The Membership in News Fund
“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 is partnering 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 that are 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 funds in different amounts based on project idea, region, and scope. More details on how to indicate your interest in applying are here.
The Membership Model Experiment
The Membership in News Fund will support a set of global experiments to test new membership models in news organizations, enabling news sites throughout the world to experiment with different membership ideas in collaboration with the MPP team, led by Jay Rosen, Emily Goligoski, and Ariel Zirulnick. Emerging news sites 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 sites 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, and please see the location details below. 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 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. A good use of the fund is to develop 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: We are particularly eager to fund 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. This includes countries designated as priorities by Luminate and Democracy Fund for their larger democracy-building efforts. Applicants working beyond these countries can still apply. 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, please see our blog post here.