Independent Hungarian digital news organization that publishes news, on-the-ground reporting, analysis, and in-depth investigative journalism
Membership pilot launched August 2020. Full membership launched August 2021
~ 5 million
~ 30 percent
In 2017, 444’s management team realized they needed to introduce reader revenue in order to survive. But they faced resistance on several fronts: team members were not sure how 444’s existing ad-supported model and membership would work side-by-side; the success of membership was far from guaranteed; and many colleagues were uncomfortable with the idea of going out and asking their readers for money.
In the three years that followed, 444’s leadership team made big announcements to staff about their plans to implement membership. But they lost credibility when those plans stalled, got delayed, or fizzled out. When they were finally ready to focus on membership in 2020, they struggled to get buy-in across the organization. They tackled this issue with a comprehensive internal communications plan, summarized with the motto “inform, involve, advocate”. This case study looks at how they used this communications strategy to bring skeptical colleagues on board and instill a member-focused culture in the newsroom, which brought them to about 19,000 paying members in August 2022.
Why this is important
Like any new way of working, a plan for introducing membership to your newsroom should include consideration of how you plan to communicate your membership intentions to the rest of your organization – not just when the work is beginning and when it is finished, but continually. Membership can be difficult for a newsroom to internalize and adapt to because it represents many new ways of working. Blindsiding staff members by presenting months of work when it is almost finished can undermine your progress, even if the intention was to avoid overwhelming a time-strapped team.
However, a haphazard communications strategy can be just as damaging. 444 learned poor communication can lead to the loss of credibility and good faith from your team. After that misstep, 444’s leadership worked hard to put those mistakes right by creating a clear, structured plan for communicating with the whole newsroom about their membership journey. As a result, skepticism around membership has markedly decreased, and dozens of newsroom staff are now involved in membership work in some way. MPP offers their plan as a potential template to build on for communicating your own membership plans to your newsroom.
What they did
444 began its effort to implement a membership program in 2017 with some experiments to show the newsroom that a reader revenue model could work. They launched a voluntary donations drive in Spring 2017 with an FAQ and accompanying articles about the type of support they were asking for and why. This initial experiment brought in 25 million Hungarian Forints (around $83,000) from about 3,000 donors.
They followed this up in March 2018 with two crowdfunding projects, one for a book and one for a documentary, both of which exceeded their goals. (CEO Gábor Kardos said in a community call for the Membership in News Fund that they were careful to choose projects that had a high likelihood of getting fully funded.) Buoyed by the success of these experiments, senior leaders presented their plans to introduce membership to the whole newsroom in a special all-hands meeting in early 2019. The meeting focused mostly on the business goals and potential sustainability/stability such a move could bring. No specific timeline was set, but major changes were expected within 12-18 months.
However, after presenting the plan, the management team realized they were not ready to act. Kardos said the leadership team had underestimated the scale and complexity of the work that needed to be done, and they had not yet decided between themselves what membership would look like for 444. As they tried to reach agreement on core business and technical aspects, a year went by in which the newsroom saw no progress or update on membership. The enthusiasm generated by the successful donations/crowdfunding drives and all-hands presentation waned. “They lost faith and I lost credibility,” Kardos said.
When COVID-19 arrived in March 2020, the need for membership became urgent. The leadership team gathered senior staff together to discuss how they could implement membership as quickly as possible, even if they didn’t have agreement on every aspect of their strategy. They decided to launch an MVP, asking readers for a one-time donation in return for membership to a closed Facebook group, an exclusive newsletter from their editor-in-chief, and priority invitation to join their full membership scheme once it launched.
Ten thousand people would join this MVP, called the Circle, but as Kardos and his colleagues readied its launch in August 2020, they knew they also had to get their internal messaging right. Many in the newsroom still had significant concerns about membership – particularly limiting access to member-only content – so the management team consulted experts on how to best work on culture change internally. Based on their advice, available case studies, and experience with navigating divisive topics in the past, they settled on a focused and clearly-structured communications plan with the motto “inform, involve, advocate.”
The aim was to inform all staff of the relevant details of the membership efforts, involve them in parts of the membership strategy they could actually have an effect on, and offer opportunities and motivation for them to be an advocate for membership.
The plan had four key components:
- All-staff meetings, held monthly. These meetings were a new addition to the staff calendar to provide all sorts of company updates amidst the rapidly-changing COVID-19 situation, but Kardos said 30-50 percent of the time was spent communicating progress and decisions about their business model transition. The push towards membership was mentioned in every meeting to keep it front-and-center for everyone in the organization.
