An independent media organization reporting and writing from the traditionally underrepresented south of India
The News Minute (TNM) launched in 2014 to cover the news in India from the South Indian perspective. They got a grant to launch their membership program in 2020, and for a while they thought that would be their primary source of audience revenue.
But as they developed the membership program, navigating technical challenges that made recurring payments almost impossible and seeking ways to offer a meaningful member experience, they also ran occasional crowdfunding campaigns for specific editorial projects.
Those campaigns have activated readers who they had tried unsuccessfully to convert to membership. Over time, TNM’s membership team – composed of Navin Sigamany, Manager – Revenue and Product; Ramanathan Subramanian, Head of Revenue and Product; and CEO Vignesh Vellore – realized that crowdfunding is not just a bridge to a membership program. It can be an ongoing source of revenue that coexists with membership. This case study will share how they got there.
Why this is important
Many newsrooms test the viability of membership by running a crowdfunding campaign first – a sort of temperature check on whether audience members appreciate their work enough to financially support it. Once they get the membership program infrastructure in place, most newsrooms stop crowdfunding campaigns.
MPP doesn’t necessarily recommend trying to maintain two audience revenue streams side by side. It can be logistically challenging and confusing to the potential supporter.
But The News Minute did it in the reverse order, launching membership first and crowdfunding as a supplementary revenue stream. They have now maintained a membership program and several crowdfunding campaigns side by side for more than a year.
This case study will offer insight into how a member-driven newsroom can also collect financial support through crowdfunding. It might be particularly useful for newsrooms operating in environments in which recurring payments are a challenge.
What they did
News Minute has designed three ways by which people can become a financial supporter.
They began by launching a membership program in April 2020, with two types of membership, followed by three crowdfunding campaigns in 2021.
A membership program
In 2019, Chennai and Kerala faced catastrophic flooding. Members of the TNM community helped connect relief efforts with people who needed them and affected people with their family members in other parts of the country.
Their volunteerism got the TNM membership team (then led by Ragamalika Karthikeyan, Editor, Special Projects & Experiments), CEO Vignesh Vellore, and Editor-in-Chief Dhanya Rajendran thinking about other ways they could engage this community and leverage that engagement for audience revenue. They launched a membership program in April 2020 with the help of a Google News Initiative grant.
Recurring payments are technically challenging in India due to local banking regulations, so members pay on a six-month or annual basis. They offered a fairly typical member experience of member-only newsletters, the opportunity to attend a monthly editorial meeting where they planned stories, and access to member-only events, most of which have happened on Zoom because of the pandemic. They also launched a Discourse community where members could talk to each other and their staff and made their app members-only.
You can learn more about The News Minute’s member experience in the 2021 MPP report, “Building healthy member communities: Lessons from newsrooms around the world.”
A membership tier for the Indian diaspora
The Chennai rains also showed TNM that many of its readers lived outside India and would be in a better position than those in India to financially support TNM. They decided to try and build a membership experience specific to the needs of diaspora readers..
Because recurring payments are easier with bank accounts outside India, TNM offered diaspora members the option of monthly payments. They also offered them access to a “help desk” through which members could ask TNM staff for help with things that were harder to manage from outside the country, such as help identifying doctors for aging parents in India or lawyers to help out on specific legal issues.
Crowdfunding for specific editorial initiatives
As they approached the one-year anniversary of their membership program, TNM started taking a closer look at crowdfunding. Other publishers in their market, such as Newslaundry, had successfully run single-issue crowdfunding campaigns. TNM also had a few members who would not open any emails from TNM and would never attend any events, but would give money at every opportunity, which showed TNM that, for some people, the member relationship might not matter much.
They decided to test crowdfunding with a small, generic campaign in February 2021 for TNM’s birthday. They received almost 100 payments in just 48 hours. The velocity of the response surprised and encouraged them. “We thought, if 100 folks are ready to give some money without thinking twice about it for our birthday, surely we will be able to get more people to give money about specific issues that are close to them,” Sigamany said.
Getting a crowdfunding campaign off the ground was relatively easy from a technical standpoint. Because of the membership program, which was almost a year old at that point, TNM already had the infrastructure in place to receive money from readers. Encouraged by the birthday campaign, they ran three major, issue-based crowdfunding initiatives in 2021.
