For non-profit news organizations, membership programs may play double duty by bringing in new sources of revenue, as well as engaging with readers.
A new pilot program aims to help more news organizations do just that.
Headed by the Voice of San Diego, the Nonprofit News Revenue Hub will work with five partner organizations to implement individual membership programs.
One of the partner organizations, NJ Spotlight, first started publishing six years ago, primarily with support from foundations. It has since grown and helped fill a need as newspapers shrink, CEO John Mooney said.
Mooney said the site’s leadership had long wanted to start a program that allowed readers to join as members, but just didn’t have the capacity to create something from scratch.
“We wanted to better engage people, hear from readers, create that community,” he said. “We knew membership was one way to do that. There’s both journalistic gain out of that, as well as financial gain.”
Then Mooney met Mary Walter-Brown, the publisher and COO of the Voice of San Diego: both were on a Sulzberger Fellowship at Columbia University.
Walter-Brown had been developing a membership program for the Voice with funding from the Knight Foundation.
The Voice launched its program in 2012. This year it expects to bring in 18 percent of its overall revenue from members giving anywhere from $35 to $5,000, and another 37 percent from donors who give between $5,000 and $200,000.
Outsourcing a Membership Program
Walter-Brown said that after launching the Voice’s membership program, she learned that many news organizations wanted to start their own programs, but were unable to get them up and running.
“We thought, what if we create a centralized membership services hub and allow them to outsource this?” she said.
With seed funding provided by the Democracy Fund, Walter-Brown developed a pilot program that allows other news organizations around the country to follow the Voice’s model.
“We believe that the future of journalism is dependent on newsrooms that are more collaborative and more engaged with their communities,” Josh Stearns, Associate Director of the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program, said. “The News Revenue Hub allows newsrooms to do what they do best and partner with peers in the industry to expand their impact, reach and sustainability.”
Each organization is given a template to follow, including donor benefits, landing pages and email campaigns. Walter-Brown’s team helps the organizations implement the program.
The goal is to allow news organizations to focus on producing good journalism, she said.
Mooney was immediately interested.
“I was the first person to raise my hand – I was like, ‘That would be great,’” he said. “‘You’re solving all our problems.’”
Applications were accepted from news organizations around the country for the pilot program.
The goal was to choose five organizations that were diverse, Walter-Brown said. The requirements were that the organizations needed to already have a minimum of 2,000 contacts in their databases, a committed CEO and Editor-in-Chief and at least a part-time development person on staff who could focus on cultivating relationships and local outreach.
InsideClimate News, Honolulu Civil Beat, The Lens, Politifact and NJ Spotlight were selected.
Each organization then customizes the program to best fit its needs.
“They built structure, then we can build out something that fits us, our audience, our whole mission,” Mooney said. “We’re different from those other sites.”
In less than a week after launching, NJ Spotlight had 100 new members and grandfathered in another 50. The site has a goal of reaching $50,000, which Mooney believes is doable.
The program emphasizes “access and experience” as incentives for members.
For NJ Spotlight’s part, it will host events for members to meet the site’s staff and offer feedback on the types of stories they’d like to see.
“People are looking for engagement and the opportunity to reward something they like – rather than a new tote bag or coffee mug,” he said.
Mooney said that to determine whether the program is successful for NJ Spotlight, they’ll have to decide whether the amount of money raised justified the effort that goes into it – including the hiring of a part-time membership coordinator. Beyond that, the success factors, including a sense of engagement and feedback from members, are less tangible.
But Mooney hopes the membership program will help drive up site traffic and attendance at events – which could lead to more sponsorships and advertising.
“This is long overdue for us,” he said. “We wouldn’t have done this for who-knows-how-long without this being put in front of us. There’s no doubt in my mind that this will be successful. We think it already has been.”
He said one of the strengths of the hub is the collaboration. The different teams communicate via a Slack channel. Recently, when there was a database glitch, staffers at the Honolulu Civil Beat were able to solve the problem by writing new code, which they shared with the other participating sites.
“Collaboration is a two cent word because everybody says it,” Mooney said. “But this one has worked out pretty nicely.”
Bianca Fortis is the associate editor at MediaShift, an independent journalist and social media consultant. She is a founding member of the Transborder Media storytelling collective. Follow her on Twitter @biancafortis.