Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
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Oct. 22, 2018, 10:49 a.m.
Audience & Social

“Membership” is one of the better buzzwords of the media industry today, hopefully; experiments in a post-advertising, reader-revenue-driven market are the newer, healthier “pivot to video.” But the problem that has dogged the news ecosystem remains: How are you going to pay for it (until, you know, members ideally chip in enough to make the organization semi-sustainable)?

Studies of the mission-driven news environment show that funding is available for seed-stage ideas, but it drops off in the crucial mid-stage as growing organizations try to stabilize. Not every bright idea has a three-year-long runway to research best practices for membership in a specific market — but the Membership Puzzle Project, the research vessel shaping De Correspondent’s U.S. expansion, is trying to shift that balance a bit.

Since May 2017 the Netherlands’ De Correspondent has been gradually adapting its membership model to the U.S., with help from notable media folk like Jay Rosen and Emily Goligoski.

Now the organization wants to help new organizations experiment with membership themselves — with $700,000 in funding.

The Membership in News Fund comes from Democracy Fund and Luminate (part of The Omidyar Group) and will be led by Ariel Zirulnick, formerly of Whereby.Us’ The New Tropic in Miami. The fund is built for sites around the world to experiment with membership models and principles, aiming to instill an ethos of transparent membership — and figure out what the heck works — beyond the U.S. and the Netherlands. And it’s operating on a rolling basis through May 2020, so get your ideas in. Here’s what Zirulnick and the Membership Puzzle Project are looking for:

We welcome applications from three kinds of sites as part of a rolling application process: local/place-based; national (and with further reach); and subject matter/topical. We encourage non-profit, for-profit, and cooperative news organizations to apply, and please see the location details below. Experiments of great interest include:

Experiments around revenue. Example: direct public offering.

Experiments around member/audience/reader participation (what we call opportunities for community members to “pay in participation”). Example: Documenters project from City Bureau.

Experiments around governance. Example: Co-op models and collaborative work from sites like The Bristol Cable.

Experiments with learnings outside of news. Example: sites that look at voter registration and other political engagement efforts and increasingly talk about how supporting their work is part of participation in democratic processes.

Experiments in online-to-offline and offline-to-online behavior. Example: local citizen engagement.

Each news site chosen to participate in the project will agree to experiment with a different pathway or “hypothesis” about how membership can help sustain public service journalism. The idea is to support a plurality of approaches in a plurality of local settings, and also test new ideas. By “support” we mean money to conduct the experiment and — where it’s appropriate — expert advice from us and others about how to get the best results.

The Membership Puzzle Project is conducting the market research for The Correspondent, the American version of the Dutch crowdfunded site pledging ad-free, quality journalism and close relationships with its readers. De Correspondent has received nearly a million dollars from the Omidyar Network (the philanthropic project of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar) and had $1.8 million behind its U.S. growth this spring.

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