The first was pegged to the April 2021 local elections in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala offered that opportunity. They drafted a comprehensive coverage plan – senior journalists on the campaign trail, on-the-ground reports, a focus on the issues that mattered to each of the constituencies – and ran a six-week campaign to raise funds to support the coverage.
In June 2021, they launched the eight-week COVID-19 reporting project, which has been their most ambitious – and successful – crowdfunding campaign to date. Their campaign launch announcement detailed the work they had done for the first 15 months of the pandemic and laid out what more they could do with dedicated reader support. During the campaign they sent periodic email updates to those who had contributed, letting them know the stories that had been published, and continued to share major stories with the campaign supporters after the campaign ended.
For the final issue-based campaign of 2021, they focused on the concept of cooperative federalism or the sharing of power between the state and federal governments. This is a hot topic in South India, where four of the five states are led by opposition parties and are often at odds with the federal government. This campaign ran for 10 weeks.
TNM launched a newsletter for the project and sent an update every week on the latest stories and what they would be covering next. Every update also included a request to support their continued reporting on the topic, as did their member newsletters.
Since 2021, they’ve also done a series of smaller crowdfunding campaigns around anniversaries or lawsuits from the government.
Applying a crowdfunding approach to membership
Before these crowdfunding campaigns, they had never run a high-intensity membership drive.
In 2021, torrential rains in Chennai once again caused catastrophic flooding. Three-quarters of the city was submerged, but national media was barely covering it, Sigamany recalls.
The staff realized they needed to be there. TNM is headquartered in Bangalore, in neighboring state Karnataka, and TNM was founded to cover South India from a South Indian perspective.
They got a team on the ground and started asking for people to become members to help sustain their comprehensive coverage, ultimately running the campaign for three weeks, while their staff was on the ground covering the floods and the recovery. They chose to use the campaign to build membership because it meant they could use their existing membership tools. (The other crowdfunding campaigns had been run fairly manually.)
After six crowdfunding campaigns and more than two years of maintaining a membership program with tiers for members in India and in the diaspora, Sigamany shared three topline results that we’ll detail below.
Membership is unlikely to be TNM’s primary source of audience revenue – but it offers other value.
As of November 2022, the News Minute had 1,700 members. They’ve had a total of 5,000 members since 2020, but more than half of their members have churned.
Recurring payments are very hard in India and Sigamany spends hours a week manually contacting lapsed TNM members to try and get a payment back on file. He also hypothesizes that some have quit because the member experience isn’t what they expected.
Sigamany now thinks about members differently. They contribute other things that can be as hard to come by as money: constructive feedback, time and sustained attention.
He shared multiple examples of members weighing in at editorial meetings and through sneak peeks at features that helped stories and products succeed. They are significantly more engaged than anyone else that reads TNM’s journalism, including crowdfunding contributors. Given the comparative financial success of the crowdfunding campaigns (more on that below), Sigamany now thinks of members primarily as a sounding board with whom they can test out new things before rolling them out to the broader audience, ensuring a better final product.
“That type of information is usually very difficult to get. [With non-members] you have to follow up multiple times,” he said. “That’s where the big value of membership comes in. Even if ultimately it ends up being maybe 30 percent of overall audience revenue, the engagement is where it becomes crucial, especially when you’re building out new offerings.”
Going forward, they’ll put more effort into member stewardship to maintain that relationship.
Other changes they made:
- They killed a member-only arts newsletter that was produced by an external agency. It had a few superfans but never took off. Sigamany hypothesizes that readers didn’t think of TNM as a place to go for arts coverage.
- They abandoned their member-only community on Discourse and moved it to Facebook, realizing it was too hard to get people to move to a new platform just for The News Minute.
Diaspora members didn’t care about special benefits.
Between 10 and 20 percent of TNM’s members are Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), an official government designation for Indians living overseas. But fewer than 10 people have accessed the help desk. The opportunity to pay monthly instead of biannually is similarly underused. Fewer than 20 percent of NRI members have opted for the monthly billing option.
The lesson for TNM was that diaspora members didn’t need anything special.
“Every time we tried to do something that was focused on the diaspora, we didn’t get the interest we thought that we would get,” Sigamany said. They interviewed dozens of their diaspora readers about what would make their TNM experience better and “it kept coming back to the stuff we’re doing already”, he said.
