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This is how an Iranian network created a “disinformation supply chain” to spread fake news
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May 9, 2019, 11:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

Is your organization thinking about membership? Take some ideas (and maybe some money) from the Membership Puzzle Project

“Subscribers pay their money and get access to a product. But members join the cause and participate because they believe in it.”

Styli Charalambous was trying to think through some lightbulb moments.

As the publisher and CEO at the Daily Maverick, a ten-year-old investigative outlet in South Africa, he had done an innovation tour in October 2017 and came back determined to set up a reader revenue system. The outlet’s site was being overhauled, which meant he had some time to brainstorm the system’s approach while waiting for it to finish. So Charalambous turned to the Membership Puzzle Project’s research and got lost in findings for how to launch a membership program.

“We wanted people to join us in supporting independent investigative journalism in a country that had just suffered a decade of a highly corrupt president and government and whose removal we were quite integral in playing a part in that,” Charalambous said. (Whistleblowers had given the Daily Maverick some explosive documents it shared with another outlet to investigate.)

In just nine months, the Daily Maverick has received contributions from 6,200 people — whom they’re considering members — with many set up to recur. Their contributions cover more than 20 percent of the Daily Maverick’s costs. They’re looking at ways to involve members in investigations beyond just financial support, too. And the organization now has an extra bonus: a grant from the project’s Membership in News Fund, “equivalent of a month’s worth of reader revenue for us,” Charalambous said, to explore that.

Would the Daily Maverick have pursued membership if the project’s tips didn’t exist? Quite possibly. (And it should be noted other entities, like the News Revenue Hub, have been pushing the membership model since MPP was still an idea.) But the Membership Puzzle Project’s resources saved them (and many other news organizations) a lot of time in skipping over mistakes others have made and making decisions others have faced.

But first, let’s review. Membership at a news organization is not:

  1. a subscription,
  2. a brand campaign you can toggle on and off,
  3. only something American media is trying, or
  4. just a think-tank buzzword.

So what is it? The specifics in this industry trend of more meaningful reader revenue (including other forms of exchange beyond money) are still being nailed down. Membership frequently is meant to enhance the relationship between a news outlet, its sources, and its readers, and their overlap; it’s about joining the cause of the news organization, even if that cause is as simple as providing accurate and useful information to its followers. But over the past few years, news organizations of varying sizes and around the world have come much closer to it through the work of the Membership Puzzle Project.

And what is that? Well, it’s not a think tank or just a workshop — it’s a public research project, in the terminology of research director Emily Goligoski. Here’s how she outlined membership in a recent research post:

Membership isn’t just “subscription by another name” (though it’s often referenced that way), or about giving consumers access to a product. It’s participation in a larger cause that reflects what they want to see in civil society. In membership, there’s a different social contract or value proposition between the site and its members. At the basic level of: What do you give? What do you get? Subscribers pay their money and get access to a product. But members join the cause and participate because they believe in it.

That research — looking at what media can draw from other member-focused movements, like faith-based communities and gaming groups — is part of an extensive body of research the Membership Puzzle Project has assembled in the first two-thirds of its life at NYU. (Jay Rosen directs it; the member-driven De Correspondent, which we’ve been writing about lately, is a cofounder.)

Now the project is funding other news organizations’ own experiments to implement membership themselves, ranging from a fully member-powered cooperative to expanding membership for an investigative outlet, and guiding other outlets (without grants, alas) in dedicated groups. The project is funded by the Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Luminate — the last two part of the broader philanthropic efforts established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

“We see it a combination of financial runway, knowledge sharing, and coaching to get experiments off the ground,” said Ariel Zirulnick, director of the project’s Membership in News Fund. “There is almost a playbook for the most standard membership offerings out there and that is great because it reduces decision fatigue. But we’re also concerned the conception of membership and what it could look like is too narrow.”

The Membership Puzzle Project was launched in 2017 along with the U.S./English-language expansion campaign of Dutch “unbreaking news” site De Correspondent. While The/De Correspondent has been getting its footing on non-Dutch soil, the Membership Puzzle Project has provided the thought space for the concept to take greater hold in the industry with its research, network of mentorship, and now funding. The project’s own money only lasts for three years — it will “sunset” in May 2020 — but its research has helped probe questions such as how to measure participation’s worth, what are ways besides money that members can support the reporting process, and how to course-correct to include potential members regardless of socioeconomic standing.