- A weekly internal newsletter, sharing key membership developments and decisions from the past week, and a look ahead to what was coming up in the following week. Initially this came from various members of the leadership team, but after the first few weeks it was always voiced by 444’s then-Business Development Director, Peter Erdelyi.
- Small working groups/workshops to explore specific elements of their membership strategy, such as commenting for paying members, their approach to member-only content, and premium newsletter strategy. Some of these, such as the commenting working group, were assembled via an open invitation to all staff. Others, like the one on member-only content, were a closed group involving those closest to the issue. But in each case, Kardos and Erdelyi said it was crucial to set clear parameters for the decisions that needed to be made. For example, it wasn’t a question of whether 444 would have comments for members, but how to make a members’ comments forum function effectively.
- Guest speakers, such as senior leadership from Slovakian title Denník N (editor-in-chief Matúš Kostolný, CEO Lukáš Fila, and head of digital Tomáš Bella), and Grzegorz Piechota from INMA, who shared lessons on the relationship between membership and content creation, as well as the ways in which tech and data support membership work. Each speaker was briefed on where the newsroom was in its membership journey before being asked to speak for around 20 minutes, and answer staff questions for a further 40 minutes.
Here is an example of 444’s weekly internal newsletter, translated into English:
Weekly recap, now as usual on Friday evenings:
We have closed the survey and received a total of 26,000 responses. We were expecting a fraction of that, so that’s certainly great. We’ve started analyzing the results, there seem to be some exciting themes, hopefully there will be some kind of summary next week. The reason it’s going slowly is because it’s not the type of results that are very exciting, that respondents think we’re brave and independent (although that’s good to know too), as they were filled in by people who read a lot and like us in the first place. What’s more interesting for our future is what, say, existing Circle members really care about around our planned services, and how those same services are perceived by people who regularly spend on the Hungarian press but don’t join Circle. Or what those who spend a lot of money on the Hungarian press are buying, as opposed to those who spend less. It takes time to figure out, sort and interpret these.
MAKRO 3 [444’s printed magazine] is about ready at the printers, it will be packaged in a few days and will go to the readers. It will be well promoted in podcasts, videos, closed Facebook group and other places, as soon as it is available for purchase in the webshop. There’s still some delay here, as the old webshop is closed and the new one hasn’t launched yet, but we hope to have a solution soon.
We had our first content meeting with the editors in preparation for the introduction of the paywall. In short: we will have to experiment a lot. In more detail: an all hands newsroom meeting on [paywall] strategy is coming.
Closing the test of our pilot site with Circle members: The major fixes and improvements are basically done, we will have more experience after it goes live about what works well, what doesn’t work well, what tasks are still to be done. We’re still waiting for the updated mobile apps to be accepted in the store, so the new core system, which does NOT yet include paid features, should finally be ready for live deployment next week.
There was another meeting on commenting with the 6-8 people being considered as external moderators. We will start with them in the first month, hiring more moderators than we need, on a permanent on-call system, so that no inappropriate comments are released under any circumstances, and then we will adjust this in the second half of the first month, depending on the actual situation, to a realistic system in the medium term, depending on how many comments were received, what kind of comments were received, and how much moderator work was needed. What is certain is that moderation will be a long-term job for the moderators, with more people doing it, mainly under the supervision of Laci [senior writer Laszlo Szily].
We are trying to organize two external, foreign guests for the next weeks, who know, work with and have been running these membership-paywall systems for a longer period of time. This is an open invitation for anyone who would like to join.
In the two years since 444 began implementing this communications strategy, they have held seven all-staff meetings, sent 35 internal newsletters, had 20+ members of staff join a membership working group or workshop, and hosted five guest speakers.
Within just a few months of launching the internal communication efforts, Kardos said they notched the following wins:
- They were able to identify the newsroom’s central concerns about membership – which were often different from what they expected. These included the real-world impact of member-only content (e.g. no one will read paywalled articles) and perceived impact (e.g.my sources won’t leak stuff to me if the article goes behind a paywall). Leadership addressed these concerns by making it clear to reporters that the rollout of member-only content would be gradual, and they would listen to audience feedback and data to iterate on this element of their strategy. Most articles would still be published outside the paywall, and would only be gated after two, four, or six hours later, if at all.
- They were able to internally recruit colleagues for specific membership tasks. For example, a reporter with a strong interest in audience engagement was put in charge of recruiting moderators and creating commenting guidelines.
- They increased general awareness about membership, and could put an end to rumors and the uneven spread of information. With news audiences still reluctant to/unfamiliar with paying for content in Central and Eastern Europe, one persistent rumor was that the introduction of gated content (how 444 talks about a paywall) would mean those articles would attract very little traffic. Guest speakers helped to debunk this assumption by sharing success stories in the region.
