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March 13, 2017, 11:54 a.m.
Business Models

Readers seem willing to pay for news sites centered around a place. What about sites built on an issue?

“There are a lot of ways to define ‘community.’ We know it can be built around geography. But there should also be a community of people who care about climate, a community of people who care about criminal justice.”

To tote bag, or not to tote bag? For more and more news organizations, reader-supported — member-supported — journalism has taken on new urgency. And starting a membership program from scratch opens up a host of questions beyond deciding what nice-to-haves to give to the readers who are willing to open up their wallets for a news organization.

The criminal justice reporting nonprofit The Marshall Project is working through those questions as it begins trying to turn some of its readers into paying members. The Marshall Project is often described as a single-issue site, a designation that may gives an inadequate sense of the scope and depth of its coverage, but one that helps frame how it will build its own membership program.

“A membership program is, on one level, a fancy name for your low-level giving program — a way to conceive of and describe your smaller givers. Building that requires creating a program that makes your readers feel like they’re part of a community,” Carroll Bogert, The Marshall Project’s president, said. “There are a lot of ways to define ‘community.’ We know it can be built around geography. But there should also be a community of people who care about climate, a community of people who care about criminal justice.”

The Marshall Project is one of the newest members of the News Revenue Hub, a group of news organizations established last fall by the California nonprofit Voice of San Diego, which is helping the Hub’s members with donor database infrastructure, technical troubleshooting, and advice around strategy and messaging. (Hub members pay a small monthly fee.) For the participating news organizations that focus on local news, “community” means the people who live in the regions the site covers. For sites like The Marshall Project or PolitiFact or InsideClimate News, that delineation is not as clear.

“Sure, the programs at organizations like Voice of San Diego and MinnPost are very successful. But they can hold meetups over coffee or beer to talk about, say, that issue with the schools — everyone has a common denominator,” Kelli Payne, The Marshall Project’s director of development, said. “For us, our readers are coming from near and far, and they all need to agree on the importance of improving the criminal justice system.”

The specific tiers of The Marshall Project membership program, and the benefits that come with being a regular reader-donor-member, are still being worked out, and could range from a members-only impact report newsletter, to early access to any events, to swag (though neither Payne nor Bogert sounded too enthusiastic about tote bags).

“I don’t feel like we should just be in the business of quid pro quo. Let’s see this as a teaching and learning opportunity: That investigation you liked from us took our reporters almost a year and dozens of FOIAs,” Payne said. “Good journalism comes at a cost.”

The Marshall Project has a grant to bring a person on board to oversee its membership database and campaigns, and to start adding live events. It’s aiming for events in New York (where its main offices are), Chicago, and around California — places where it has clusters of readers and donors, and where criminal justice issues have become particularly salient under the Trump administration. Its first public-facing events will launch later this month.

“These are places where we think in-depth criminal justice and immigration reporting will be very important — so we want to have reporters there, and that in turn will increase our opportunities to engage with the community,” Bogert added. “Trying to produce live events in cities [where we don’t have reporters] is tricky; we have to find people locally who can help us, and the right partners and venue.” (The Marshall Project recently posted jobs for a California-based immigration reporter and a Washington, D.C. reporter.)

Both Payne and Bogert cited InsideClimate News, which has had a few months’ head start building a membership program with the help of the News Revenue Hub, as an issue-focused site that might share some of The Marshall Project’s unique challenges in trying to define communities around interests. David Sassoon, the publisher of InsideClimate News, expressed mostly optimism when I asked him about his experience of creating membership for a news site that has a national readership but a more narrow subject-matter focus. InsideClimateNews had a promising end of 2016, with revenue coming in from its brand-new membership program and a “Trump bump” from the November election. InsideClimate News was also part of the Knight Foundation’s News Match program, which brought another extra end-of-the-year boost in funding. (The Marshall Project was also part of the match program, as was the Nieman Foundation.)

“[Being] a single-topic news site may mean more of your readers are interested in becoming members. There are only a handful of national outlets exclusively focused on climate issues, and we’re one of the most prolific, so that’s where we have an advantage,” Sassoon said. “It might be hard to do big events and festivals like the Texas Tribune does. But there’s the possibility of doing events online. And being a national, single-topic or issue-based outlet creates a very attractive magnet for members in all localities. I don’t see it as a handicap.”

“We’re continuing to raise more money than we ever have, and consistently. It’s really quite encouraging,” he added. He guesses that somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of InsideClimateNews’ revenue could ultimately come from memberships, though he stressed that that was just a guess.

The Marshall Project is funded largely through contributions from individual institutions, though a membership component has always been on the table. And it’s dabbled in asking readers for money before: A Kickstarter campaign last summer raised $40,368 from 550 supporters for a “Life Inside” column on the experience of incarceration.

“That was a signal to me that our audience is pretty loving, and that we needed to know more about them, and do more with them and for them, and ask them for moeny more often,” Bogert said. “But we also need — and this goes beyond the membership program itself — to be doing all kinds of work that attracts a more diverse audience beyond the criminal justice cognoscenti.”

POSTED     March 13, 2017, 11:54 a.m.
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