1. Subsidy systems
Public service journalism has always been subsidized by something. But the system of subsidy varies across cultural eras and national boundaries. New subsidy systems can arise. Reliable ones can fail. We are living through such a shift today.
These notes on membership have a premise: Every system for subsidizing the production of real news has strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect or stable answer. We have to be smart about the risks and advantages of each.
“Membership” is a subsidy system of increasing importance to a free press around the globe. It is one answer — not the right answer, but one possible answer — to “how are we going to sustain public service journalism, given everything that is happening in the world?”
Advertising models are still the most common solution. In that system, a media company publishes news, comment, and information that people like or need. Audience attention creates a second-level product that can be sold to advertisers. The good news: Advertising subsidizes the costs of newsgathering. Journalists can be paid for their work. Readers, viewers and listeners are familiar with the system. The bad news: Attention-grabbing content can take over from real journalism. Big advertisers can exert undue influence on the news. And they aren’t especially loyal. As my friend Clay Shirky says, “Best Buy never signed up to fund the Baghdad Bureau.”
If advertisers can find a better deal somewhere else they will take it, which is exactly what has happened to the press in the digital era. With the rise of the internet and social media, classified ads moved to Craigslist and specialist sites like AutoTrader. Other categories went to Google and Facebook. Today the collapse of the ad subsidy is the major reason we have a business model crisis in journalism.
Now let’s shift scenes.
The BBC in the UK, ARD in Germany, and NRK in Norway are three examples of a very different subsidy system. Government policy in these countries is that the nation should have available to it a public service broadcaster to provide news, sport and entertainment programming. Through a dedicated tax or mandatory fees paid by viewers and listeners, the state “forces” into existence a revenue stream that the public broadcasters turn into content, some of which is high quality journalism.
The good news: everyone participates in funding the work because the work is done for public benefit. That’s a great principle. The bad news: public policy is still subject to pressure from political forces. If the political climate changes, the subsidy can be threatened. These facts tend to breed caution in the newsrooms supported by a state (or state-enforced) subsidy.
A look at other subsidy systems helps us understand what is different about membership.
Politico Pro, described as a “personalized policy intelligence platform that helps organizations who create, influence or are impacted by policy do their jobs,” sells specialized newsletters and databases to busy professionals. It subsidizes a free product, politico.com, which in turn advertises the Politico brand.
In 2019, the outdoor gear store, REI, which is a run as a consumer co-op, started publishing a quarterly print magazine, Uncommon Path, with stories about environmental issues and other outdoorsy topics. It goes to REI’s 450,00 members for free. What’s unusual is that REI hired experienced journalists to do the work, and even published these Editorial Guiding Principles, which show a commitment to real journalism and to ethical conduct.
In Sweden the government subsidizes local newspaper journalism directly “in order to promote the opportunities for diversity within the daily press and to strengthen democracy by promoting public access to independent news throughout the country.”
These are all subsidy systems. Each one works differently. None has completely solved the problem: how do we sustain quality journalism and bring it within public reach?
2. Subscription vs. membership
When you can’t receive the product unless you pay your share of the costs for producing it, that’s subscription. It is not a subsidy system, but an alternative to subsidy: direct payment. The good news is that everyone knows who the “customer” is: anyone who values the product enough to pay for it. The bad news: a lot of the public is left out, including those who cannot afford to subscribe. And there are costs that have nothing to do with producing good journalism: Marketing expense, and subscriber “churn,” for example.
For anyone attracted to journalism by the opportunity to inform the public as a whole — the nation, the province, the town — subscription-only models are a problem. Which is not to say they are a “bad” solution. In practice, most subscription models are combined with advertising and other revenue sources to lower the price and make the product more affordable. And remember: there is no perfect answer.
With membership, the logic is different. Locate your strongest supporters and learn how to appeal to them for support. This is how I would define membership after three years of work as director of the Membership Puzzle Project.
Of course it’s more complicated than that. In order to “appeal to them for support,” you first have to identify your strongest supporters, and understand what motivates them to contribute. You have to learn how to talk to them, when to make an appeal, what to ask for. You need good tools and good data to do these things well. You also need a feel for your members, an intuitive grasp of why they support you. And of course you need a useful and compelling product: journalism that is worth supporting in the first place. Nothing happens without that.
3. Join the cause
I call membership a subsidy system because in most — but not all — cases that the Membership Puzzle Project has studied, the members who contribute money know that the product is also available to people who are not members. One of the best arguments for membership models is that they do not require a paywall, which means the journalism is free to find its broader public.
