The nonprofit news outlet Voice of San Diego, now nearing 12 years old, has developed a sturdy spine of paying members and a fine-tuned system for targeting, converting, and maintaining these members, helped in large part through a Knight Foundation grant. It’s now trying to help other news organizations build up better membership programs of their own through a centralized News Revenue Hub. While the concept of a membership program is straightforward, implementing one is a heavy lift for outlets with already limited reporting staff. That work — from installing donor database software to making journalists comfortable with asking for money outright — is unglamorous but vital.“You need Salesforce, a messaging strategy, events, to form relationships — you need all of these various components we were doing at Voice of San Diego,” Mary Walter-Brown, COO and publisher of Voice, told me. “While all of these organizations really wanted to monetize their audience, and they all believed in the concept of the membership program, they didn’t really have the staff in business development, or marketing, or database development. They had to focus first on putting out great journalism.” Now Walter-Brown is spearheading a team (consisting of herself, Voice staffer Tristan Loper, and a consultant with Salesforce experience) to outsource some of that setup work and provide troubleshooting and advice to smaller outlets that have fewer resources to dedicate to maintaining donor databases and newsletter infrastructure. The year-long project, officially launched on Black Friday, will help hone membership programs at the Honolulu Civil Beat, InsideClimate News, The Lens, NJ Spotlight, and PolitiFact (which, as part of the Tampa Bay Times, is a for-profit organization) and is supported by $255,000 from the Democracy Fund. Participating news organizations pay a monthly service fee between $250 and $500; the Democracy Fund grant covers some of the overhead costs. (“It was important to the Democracy Fund that each of these organizations still have skin in the game,” Walter-Brown said.) The organizations also formed a Slack to discuss challenges and share tips on what’s working for them.
Voice of San Diego had crafted its membership — 2,200 members strong — on the back of customized Salesforce and Mailchimp software, allowing it to send different messages to readers who’d already donated and casual readers who hadn’t signed up for the site. It linked Mailchimp and Salesforce so that it could pull lists directly from the database and push a drip-drip of emails explaining the site’s mission and acclimatizing audiences to the nonprofit’s need for money. The Revenue Hub participants are installing Stripe to automate the individual donation process.David Sassoon, publisher of the nonprofit InsideClimate News, had reservations at first.
“There were issues like the privacy of our data, emails, proprietary information; there were concerns about being too cookie-cutter and not having our own identity,” he said. “As we’re trying to build a sustainable enterprise, isn’t all of this something we should know how to do ourselves? And yet, we hadn’t done it.”
Walter-Brown worked with him closely to address these concerns, Sassoon said, and “had me understand and think about things I didn’t even have a clue about, and helped us shape our membership program, but also understand our business and our audience.” The InsideClimate News membership is now four tiers, starting at a $35 yearly donation all the way up to $1,000 per year, offering benefits from print books to access to special events.
Part of the work also included comprehensive surveys for each organization to learn more about their audiences’ various wants and assumptions about the value of the news and information they were getting.
“By and large we came away from it with the same kind of results: that the audience was really passionate about public service journalism and the role it plays in our democracy, but had very little understanding of the fact that these organizations were nonprofit, or that they needed revenue beyond advertising dollars, big donors, and foundations,” Walter-Brown said. “There’s a little bit of a reluctance from outlets to be aggressive about their need for money. The natural inclination for journalists is to be very subtle about it — ‘Hey, donate what you can, we appreciate it.’ But you need to say, ‘We need your money, we can’t survive without you. If you value what we do, you have to support us.’ We’re obviously not going to sound the alarm every single time, but you also have to come to terms with the fact that you have to continuously ask people.”In June of this year, Hawaii’s Honolulu Civil Beat went nonprofit and started a membership program, which it had worked with the Voice team to soft-launch in the summer. Civil Beat is building out an events program to improve its relationship with its readers, Civil Beat memberships and events manager Mariko Chang said on the outlet’s Pod Squad podcast in October. In New Orleans, nonprofit The Lens has doubled its fundraising goal for this year to $50,000. It already had a membership program in place, dating back to 2011, that drew inspiration in part from Voice of San Diego, but “it really needed some tightening,” especially on its newsletter campaigns, Lens development director Anne Mueller told me. The Lens has an eight-person staff and is keen to free up as much time for reporting as possible.
“The idea of the Hub is fabulous for small shops like ours. It really frees up time to do the other things that you need to do,” Mueller said. “We absolutely needed to be able to shift our focus to major donors. So that was what was appealing from my perspective — the Hub would help take the membership work we were doing, fine-tune it, help send reminders to people when their memberships may be about to expire, or identify new readers.”
The Democracy Fund grant lasts a year, and Walter-Brown says she is open to the many possibilities for extending the work of the Hub past the first year, especially since other outlets have expressed interest in participating. The Hub could become a permanent source of revenue, if Voice can figure out how to scale servicing more news outlets. Or it could act as an incubator for interested organizations testing the membership waters.
“If we ramped up to 20 news organizations paying $500 per month, could we eventually become self-sustaining? At some point, could we make it more of a revenue share?” she said. “If, down the road, this becomes a new revenue stream for Voice, then that’s great. Or organizations might want to put the training wheels on and ride along with us for the first year, then take it in-house. We’re open to what happens, as long as this is a win-win for everybody.”