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Aug. 4, 2021, 2:29 p.m.
Business Models

“The puzzle turned out to be more complicated than we thought”: After four years, the Membership Puzzle Project is winding down

The public research project analyzed membership projects worldwide. They found successful communities were fixated on learning what their members value.

On the last day of August, the public research project Membership Puzzle Project will come to a close.

“We’re not sad about it, and we didn’t run out of money, either. We planned it this way,” director Jay Rosen told attendees at an end-of-project summit on Monday. “Now is the right time to end.”

Founded by Rosen with Dutch news site De Correspondent back in 2017, the Membership Puzzle Project was originally slated to last three years but in the fall of 2020, it moved from New York University — where Rosen teaches — to the Media Development Investment Fund in an extension. (You may recall that site’s botched foray into English-language news with The Correspondent. More on that in a bit.)

Back then, Rosen saw membership as the path to sustainability in journalism but felt the way was not well illuminated. Did publishers appreciate the difference between memberships and subscriptions? Did the staff? Did readers? The project — which grew to include research director Emily Goligoski and fund director Ariel Zirulnick — hoped MPP would serve as an intervention of sorts for the industry.

Four years later, they’re hanging the “Mission Accomplished” banner — with just a couple of caveats.

“The intervention would end when the momentum was strong enough. We believe that happened. This is why we are bringing MPP to a close,” Rosen said. “The distinction between membership and subscription is now clearly understood. We now have strong member-driven newsrooms around the globe. They are doing it in many different ways — too many for one project to track. There can’t be one center of gravity any longer.”

But one of the key takeaways from MPP’s work is that membership is not a silver bullet. Rosen said the group found that the model employed by De Correspondent — a “pure play,” in MPP parlance, in which operating costs are covered entirely by membership-generated revenue — didn’t emerge as a popular or particularly effective choice. He contrasted De Correspondent’s ad-free model with what the project’s extensive research, interviews, and case studies have identified: Most sustainable news organizations have several sources of revenue, with memberships serving as just one stream alongside grants, large donors, advertising, and more.

“The key part of the puzzle is the implied contract between the site and its members. What do the members give? What do they get? What do journalists give? And what do journalists get? Refining that contract [and] discovering the contract that works is the real work of membership,” Rosen said. “But the puzzle turned out to be more complicated than we thought.”

The MPP has been admirably global in its work. The summit had attendees from six continents, research draws on examples in dozens of countries, and reports are made available in languages other than English, either as full reports or detailed summaries. In casting such a wide net, MPP found that the concept of membership didn’t always translate well.

“The thing that surprised me the most was how much the literal translation of the word member connoted political party affiliation in a lot of languages,” Goligoski said. “I think that was the real wake up for us that we needed more of those definitions that people can wrap their heads around that were crystal clear in their intention.”

There were less literal translations to be made, too. It turns out that members-only benefits matter less in the U.S. and Western Europe than other parts of the world. In the U.S., sentiments like “I pay to keep news free for everyone” were more powerful motivators for members than exclusive perks or discounts.

Many outlets told MPP that they wanted to serve people and communities who couldn’t necessarily afford to buy memberships or support their organization financially. The MPP eventually began to distinguish between a membership program and “memberful routines” in which news organization do similar engagement work with all audience members — not just those willing to pay.

Though membership may not be the panacea for journalism some had envisioned, the end-of-project summit stressed that a member-centric approach can work at any news organization, regardless of tax status, paywall, or location.

MPP also looked beyond newsrooms, identifying practices in member-driven movements that focused not on journalism but religion or open source software or Burning Man. “Instead of just assuming what members want, successful membership organizations have developed ways of listening, fresh thinking about what their members actually want, and strong feedback loops to get it right,” the report concluded. “They’re empathetic and open to learning. They frequently adopt more agile approaches than they may have used to in the past.”

As MPP itself knows, experimenting and listening and reworking is part of the process.

“The basic unit of membership work is ‘the try,'” Rosen said.

Photo by Ross Snedon used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 4, 2021, 2:29 p.m.
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