.
Scalawag (American South) – Scalawag is a magazine that aims to spark critical conversations about the “many Souths where we live, love, and struggle by uplifting untold stories and marginalized voices.” We are supporting the development of regional hubs in Birmingham, Ala.; Atlanta; and Durham, N.C., where staff can foster community and share skills. These hubs will be the foundation of their membership program.
El Timpano (Oakland, California) – El Timpano is a local reporting lab that serves the information needs of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the Oakland area. We are supporting the launch of a community advisory board that will incorporate the needs and experiences of their readers in editorial projects.
Red/Acción (Buenos Aires, Argentina) – Red/Acción is a digital startup that brings a solutions-oriented approach to reporting on Argentinian and regional social issues, and incorporates new ways of listening to audiences. We are supporting their exploration of underwriting as an alternative pathway to membership and an opportunity for mission-aligned companies and organizations to contribute to journalism sustainability.
Premium Times (Abuja, Nigeria) – Premium Times is an investigative journalism and policy analysis news organization. Many of its diaspora readers are primed for paid membership, because 1.) they are already accustomed to sending remittances home as a form of investment and 2.) they rely on Premium Times to help them stay informed about developments in the country. We’re supporting their exploration of how to build an online community among their diaspora readers and what a membership program that serves them should look like.
Paginá/12 (Buenos Aires, Argentina) – Paginá/12, founded in 1987, was one of the first news organizations in Argentina to cover human rights and culture. They have remained a central voice in political discourse since then, and launched membership in April 2018. We are supporting further development of their conversations platform, which is the backbone of their membership program, and greater integration of reader conversations into their reporting.
DCist (Washington, D.C.) – When DCist’s billionaire owner shut down the site (along with Gothamist and LAist) in 2017, it looked like the end for this local digital startup. But after a crowdfunding campaign saved it from extinction, it was acquired by NPR affiliate WAMU, giving DCist institutional support and a more permanent home. We’re supporting DCist’s exploration of how to blend public radio’s proven best practices with the most promising elements of digital site memberships.
The call for proposals closed on June 20, 2019 and we are no longer accepting applications.
Subscription is a product relationship: you pay your money and you get the product. If you don’t pay you don’t get it. Membership is different: you join the cause because you believe in the work...”
In its efforts to encourage robust and interactive membership practices with news organizations around the world, the Membership Puzzle Project has partnered with Luminate and Democracy Fund to launch The Membership in News Fund to run through May 2020. The $700,000 fund is designed to support innovative membership models being tested at news sites as part of a global experiment to identify and clarify best practices for supporting and sustaining independent journalism in the 21st century. We’ll be providing between $10,000 and $60,000 to news organizations worldwide based on project idea, region, and scope.
The Membership Model Experiment
The Membership in News Fund will support a set of exceptional experiments in membership in news organizations in collaboration with the MPP team, led by Jay Rosen, Emily Goligoski, and Ariel Zirulnick. News organizations on different continents will lead the work of experimentation to get the kind of answers that can inspire creative effort around the globe.
We welcome applications from three kinds of organizations as part of a rolling application process: local/place-based; national (and with further reach); and subject matter/topical. We encourage non-profit, for-profit, and cooperative news organizations to apply. We accept applications from organizations based in the following countries: Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, UK, France, Germany, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, India, Myanmar, and the U.S. (Please note that at this time in the U.S. we can only provide funds to nonprofit news organizations or for-profit news organizations with a fiscal sponsor.)
Experiments of great interest include:
Experiments around revenue. Example: direct public offering.
Experiments around member/audience/reader participation (what we call opportunities for community members to “pay in participation”). Example: Documenters project from City Bureau.
Experiments around governance. Example: Co-op models and collaborative work from sites like The Bristol Cable.
Experiments with learnings outside of news. Example: sites that look at voter registration and other political engagement efforts and increasingly talk about how supporting their work is part of participation in democratic processes.
Experiments in online-to-offline and offline-to-online behavior. Example: local citizen engagement.
Each news site chosen to participate in the project will agree to experiment with a different pathway or “hypothesis” about how membership can help sustain public service journalism. The idea is to support a plurality of approaches in a plurality of local settings, and also test new ideas. By "support" we mean money to conduct the experiment, coaching, and — where it's appropriate — expert advice from us and others about how to get the best results.
Relevant projects for funding & venture support
Can membership work in news? What are the best approaches?
We’ll identify a diverse group of participating sites to receive one-time funding and coaching to test different answers to these questions. MPP will study, consult, and host research with successful applicants to the fund. They can expect regular advising calls with the MPP research team and to be connected with other projects and people with relevant knowledge to share.
To be considered, successful applicants will:
Have membership as part of their site sustainability plans. They may ask community members for money, but they also encourage supporters to participate meaningfully in making the site work and making its journalism better. That’s the “membership threshold” MPP plans on adopting. Our project team is less concerned with whether a given site calls those participating supporters “members” or another phrase that fits better. The important component is they expect supporters to contribute more than money.
