Membership is now a significant income source for some of the biggest news brands in their respective markets including The Guardian in the UK and US, Netherlands’ De Correspondent and Spain’s elDiario.
According to data compiled by the Membership Puzzle Project as of August 2020 at least 172 newsrooms called on readers for revenue when MPP stopped collecting data. The current figure is likely to be much higher.
As MPP gets ready (as envisaged from the outset in 2017) to wind down later this month, one of its key takeaways is that while membership is not antithetical to making money through subscriptions, they are not the same thing.
“The distinction between membership and subscription is clearly understood. When newsrooms choose one or the other as their audience revenue model they understand why they’re choosing membership or subscription,” says MPP’s fund director Ariel Zirulnick.
“Membership is a relationship. People give their money, but also their time, ideas, expertise and connections to support a cause that they believe in. There’s a sort of social contract between a news organisation and its members. It’s a two-way relationship.”
Although Zirulnick says that some work remains to be done on persuading people why quality journalism needs support, for newsrooms interested in membership there are now plenty of places to look to for inspiration.
Although the US is home to a significant number of member-driven newsrooms, at least 37 countries are represented in MPP’s self-reported database giving a snapshot of how global the idea of membership in news has become. MPP collected self-reported data on membership programs from 2017 to 2019 as a way to demonstrate how much of a movement membership was becoming in the journalism space.
"There are strong member-driven newsrooms in every region of the world who can help lead the way," she says.
But while plenty of newsrooms have toyed with the idea of membership, what separates the successes from the failures?
Key to making membership work, says Zirulnick who in four years at MPP has studied scores of examples of member-driven newsrooms, is understanding your own community of readers.
"We see a lot of newsrooms launch membership without doing audience research," she says. "They can often get to the first 1,000 members because there's always going to be a group of superfans around your journalism that will be eager to support you. But if you want to get beyond that first 1,000 you really need to be designing something that is interesting and appealing to your audience members. And that is where the audience research comes in."
While resources such as the MPP’s Membership Guide provide essential tools and practical advice, skipping straight to what others have done without doing your own homework is unlikely to work.
"Newsrooms need to be looking to their audience members, not other newsrooms for clues as to what their membership programme should look like," says Zirulnick.
"Processes sometimes can be replicated like the process of serving your audience members or the process of identifying your value proposition. Those can be applied across newsrooms that are very different from each other," she says. "But the formula that comes out of that is going to be different from newsroom to newsroom. You can't just copy and paste a membership strategy from a newsroom that you read about."
How The Guardian's membership gamble paid off
One publisher that appears to have found its formula is The Guardian which has successfully created a large community and cause around its reporting.
“When you're as large as the Guardian the membership value proposition is more about a sense of identity,” says Zirulnick.
Some five years ago when the Guardian put out a call to its readers for voluntary contributions, the publisher was losing tens of millions of pounds annually and its future looked uncertain. In the latest fiscal year, reader revenues helped it slash losses to a sustainable £10.1m (which was more than covered by its investment income).
Although its decision to make payment voluntary in an era where many organisations were putting up expensive paywalls was controversial at the time, The Guardian’s bold move has played out well. Earlier this year the publisher announced it had a record 961,00 digital supporters - including 560,000 contributors, a 24% increase year-on-year (the other 401,000 are digital subscribers).
"There was a belief that people would never pay for what they could get for free but in a world filled with political demagogues and algorithmically enhanced junk news, Guardian readers understood the value of keeping trusted, reliable information and progressive perspectives freely available around the world," says Mark Rice-Oxley, executive editor of reader revenues at the Guardian.
Making the call to invite its readers to support its journalism, he says, was a natural step for the publisher.
"The move chimed with our general approach of wanting readers to be part of our community: we are constantly inviting them to contribute to our stories, to comment on them, to share them and to write to us if they find them lacking," he says.
The publication’s biggest spikes in new support he says tend to coincide with big moments of journalism such as major world events like the US election or special projects or investigations which help pull in readers.
While contributors (the Guardian is no longer actively promoting what it terms "membership") bring in a considerable part of the Guardian’s income, the publisher also raises money through digital subscriptions, advertising and philanthropic funding. Reader revenues however account for more than half of the Guardian’s incomings.
One of the keys to the Guardian’s success is the publication’s transparency, says Oxley.
"It’s become clear to us over the years that our independence, our openness and the fact that we have no billionaire owner are key motivations for our readers, so these elements are now at the heart of our offer," he says.
Aside from what he calls "the big stuff" (primarily strong journalism), listening to readers is crucial to making readers contribute.
"We write to our supporters every week and field their replies, thoughts, suggestions and complaints. We send them an annual update detailing the journalistic high points that their money has funded," he says.
“Another [thing] is trying to make people feel like they belong. So we have put on special supporter events to give them an inside track of what's going on in the newsroom - many supporters love to understand a bit more about how an investigation is executed, or what happened the day after Boris Johnson announced the UK lockdown."
gal-dem's membership strategy
One publication hoping to replicate some of the Guardian’s success in monetising its community to support its work is British magazine gal-dem.
After being run on a volunteer basis until 2019, the title which focuses on perspectives of people of colour from marginalised genders, launched its membership programme in March 2020 just as the pandemic took a bite out of commissioning budgets.