After a year – and coinciding with the full launch of their membership program in August 2021– they noticed the following:
- More realistic expectations about the time and resources needed for membership-related work, and a better understanding of how elements of the membership strategy would look in reality. The team knew that tech development was likely to be long and iterative. Or that they might choose to paywall just 3-8% of their content, and only restrict access after a few hours so those who can’t afford membership still have an opportunity to engage with those stories. Or, they could create two versions of big stories: a detailed one behind the paywall and a shorter one freely available, meaning the story could still have broad impact (e.g. the article is still referenced in the Hungarian press, the author is still invited on talkshows).
- A decrease in skepticism about membership, which they saw reflected in the types of questions they received and 1:1 feedback. Prior to the introduction of the communications plan, questions were focused on how elements of the membership strategy might obstruct 444’s work and reach, such as “How do you expect us to get leaks from sources if no one can read the (gated) stories?” and “So now readers will tell us how to do our jobs?” Following the introduction of the communications plan, questions and comments were a lot more constructive. Two examples: “Is it okay if I create two pieces, one free and one gated, from the same story?” and “Please share the results of the new survey.”
- Modification of the membership program based on internal feedback. A separate homepage and recommendation box for “premium” content was created after editors asked for it. The internal membership data dashboard was amended based on feedback from the newsroom, and staff came up with a number of marketing ideas and strategies to bring in new members.
Over the course of the last two years, they have used the following metrics and markers to measure the success of their culture change efforts:
- The number of colleagues involved in membership work in any way: At time of publication, this number stood at around 20.
- The tone and content of all-staff email threads related to membership: This has become less confrontational and more curious. Staff members are proud of 444’s membership achievements.
- Reporters’ willingness to offer/accept that their content will be marked as premium (exclusive to members): Erdelyi said there is hardly ever resistance to gated content now, and staff are increasingly offering suggestions specifically for gated content.
- New ideas/initiatives coming from outside the core membership team: Around 30% of new ideas/initiatives for membership now come from outside the core team.
- Colleagues’ participation in community services such as commenting, a members-only Facebook group, or events: Around 70% of the newsroom have participated in the delivery of membership services.
What they learned
It’s important to be clear that you’re not just copying others. While 444’s membership team got inspiration from other newsrooms pursuing membership, including the guest speakers they invited in, they emphasized to their team that their membership strategy is based on what 444 has learned about their readers through experiments with voluntary donations and crowdfunding drives, as well as audience surveys. This helped counter concerns that a strategy “borrowed” from another newsroom would not be relevant for 444.
Manage expectations from the get-go. Kardos believes this was the number one thing they got wrong in their failed communications attempts. It amplified the sense of uncertainty in an evolving business and undermined the enthusiasm of early adopters and allies. He says clarity is especially important when it comes to how much time initiatives will take to set up and what elements of the strategy staff will be able to weigh in on versus where management will make decisions. Emphasize to your team that adopting membership is a marathon, not a sprint. 444 made sure the newsroom knew it was not about the launch, but about building strength and what will happen long term.
Tangible, concrete examples of how membership revenue benefits staff was extremely powerful. All 444 staff took a pay cut in April 2020 as the business struggled to cope with the impact of COVID-19. But the revenue brought in by the membership MVP meant 444 could raise salaries back up to pre-COVID levels by September of that year and pay a bonus to cover the intervening losses for staff. Erdelyi said this created a very direct relationship between membership revenue and staff’s day-to-day reality.
How you appear is as important as what you say. For their all-hands meetings about membership, 444 ensured that editorial, marketing, and tech staff also took turns leading the meetings. Kardos said this has been a particularly effective way of bringing skeptics on board, because it shows that the membership effort has broad support.
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
Give critics a voice, out in the open – even when it feels counterintuitive. When colleagues were resistant to change, 444 kept them present at all hands meetings and through open invitations to working groups on contentious issues in order to make sure they were and felt heard. Kardos and his team believe making them a part of the process is the best way to convince them over time.
Culture change involves getting people on board not once, twice, or three times but constantly. “We kept seeing them dropping off, questioning one part [of the strategy], or questioning the whole direction… it’s a constant effort that we have to be doing all the time,” said Kardos.
Consequently, culture change involves a balance between patience and urgency. Patience to bring people on board, repeatedly and over time. But urgency of action to show progress and learning is vital to convince them of the cause.
- Membership Puzzle Project Summit, panel session: How two newsrooms overcame internal membership challenges
- Reuters Institute for Journalism, research paper: How to get readers in Central and Eastern Europe and the Global South to pay for public service journalism
- Twitter, thread: Erdelyi’s reflections on their one-year membership anniversary