TNM still offers the help desk and monthly billing but aren’t planning to invest any further in differentiating the NRI member experience.
Crowdfunding campaigns are where they think will get most of their future audience revenue
TNM ran three major crowdfunding campaigns in 2021.
- April 2021, local elections: About 100,000 rupees from about 100 people
- June-July 2021, COVID-19 Reporting Project: About 500,000 rupees from around 300 people
- Late 2021, cooperative federalism: About 150,000 rupees from about 100 people
For context, the total of these efforts was about 2 percent of their 2021 revenue, while membership brought in about 10 percent. Once they have the right tools, they’ll be able to run multiple campaigns concurrently, each on a different topic.
About 60 percent of the funding in the election campaign came from a relatively small group of people – and TNM has struggled to figure out how to act on that information. Sigamany said that they recognize that engaging major donors requires a different skill set that they don’t have right now.
They’ve also run a few more general crowdfunding campaigns, such as ones pegged to anniversaries or government lawsuits against TNM. Sigamany said these haven’t performed as well as the campaigns for specific projects but they require substantially less effort. They’ll remain part of TNM’s strategy but they’ll do very little for them – no special graphics, no special events, no special products.
Meanwhile, the membership campaign pegged to the 2021 Chennai rains, brought in about 140,000 rupees from about 110 people. “It was unusual in that we had a lot of people who contributed fairly small amounts of money – about 100 rupees or $1.36 around that time. That’s about one-tenth of TNM’s average crowdfunding contribution,” Sigamany said. “These are people who did not have the money to spare but they wanted to support us in some way. At the end of the day it was showing solidarity for us,” he said.
Sigamany said there was little overlap between the supporters of each campaign.
Now that they’ve landed on a strategy that’s partially proven itself, they’re aggressively building their email lists to expand the number of people who receive the crowdfunding appeals. Sigamany’s goal is to eventually be able to run three or four campaigns at once, each built around a different editorial project or interest – but right now they’re navigating ongoing issues with payment processors, so they’ve paused all campaigns for awhile.
What they learned
Each issue has its own set of appeals and people who will come and support it. “Out of 1,000 supporters, maybe 100 of them will give money to the election; 100 people will give to the rains [campaign]. But the overlap between them was not much – maybe 20 percent,” Sigamany said. That’s actually a good thing – it greatly expands the number of people TNM can target with an appeal.
A lot of supporters didn’t want a “member” experience. There are a lot of people out there who don’t want a member experience, for whom a recurring payment is too big of an ask or who are only interested in one coverage area. Membership isn’t appealing for them. “We got it wrong. We had membership as the core offering and the ability to make a one-time payment was an extra,” Sigamany said. By focusing exclusively on membership, TNM was giving up another important revenue opportunity.
But the ones who do want that member experience offer something deeper than money. “What membership actually gives us is a kind of engagement that we don’t get otherwise. Members are the ones who turn up to events, they ask questions, they are the voice of our audience. They turn up to editorial meetings and propose ideas. The membership is where you give us more than your money, you also give us your time and attention,” Sigamany said. They plan to test any new features or products with their members first.
Don’t design something extra if people don’t need it. TNM tried a number of things to create a compelling member experience for diaspora members and, two years in, it’s made little difference. Diaspora members aren’t making use of the benefits created specifically for them. They just want to support The News Minute, same as the members in the country.
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
Be prepared to accommodate many different behaviors. The News Minute assumed that membership is something everyone who supports their work would want. But they found that even people who had contributed to multiple crowdfunding campaigns were often uninterested in the deeper member experience. TNM needed to stop trying to convince those people to join and to instead focus on making it as easy as possible for them to support in the way they wanted. Newsrooms can’t change what supporters want out of their relationship with the newsroom, they can only change how they respond to different preferences.
“We have always positioned crowdfunding as a way to support specific projects with one-time payments, while membership is a longer term commitment to support the journalism we do. We do not present them as mutually exclusive, but as being available for people to support in whichever way they feel comfortable with,” Sigamany summed it up.
- Membership Puzzle Project, report: “Building healthy member communities: Lessons from newsrooms around the world”