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June 12, 2017, 10:08 a.m.
Business Models

Membership programs are paying off for news outlets — and so is helping them set up their programs

After helping five pilot news organizations together raise more than $1 million in six months, the News Revenue Hub has spun off into its own standalone organization.

If you want readers to donate, you have to ask — often. It sounds obvious, but it’s a strategy many news organizations have been forced to become more comfortable with, and one that takes a lot of resources to really get right.

Before Hawaii’s Honolulu Civil Beat went nonprofit in late June of last year, it was charging $4.99 a month for access to its paywalled site, already significantly lowered from the $19.99 price point it tried out at launch. It had 1,100 recurring subscribers.

Since going nonprofit and starting a membership drive, average recurring monthly donations to the Pierre Omidyar-backed online news site rose to $12 — that’s $144 a year versus $60, even with all the stories free to read. It now has around 1,500 members.

“We haven’t reached our ceiling in terms of the number of donors, which continues to go up month after month,” Ben Nishimoto, director of philanthropy for the Civil Beat, said. “We’re seeing all the metrics of a healthy membership program, and a lot of that has to do with the structure and advice that the News Revenue Hub has offered.”

Civil Beat was among the first five organizations to join the News Revenue Hub, which for a fee takes on the heavy lifting of setting up membership programs — the software, the recruitment and retention, the messaging and maintenance — and facilitates an exchange of insights among participating outlets. The Hub, the brainchild of Mary Walter-Brown, first began last fall as an initiative of the nonprofit news site Voice of San Diego, an exemplar of sustainable digital news membership.

After helping the five pilot news organizations together raise more than a million dollars in half a year, News Revenue Hub has spun off into its own standalone organization, led by Walter-Brown (who’s now its CEO) with digital manager Tristan Loper (also previously of Voice of San Diego). It launched at a time when many news organizations were trying to rethink their mission and messaging post-U.S. election. Walter-Brown is now hoping to continue its early successes, adding five new organizations. (We’ve written separately about The Marshall Project and The Intercept’s challenges; the full list: InsideClimate News, NJ Spotlight, Honolulu Civil Beat, The Lens, PolitiFact, The Marshall Project, The Intercept, CalMatters, Youth Radio, and Rivard Report.) The Democracy Fund will continue to support some of the overhead costs for participating outlets.

“It’s been great from a couple of perspectives: The first, basically learning how to do this kind of fundraising, and then also, realizing there’s a definite benefit to asking often of people, more often than I think as organizations we previously felt comfortable doing, and that’s been gratifying,” Beth Daley, director of strategic development at InsideClimate News, said. “The support we have from individual members is dwarfed by support we get from foundations, for instance, but foundations also like to see that we’re diversifying our funding.” (In addition to money from memberships, InsideClimate News is also looking to raise $25,000 from readers to fund one reporting trip exploring the impacts of climate change across the U.S.)

“At first, I thought, gosh, I hope this wasn’t just this weird enigma. It’s starting to become more predictable, which is what I’m excited about,” Walter-Brown said. “We’re starting to see that membership can work for a PolitiFact, an InsideClimate News — organizations with national and global readers — that it can work for The Lens, NJ Spotlight, Civil Beat. And we’re now seeing the same thing for The Intercept — an international site focused on privacy and surveillance issues — when we weren’t sure how that was going to resonate with readers.” There’s already a bit of a waiting list of organizations eager to join, Walter-Brown said, and the Hub is looking to bring several more into the fold this year.

“We evaluate each client based on whether they have a base big enough and diverse enough to make it worth their while, whether they have the internal staff willing to dedicate the amount of time and energy to this that’s needed, whether they have the buy-in from the top, whether hey support the principle of building a true relationship with your audience,” Walter-Brown said. “It’s clear when you go through these conversations. There are some where I just say, ‘You’re not ready, but here are some tools you can use to build your audience, and let’s talk in six months.’ We don’t turn people away with a blanket ‘no.'”

While most of the organizations currently in the Hub are nonprofits, it’s not a requirement: PolitiFact, one of the five original pilot outlets, isn’t a nonprofit. It launched its program just before Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, and has since raised $200,000 in contributions and pledged donations. Three quarters of its members are part of the “informed” or “involved” tiers ($50 to $150 and $151-$500); only “a few dozen individuals have contributed $500 or more,” according to Emily Wilkinson, PolitiFact’s then-business development director.

Nor, of course, is a large national following a requirement. NJ Spotlight has added 470 members since it started its membership program, raising $86,000 most at the “engaged” or “informed” levels (a minimum $35 to $100; then $101-$500), Paula Saha, who oversees events, audience, and donor development at New Jersey state-focused nonprofit news service, told me.

“Most of them came in during our winter drive, but we’ve had a steady trickle since,” Saha said, crediting a well-tailored email campaign that starts with soft asks that get stronger as readers become increasingly familiar with the work NJ Spotlight does. “It’s been really nice to see the steady trickle; with recurring donors, it’s obviously a gift that keeps on giving, quite literally.” NJ Spotlight has worked to impress upon readers the value of memberships: happy hours, coffees, an intimate event for members with Senator Cory Booker (from the dedicated Slack group for News Revenue Hub organizations, it’s also gotten some ideas for events like trivia nights).

The News Revenue Hub, especially by facilitating technical setup and helping organizations understand and use better metrics (syncing Eventbrite with Salesforce, for instance), has freed up outlets to actually get to know their most dedicated readers. Honolulu Civil Beat has been able to host regular community events, such as taking groups out to neighboring islands or continuing its storyteller series, Mariko Chang, the Civil Beat’s membership and events manager, told me.

“Ben [Nishimoto] and I try to call all of our new donors as well, which takes people by surprise,” she said. “We let them know they can come to us if they have concerns. We ask them ways we can do our jobs better. It’s been helpful to have the time and resources now to make those personal connections while we can.”

The Hub itself will remain a small staff through the rest of 2017, but it also receives additional foundation support and is looking to raise half a million more to help with expansion.

“We’re hoping to be able to scale accordingly — eventually there may be different tiers of service, maybe a full-service option where they only need someone part-time and we’re providing more of the copywriting and execution. Then others may want to bring on a full staff like we had at Voice of San Diego, with an events manager, a digital manager,” Walter-Brown said. “I’m excited to explore what the service will look like in the long term, whether it’s an incubator for some organizations, a centralized place where they outsource tasks, for organizations that only want to focus on editorial.”

Chairs of different colors, by Steve, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 12, 2017, 10:08 a.m.
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