Traditional business models aren’t working out. Maybe membership is the answer.

It isn't impossible to align user and business motivations.

Emily Goligoski speaks at Splice Beta in May 2019. Photo: Jittrapon Kaicome

 

As newsrooms struggle to do more with scarce resources, many have started looking beyond advertising, subscriptions, and other traditional sources of revenue.

One option that may hold the key to engaging audiences more meaningfully while achieving sustainability is the membership model.

But it’s really more than just a business model; it’s more akin to a social contract between journalists and their supporters, says Emily Goligoski, research director at the Membership Puzzle Project based in New York University. Members contribute not just money but also time, energy, and expertise, and organisations are held accountable to these supporters.

Speaking at Splice Beta about the Membership Puzzle Project and the key takeaways of their research, Goligoski says,

“We believe all of our endeavours are best poised for growth if we can align our business incentives and our users’ incentives.”

 

Subscription is transactional, membership builds relationships

To better illustrate what membership is, Goligoski contrasts it with subscriptions: “We see subscription as transactional — I pay money to [a publication], they give me access to their digital archives and a copy of their magazine. That access is the core of our relationship, and it starts and ends there… Memberships, on the other hand, rely on relationships.”

This relationship takes varied forms. Some organisations, like Inside Story in Greece, invite readers to editorial meetings and encourage them to participate in the reporting process. Others have members who serve as transcriptionists, story scouts, audio editors, or proofreaders. A number of news organisations, such as La Silla Vacía in Colombia, openly publish their financial reports. All these things help create a relationship that may have been impossible to forge through more traditional, transactional approaches.

Today’s readers, according to research from the Membership Puzzle Project, want stories that are unique and meaningful, and prefer organisations that are transparent, trustworthy, and open to engaging with them. This is where adopting a membership model may benefit a newsroom.

 

Pivoting based on member feedback

In Southeast Asia, New Naratif is one of the organisations giving membership a shot.

“Very early on, we’ve pivoted several times based purely on what our members are saying,” says founder and managing director Thum Pingtjin. “We listen to them a lot… So a lot of the outputs we have now, how we position ourselves, think of the company, understand what we do, that’s all because of member feedback.”

It’s this feedback that has led New Naratif to branch out from digital and into audiobooks and print editions. “We realised that digital leaves a lot of people behind… People who are visually disabled, older people who don’t read on their phones, people who can’t afford phones or computers — they should have access to information as well,” Thum says.

The publication, which Thum says is fundamentally a movement for democracy and freedom of information in Southeast Asia, publicly publishes their financials every six months and invites members to attend meetings and contribute their expertise. In exchange for their contributions, New Naratif offers free memberships, or extends existing memberships by a number of months or even a year.

 

A plurality of approaches, but it’s not for everyone

Because it’s a very audience-centric, context-sensitive approach, there is no one correct model. The membership approach may work well for investigative news organisations, say Goligoski, but maybe not so much for lifestyle and culture coverage.

It can also be tougher to implement than traditional approaches. “This requires organisations to be more open, and to do more listening than they may historically have been engaged in,” says Goligoski.

“This isn’t a model that’s going to work well for everyone, but for organisations that are really fascinated about what people value and how to work with them… and any media organisation that can be very clear about what it is and what it’s not… it can be a really good match,” she shares.

For New Naratif, this model gels with their philosophy. Says Thum, “We make very little money and run everything on a shoestring… But we are a values-driven organisation. We’re organised as a membership association so there are no shares, we’ll never be able to sell, and no one can get rich. Everyone has to be on board with the values. Otherwise, what are we doing this for?”

Tanya is a Manila-based freelance writer who covers startups, entrepreneurship, travel, lifestyle, and culture. She also works with an NGO that empowers local communities through resilience-building projects. Follow Tanya Mariano on Twitter.

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