With traditional media funding models in disarray, a number of outlets are looking at alternative ways to ensure their profitability or survival, among them implementing a paywall for content, asking for reader donations, or creating a membership model by establishing a community of champions for their work.
After looking at membership models around the world, and speaking with teams in 50 newsrooms, The Membership Puzzle Project (MPP) published a comprehensive guide in September to best practices and common mistakes.
GIJN: You say that journalism is facing a trust and sustainability crisis. How can membership help?
Zirulnick: Membership is a two-way exchange between the news organization and the audience members. The transparency and participation that is required to implement membership effectively — that begins to address the trust challenges that prevent people from helping you become sustainable by providing financial support.
That’s how we see trust and sustainability addressed in membership in a way that they are not addressed in other revenue models that might keep audience members at arm’s length.
In the guide we walk people through the difference between subscription, donations, and membership and why certain organizations choose different models. The guide is by no means a push to get everybody to launch a membership model because we want people to think that this is the superior revenue and engagement model out there. But we think that for some it answers this particular trust and sustainability crisis that we’re all grappling with.
Is membership a model that organizations are having to look at in a new way? And is this something that legacy news organizations are starting to adopt as well as startup organizations?
There are a number of organizations around the world that have implemented membership models that are not startups, most notably public radio in the United States, which is really the earliest adopter of a membership model in news, and they’ve been functioning in that way for decades.
I think a key thing that we tried to drive home in the guide is that there are both membership programs and memberful routines. Membership programs are the container that you build around the people who financially support your organization.
And then there are memberful routines, which are workflows that connect audience members to journalists and the journalism they are producing. That’s what engaged journalism looks like when it becomes part of the culture of the organization.
And many organizations that are not membership models have implemented memberful routines. And that is really key when you think about legacy organizations considering membership is they’re not necessarily going to remove their paywall and start calling people members, but they are beginning to invite people to participate in very meaningful ways.
On the question of trust and membership, is it about the stories you cover or the way you cover news itself? Or is it about transparency about funding, too?
I think it’s both. I mean it’s certainly offering transparency about how you work, how you’re funded, how you make decisions, that kind of thing. But it also means involving people in the production of your journalism. And that doesn’t mean you have to do it at every single stage and in every single story, but it does mean opening up the actual production of the journalism to audience members through giving up this idea that journalism is this esoteric art that only people who have been formally trained in journalism can do it. It begins with asking audience members what they know that you don’t know and finding ways to bring their knowledge into the work.
That’s pretty foundational to addressing the trust concerns, even if only 1% of your visitors actually take you up on that offer to help scrape municipal databases or to submit their leases so that you can build a public register. Just the fact that you’ve opened that up and anybody that reads your work can see that you’ve opened that up is a really strong signal that you don’t have anything to hide. It says: What we do is something that any of you have access to.
Ariel Zirulnick. Photo: Courtesy Ariel Zirulnick
You highlight the work of Maldita, a membership-based fact-checking website in Spain, and how they use members in a very active way by looking for experts for specific stories. How important is it that they put them through the kind of the same fact-checking that you would for a source that wasn’t connected to your organization?
It’s so key because Maldita is an organization tackling misinformation. If they botched that, if they didn’t put in those strong sort of checks on audience contributions they would undermine their entire organization. By being that transparent, they can also buffer themselves against accusations from peddlers of misinformation that they’re peddling misinformation themselves. They can point to the thousands of people who have contributed to their work.
And while not every reader is going to be hyper-engaged, they like the fact that they could contribute?
They like what it says about an organization’s ethos. It is very much at its core is we have nothing to hide. If you want to participate, we welcome you to do so.
There’s obviously a number of different ways that membership can work for different outlets and publications. Is there anything in particular that could work well for investigative journalism outlets?
I think the key thing to understand with this is you don’t have to offer complete transparency and reader participation in every single thing you do. Membership doesn’t mean letting audience members run everything, it means being intentional about where you open your work up to others.
My first piece of advice is you know your political and social context better than anybody, and MPP does not by any means pretend that sharing your work is something that is safe to do across the board.
But there are organizations like Maldita, South Africa’s Daily Maverick, and CORRECTIV, a German investigative nonprofit newsroom, [which are] excellent examples. Adopting memberful ways of working as an investigative organization comes down to identifying the right stage at which to involve audience members, understanding the motivation of audience members to participate, and finding an opportunity to offer them ways to participate that connect with that motivation. And then putting the proper safeguards in place.
What has that German team done with their members that has been innovative or surprising?
One example is they felt like people deserved greater transparency about the housing market for the city they live in. But in Germany journalists aren’t entitled to that kind of information. So they developed a tool themselves and invited residents of Hamburg to upload their property records. And with that, they created a database of property records — these were legal contracts that can easily be verified. And so, that is one very clear way that you can ensure the veracity of the information you’re asking for: official documents.
Sometimes the databases for what you want to investigate just literally don’t exist. It’s not about a Freedom of Information Act request. It’s that no one has collected that information, ever.
So where traditionally a journalist would ring a company themselves and put an allegation to them, or hear from a whistleblower, this is a way of investigative journalists talking to their members about what’s happening, getting stories from them?
With investigative journalism, there’s been traditionally two sources or two sort of starting points for investigations: the journalists putting the pieces together and realizing something is wrong, or it’s a whistleblower coming to the news organization and informing them that something’s wrong. But membership or a membership ethos essentially opens up a third way, which is, we suspect there might be something going on, but we need to crowdsource data to find out if that’s true.
In places that have lost local news providers, or outlets that have had to make big cutbacks, can a membership model kind of re-engage those communities and rebuild that sense of a relationship that’s again of and for the community?
If it’s done right, yes. Membership begins with your audience members. And if you begin by speaking to your audience members and finding out what they believe is missing, what they need to live their lives, you ensure that the thing that you produce on the other end will be something that they need or something that they want.
If you don’t have that audience research and continue to conduct audience research over the lifespan of your organization, decisions are made based on hunches. They’re often made based on hierarchy — “the editor thinks this is true and so therefore this is the thing that we’re going to do.” And so, audience research keeps you oriented and grounded in the community’s needs at every turn. That is a cornerstone of membership.
If you had to summarize your key recommendations, what would they be?
Membership is not a branding campaign that can be toggled on and off. It’s not subscription by another name. It’s about a different way of working, and it’s not something that you can pivot to.
If you are planning to pursue a membership strategy you need to be very intentional about making sure you are willing to offer your audience members meaningful participation and transparency. The word member means something. And that is something that people seem to forget sometimes in their rush to find a way to be sustainable. When you tell someone they are a member you are telling them they are joining something, and they expect certain things in return. So we really encourage organizations to ask themselves what relationship they’re willing to have with their audience members before they choose their revenue and engagement strategy.
Laura Dixon is GIJN’s associate editor and a freelance journalist from the UK. A former reporter for The Times in London, she has reported from Colombia, the US and Mexico. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and The Atlantic, among others, and she has received reporting fellowships from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Pulitzer Center.