"A membership model really aligns with gal-dem’s values," says membership manager, Yasmin Rai. "gal-dem has always been something that has been around community and led by community".
With its membership currently numbering 2,000 and steadily growing, the publisher was able to tap into what editor Suyin Haynes says was an already strong sense of shared community among its readers.
"Especially before the pandemic, in-person events were a tentpole of what we did. These events were in spaces where people of colour of marginalised genders have traditionally not been beyond journalism," she says. "We already had a very highly engaged community in a sense but hadn't formalised and made the connection between that and our journalism through the membership."
Not only has membership, which brings in 20% of gal-dem’s revenue, helped the publisher shore up its budget, but it has also, says Rai, helped gal-dem lessen dependence on the brands that the outlet sometimes critiques in its anti-capitalist takes on news.
"To not be so dependent on advertising is obviously very hard as a media outlet. But to reduce that in some capacity is important for us," says Rai who says gal-dem wants to expand its membership base as much as possible.
But while membership might chart one alternative path ahead for newsrooms, it's not the panacea for journalism. Entirely member-funded newsrooms such as The Netherlands’ De Correspondent are the exception rather than the rule.
Our analysis of the snapshot of organisations in MPP's database suggest that the vast majority (almost 95%) of member-funded newsrooms supplement member contributions with other forms of funding. Ninety-two (53%) of the 172 organisations in the list (which was last updated in August 2020) also rely on donations, while 83 (48%) sell advertising.
Jay Rosen: Membership is just one of the answers
"We don’t see membership as the solution to the business model crisis in journalism," says Jay Rosen, the New York University professor who founded MPP. "It's one of the answers."
And although membership has worked for newsrooms large and small, it's not the solution for every news provider.
"It's very difficult to create a membership strategy around commodity news. There's no cause to join," says Rosen who points to Reuters, which recently announced it was moving to a paywall as an example.
"Reuters is just news. It's very good news but it's news as a commodity that you need," he says. "It's very hard for people to imagine joining the Reuters cause because Reuters makes a big deal out of saying 'we don't have a cause, we're just news'."
While the same might also apply for many financial journalism publications, Quartz is one business publication that has chosen a closer relationship with its audience based on what executive editor Walter Frick calls its "shared mission and sense of purpose" with its readers.
After being set up in 2012 with a purely ad-focused model, the publisher launched a membership programme in 2018. After seeing membership grow 71% in 2020 alone, the publisher currently counts 27,000 supporters.
Members get access to exclusive newsletters (which our analysis suggests is the most common perk of membership) as well as slide decks, virtual events and field guides on topics to supercharge their careers. Readers are also invited to shape Quartz’s reporting through polls and emails soliciting their feedback.
Publisher membership strategies: Quartz
While on the face of it Quartz's membership programme might more closely resemble a subscription (the content is behind a paywall), Frick says that the publication's relationship with readers is more than just transactional.
"The relationship that Quartz had with readers - especially email readers - made it feel like there just was a bit more of a bond there. The way that Quartz emails had been written made it feel like there was a more personal relationship."
That personal relationship says Frick really came to bear last year: the announcement that the publisher’s CEO was buying out the company from Japanese owner Uzabase led to Quartz’s best day for new conversions.
"That really unlocked something that we had been thinking about before but that we were really able to live into as an independent company which is that we were focused on a different approach to business," says Frick. "The mission statement of 'make business better' was to connect for our members that feeling that yes, they are subscribing to journalism and to us but also that they're given purpose by the work we do."
But while Frick maintains that Quartz’s bond with its readers sets it apart from purely transactional models, the line between membership and subscription is less clear for Quartz.
"We don't think of a sharp binary distinction between subscription and membership. I think of it a little more like a spectrum," says Frick. "They both put readers at the centre of the business model."
For Quartz, membership is likely to be one source of several income streams and Frick says that the publisher hopes to see continued growth in its members. He hopes Quartz will eventually "have that balance between advertising and reader revenue over a period of years".
For the industry as whole, Rosen cautions it's too early to draw conclusions on how big it might become.
"Membership is in this in-between state where it definitely is part of the puzzle. How big a part of it will it become? That depends so much on the cycle of trying testing, learning, iterating, etc," he says. "There's still a huge amount of work to do."
The opportunity for membership in journalism is however, significant, says Zirulnick.
"There is a real opportunity for membership because it allows the information to stay available to everybody who needs it," she says. "News organisations who can succeed at framing membership to their organisation as one way to fix something that feels broken in the community are those that we will see succeed with membership.
"We're speaking a lot these days about the subscription ceiling: how many subscriptions the average person is willing to have. But what we wonder is whether membership will follow the same route as subscription or whether it will actually look more like charitable giving. People don't have a cap on how much they're willing to support causes that they care about in quite the same way with subscriptions."
Note on the MPP database: MPP stopped updating its database in 2020 because the database outlived its need - organisations considering membership knew of others in their region who had tried it first - and because membership experimentation was happening rapidly to log all cases. The most up-to-date information on benefits offered, revenue mixes, and benchmarks is available in the Membership Guide published by MPP in September 2020.
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