This is how public radio in the U.S. has worked for more than 40 years. The members contribute; everyone else can listen. It’s the same logic the Guardian uses when it explains (to its strongest supporters), “Unlike many news organizations, we have kept our journalism open to our global audience. We have not put up a paywall as we believe everyone deserves access to quality journalism, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical.”
The City in New York says that it “serves the people of New York, producing consistent, high-quality and high-impact accountability reporting. Our work is free to all and does not require a subscription. Instead of charging for access, we rely on the support of members, donors and sponsors.”
Another way to look at membership is that it experiments with the relationship — or social contract — between journalists and their supporters. Subscription is a product relationship: if you want the product, you pay for a subscription. The CBC in Canada is created by law and funded by taxpayers; it is the national public broadcaster of Canada, with a mandate to “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity.” Here, the relationship is civic. If you’re a Canadian citizen or tax paying resident, you are part of the CBC.
With membership, the relationship is voluntary. People join the cause because they believe in the importance of the work. And “join” is probably the key word in all of membership. Join as in join the party. But also join as in the way the floorboards join.
But getting people to join your cause, join your site, join up with your journalism is just the beginning. What really matters is what you do with the people who have become your members. Here’s a big thing I have learned by studying it for three years. The trick in membership is to operate in such a way that your community of supporters becomes more valuable over time.
Here is what I mean:
Let’s say you have a list of 20,000 readers for your daily email, and you are able to convert 10 percent of them (your strongest supporters) into members at an average of $30 a year. That community of supporters is initially worth $60,000 to your annual budget, maybe enough to hire a young reporter.
But if that same group of 2,000 supporters fully understands that their $30 a year does not entitle them to tell your reporters how the story should come out, they are a little more valuable, because that common understanding gives journalists the independence they need to do good work. As members become more literate about journalism — and how your site works — they become more valuable to have as members.
Suppose these supporters gradually learn that being a “member” of your site means sharing links to recent stories with those in their own social networks who are likely to have an interest. Now the 2,000 supporters are a little more valuable. They’re doing distribution.
Suppose those 2,000 supporters regularly submit news tips to your site. And they understand there’s a procedure for how best to do that. Following the procedure helps you quickly evaluate whether there’s a story there. Now they’re a little more valuable. They are extending your eyes and ears. They are adding to productivity.
Let’s keep it going: If those 2,000 supporters giving $30 a year come to understand that they are supposed to contribute their knowledge and experience when it is relevant to investigations the site is undertaking, they are even more valuable. (See Get Involved: Participate in ProPublica’s Reporting.)
Finally, imagine that the same community of 2,000 strong supporters has entered into a database their credentials, life experiences, job titles, areas of expertise, and special fascinations so that journalists can easily look them up and contact them when they are needed. Now they are becoming really valuable. (See: A new tool for harnessing public knowledge for better journalism by the Bristol Cable.)
I hope you see the point I am trying to make with this simplified trajectory. Membership isn’t only raising money from people who have joined the cause. It’s also developing a community of supporters so that it becomes — in a sense — “wealthier” as it masters more ways to contribute to the enterprise of reporting great stories. As they learn about you, and you learn about them, your members become a more valuable asset.
Once we learn how to focus on the commonwealth of membership, it becomes obvious that members don’t have to contribute money to add to the wealth. This is fortunate because not all of your supporters will be able to give even $30 a year. If you can discover other ways for them to contribute, then your membership can grow in multiple ways at once. And so can your “wealth.”
5. Subcommunities of support
But this can only happen if you continue to learn about your strongest supporters, including what persuades them to contribute. So here is another way of stating what membership is. The continuous refinement and expansion of the social contract between journalists and their strongest supporters.
By “contract” I simply mean what members give, and what they get; what member-supported newsrooms give (mostly, good journalism, but also a good experience in interacting with the site) and what these newsrooms get from the people they call members. Tinkering with the give/get bargain so that it works for more people — and does more for the journalism — is doing the work of membership. It is basic to the craft.
Refining the contract also means acquiring a more complex understanding of your members, rather than treating them as a mass, or email list. Not everyone supports you for the same reason. Some people just want to give money to the cause; they don’t have time for anything else. Other people want to be heard; that’s what keeps them engaged. Others want to be called on for their expertise, but only when it is specifically needed.
This is often called audience segmentation, but it’s really discovering sub-communities within the larger community of supporters that helps sustain your site, and learning how to talk to these smaller groups in a way that matches their priorities.
6. Tries, errors and routines
A few more notes before I conclude. If in journalism, the basic unit of work is the story, in membership it is the “try.” Meaning: you can only learn what works by trying things with the people who find value in your journalism. Here’s a simple example of a try, which I have written about before. It’s from The Tyee in British Columbia, Canada:
Today, we’re asking for your help in creating The Tyee’s election reporting plan.