Propose an experiment in membership that pushes the global practice forward. MPP will seek applicants who will take responsibility for testing one component of how to make membership work in order to gain knowledge that will benefit all of the membership sites around the world. We’re especially keen to support projects that include the following themes or elements:
Participation path design. What are examples of successful practices for community members to be involved in news reporting, production, and site growth? Is there a continuum of practices that make for the most agile membership programs?
Inclusion and equity. Not everyone who cares about journalism can afford to give money, and not everyone who supports the work has a lot of free time to devote to it. If membership is in large part about participation, then part of the participation “puzzle” is how to make it possible to include as many people as possible as members and participants, no matter how much time or money they have.
Metrics. As sites change what they’re optimizing for, what metrics make sense to measure news organization health (e.g., retention, diversity, inclusivity)? What are the key performance indicators most worth watching? And when numbers can’t tell the story, what can?
Organizational listening. How can news sites with membership make listening and two-way dialogue a routine part of their operating style in an industry that still often broadcasts one way?
Member knowledge. The project team aims to see proposals that advance the practice of combining member knowledge and expertise with what journalists can dig up on their own.
Membership tools and tech. While the size of our fund makes it difficult to provide meaningful enough funding to be the sole backer of tool development, we’re eager to hear how we can support the development of audience research-backed tools and technologies — or adaptations of existing tech — that can make membership more efficient and effective.
Are mission-aligned: Participating sites must be committed to growing their membership programs and sharing what works and doesn’t with their members and with other sites. Unless it’s somehow completely impractical, all subcontractor award winners will be required to explain to their own audiences what their membership model experiment is, why they’re undertaking it, how it’s progressing as it unfolds, and what the final results are. This will be their primary “reporting requirement”: reporting to their own constituencies.
Instead of making the subcontractors compile for the funder an exhaustive (and exhausting) report on every activity, MPP will assume responsibility for narrating the results of each experiment for the benefit of the global community of membership-models-in-news readers — that is for MPP’s larger constituency. This will allow the participating sites (many of which may have limited staffing and resources) to stay focused on their own communities, and then collaborate with MPP as the project team pieces together the story of this larger experiment work for a broader global audience.
Stimulate meaningful audience engagement: Participating sites should be inclusive about inviting staff participation among people who work on business, editorial, executive, “audience,” and other key responsibilities, as it is MPP’s mission to help make all of those stakeholders smarter about membership and the future of journalism. Also, participating sites should make clear how audience members can take part in and watch their experimentation work. Finding opportunities to engage with and make use of what audience members know is a key project goal.
It’s important for the industry to learn how audience engagement might be done in ways that aren't a tremendous imposition for news organizations of different sizes. We will ask applicants to propose projects that:
Fit well with the experiment,
Allow them to know whether to continue it, invest in it, and develop it,
Can be clearly explained to user audiences, and
Cohere with their news reporting and production values and policies, including privacy considerations.
Swift and transparent communication of results: MPP is looking to fund projects that can be completed in a three to six month time window. We don't expect all of them to be successful. We do expect quick reporting and honesty about what works and doesn’t.
Operate in regions of interest: At this time, we are limited to funding experiments within news organizations that operate in these countries: Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, US, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, UK, France, Germany, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, India, and Myanmar. These are countries designated as priorities by Luminate and Democracy Fund for their larger democracy-building efforts (Please note that at this time in the U.S. we can only provide funds to nonprofit news organizations or for-profit news organizations with a fiscal sponsor). News organizations outside these countries should keep an eye on our newsletter for updates on other opportunities and the potential inclusion of other countries in the future. To ensure a strong applicant pool, our outreach and application-solicitation work will be undertaken carefully and in an egalitarian way to give organizations from diverse geographies an equal playing field in persisting through the selection process.
Civic engagement is a core component of the membership model of news generation that MPP seeks to promote, and it is foundational for Luminate and Democracy Fund’s shared work of supporting healthy democracies. The fund’s participating partners are both part of The Omidyar Group created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar.
Luminate is a global philanthropic organisation focused on empowering people and institutions to work together to build just and fair societies. It was established in 2018 by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. Luminate works with its investees and partners to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in, and shape, the issues affecting their societies, and to make government, corporations, media, and those in positions of power more responsive and more accountable. Luminate does this by funding and supporting innovative and courageous organisations and entrepreneurs around the world, and by advocating for the policies and actions that will drive change across four impact areas: Civic Empowerment, Data & Digital Rights, Financial Transparency, and Independent Media. Luminate was previously the Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative at Omidyar Network and is now part of The Omidyar Group. To date it has supported 236 organisations in 18 countries with $314 million in funding.
The Democracy Fund is a bipartisan foundation created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that our political system can withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Since 2011, Democracy Fund has invested more than seventy million dollars in support of a healthy democracy, including modern elections, effective governance, and a vibrant public square.
Membership Puzzle Project is a public research project studying how to optimize news for trust. It is collaboratively run by NYU and Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent and funded by Luminate, Democracy Fund, and the Knight Foundation. We research journalism organizations that are diversifying revenue and audience engagement practices.
The Membership in News Fund will be administered by MPP. We’ll allocate funds to news organizations (including non-profit, for-profit, and cooperative news outlets) through a “request for proposal” process and will review proposals on a rolling basis. To learn more about our work, please sign up for our newsletter.