Put your nerd hat on: Goligoski and her researchers also assembled a database with 161 news outlets and their membership approaches (that’s in addition to a database breaking down 61 public radio stations’ membership strategies). Upcoming research will include, according to Goligoski, studies of the distribution of power in membership, non-extractive reporting, and best practices for paid digital marketing around membership.

The Membership Puzzle Project is taking a distinctly international approach, thanks in part to its Dutch cofounder, its internationally focused funding from Luminate, and the fact that media organizations in other countries are often way ahead of U.S. outlets in developing membership models. Many outlets in Latin America are earning between 20 and 80 percent of revenue from membership, Zirulnick said.

“The Guardian is the largest in the space, but it has been really thrilling to see in the past two-plus years how much interest there has been in this work from almost every single continent,” Goligoski said. (You may have heard The Guardian is no longer losing money, thanks to the support of its 600,000-plus members, including 365,000 on a recurring plan.)

Another helpful finding of non-U.S. membership programs is how they operate under government pressure, Goligoski said. Press freedom in South Africa, where the Daily Maverick has amassed 6,000 members, is still marked as fragile. “It raises questions for me as a researcher what does membership look like when freedom of the press is under assault,” Goligoski said. It’s kind of amazing that thousands of people have opted to support the investigative reporting and declare themselves as members given the tumultuous politics.

The Membership in News Fund is also supporting:

  • The Devil Strip’s transition to a member-owned news cooperative in Ohio (with coaching from The Bristol Cable, which is that very thing);
  • Decât o Revistă’s expert-centered pop-up newsrooms in Romania;
  • The Dallas Morning News’ creation of a subscriber-powered entertainment review program with rebates for reviewers;
  • Brazilian fact-checking platform Aos Fatos’ shift from crowdfunding to a recurring membership with more breathing room; and
  • Conexion Migrante in Mexico’s call center in Mexico for Latino immigrants seeking resources on the maelstrom that is the United States’ immigration policy.

And that’s just the first batch of grantees, with six or seven more to be announced soon with a goal of 18 to 22 experiments funded by May 2020, Zirulnick said. Because of funder specifications — Democracy Fund is pitching in $127,000 to support U.S.-based nonprofit news outlets, while Luminate’s $560,000 can support projects in 16 target countries — the U.S. deadline is tomorrow, Friday, May 10.

In between the research and the fund lie the communities of practices, the dedicated groups with MPP guidance (but no grant) under the Join the Beat and Membership 101 umbrellas. Twenty applicants to the fund just finished participating in Membership 101, led by Goligoski and researcher Gonzalo del Peon, a series of weekly webinars and small group brainstorms to train the outlets on how to build their membership programs.

At Fumaca, an independent progressive site in Portugal that has received several grants from the Open Society Foundations and others, Mo Tafech participated in Membership 101 to fine-tune the organization’s model — and ended up revamping it. Tafech handles the fundraising and marketing for Fumaca, which used to look like a bunch of mugs and t-shirts. On the Membership Puzzle Project’s advice, he surveyed its supporters to see what perks they wanted.

“Previously, we were always shy to ask for contributions. We always thought we had to give something in return apart from our work. We learned from the surveys a lot of people contribute just to contribute,” Tafech said. Now the site has 200 members paying monthly (who can vote on which topics Fumaca should investigate and submit questions for high-profile interviews) and a larger community of 50,000. “Our message changed because our mindset changed.”

Join the Beat is a similar coaching system with a catch: It’s not about the organizations at all. Rather, Join the Beat is all for individual reporters (yes, still tied to an organizational newsroom) who want to learn how to build engagement and membership into their journalism processes.

KPCC’s Ashley Alvarado is spearheading the current community of eight reporters from Ireland to Utah; North Carolina-based former newspaper and public radio editor Melanie Sill (a former Nieman Fellow) led the first community in 2018. She hosted group video calls every other week and coached beat reporters within the community, such as Reveal’s Will Carless and Aaron Sankin in the process of creating a corps of volunteers to help sleuth out the mindset of alt-right supporters.

“The routines of journalism are not built for this,” Sill said. “We saw a lot of successes in big and little ways in thinking about how to integrate this into the core of doing journalism, versus doing a membership department.”

POSTED     May 9, 2019, 11:30 a.m.
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