Every investigation, explainer and expose begins with questions. So tell us yours. What do you want candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?
Share it with our journalists by scrolling down and filling out our one-question survey.
That’s a membership try: “Will our readers and fans help us create more audience-centric election reporting by taking this simple one-question survey?” In this case, more than 600 people did, which led to part two of the try: “Can we raise $60,000 from our strongest supporters for this adventure in reader-powered election journalism?”
We took a week to compile and analyze your input, and then put out a long list of questions and asked you to rank them, in order to help us focus the list to five questions. Nearly 2,000 of you sent us your rankings.
We have been truly amazed at the level of engagement. The result is the Tyee’s Reader-Powered Election Reporting Plan…
The Tyee is a reader-supported publication. We need your help to pull off this reporting plan.
Will you support The Tyee’s 2019 federal election reporting with a financial contribution? Click here to give now.
It worked. The Tyee met its $60,000 goal.
It is through the membership “try” that your repertoire of moves expands, your ambitions get reality-tested, and knowledge of your strongest supporters grows. (Of course, tries lead to errors too.) The most successful tries often evolve into what the Membership Puzzle Project calls “memberful routines,” normal ways of operating that incorporate members and produce value. Maybe The Tyee’s Reader-Powered Election Reporting Plan will become the standard way they cover provincial and local elections, with their strongest supporters funding the enriched journalism.
From tries to routines is thus one of the “rhythms” of membership growth. As you repeat this cycle, you are getting better at the art and science of membership.
7. The search for a sustainable path
These notes have been written from the point of view of the producers of journalism seeking a sustainable path. I have used a vocabulary that I think will make sense to journalists, membership managers, chief revenue officers, and other staff. Please be aware that the terms I have used here are not necessarily the right ones for talking to your strongest supporters and appealing to them for more support.
The term “member” can itself strike an off note in some communities because it sounds exclusive, whereas in other settings it is a perfectly good and natural word. People who find value in your journalism may not see “journalism” as a good name for the thing they are valuing. It might be news-I-can-use, “staying informed,” accountability for those in power, or some kind of community connection. “We care about this place, so we need to know what’s happening in it.” If people strongly believe that, they may not make reference to journalism at all.
Journalism is a craft and occupation. Membership is a subsidy system and management discipline. But this is not what matters to members. Your job is to find out how to talk to them in a language that strikes a responsive chord— in them and in you.
These notes are meant to help you build a scale model of the problem in your head, so you can think “with” membership in new and productive ways, turning the object around in your mind to see it from different sides. The language of membership as a discipline, and the language you share with your community… these are likely to be two different things.
Locate your strongest supporters, and learn how to appeal to them for support. Over time develop that community into a more and more valuable system for sustaining your journalism. This means constant improvement in the give/get bargain, and in the user’s experience of it, along with more membership tries, more errors and the emergence of memberful routines.
That is my expanded definition of membership as a distinct business model and operating style in journalism. If we zoom out from there to the global struggle for a free and sustainable press, membership can be seen as a kind of floating construction site where people around the world are trying to rebuild the relationship between journalism and its public. Rebuild it, that is, on different grounds: volunteerism, mutual support, media literacy, civic pride.
We don’t know yet whether membership will develop into a sustainable path for a public service press. There are promising signs, but it depends on how many people choose that path. I am not here to tell you that we have found the answer to the business model problems in journalism.
But… One of the reasons I have spent three years researching them is that membership models are the place in journalism where we are, in a way, starting over— finding that portion of the public that still believes in the implied contract between people with a need to know and journalists determined to find out.
Today the research program I direct, The Membership Puzzle Project, is releasing its most important work yet. Three years of study went into it. The Membership Guide is a how-to manual and a review of best practices for people in journalism who want to try this path.
It is the product of research, but the product is not a research report. Rather, it’s a practical tool for making membership work, which draws on the lessons from membership sites on five continents. You can read a summary of what’s in the Guide here. Or just start with the first page: Defining Membership. Or jump to the 34 case studies from membership sites around the world.
I admit: I am extremely proud of this work. In my 34 years of publishing things as a professor of journalism, it is probably the most useful thing I have done. We had a team of researchers, designers and developers working on it for six months. They’re the ones who made it. I wrote this essay, “Notes on Membership” to do my part, and to draw attention to the launch of the Guide.
If you are interested in making membership work as a path to sustainability in journalism, the Membership Guide tells you what is found along that path. And it can keep you from getting lost.
The product of research, but not a research report. This expresses one of my ideas about how to be a professor of journalism at NYU. In the struggle for a free press that informs a live public, learn to be useful. I hope you will check it out. Both the Guide, and the struggle.