Developing a member-focused culture

Membership is not just a revenue stream. It is a way of operating that touches every aspect of your work, from how you decide how to cover news to who you hire. Yes, you can launch a membership program or memberful journalism project without developing a member-focused newsroom culture – but without one, your membership strategy will likely sputter out. 

Jay Allred, president and publisher at Richland Source in the U.S., encapsulated this when talking about how his newsroom first launched membership in 2015 without a clear plan for lines of responsibility or communication. “Predictably it stalled out. There wasn’t an understanding of why it was important. It wasn’t tied back to anything,” he told the research team. Six years on, engagement and solutions editor Brittany Schock says membership is something that has “permeated the organization,” with the newsroom aligned around the motto that “membership is everyone’s job.”

So who do you need on board in your newsroom to make the shift toward membership? What is more important – top-down or bottom-up transformation? These are some of the questions MPP receives most frequently from newsrooms trying to place membership at the heart of their work. 

A membership strategy that defines where membership sits within your organization’s overall vision will require buy-in from the very top while implementation of that strategy, from the design and delivery of your membership program to the maintenance of your memberful routines, will almost certainly be carried out by staff at other levels of your organization. This is why developing a member-focused culture throughout the newsroom is essential to making membership stick. 

Building culture and/or changing organizational culture is incredibly tough. It involves changing individuals’ behaviors in order to shift the entire organization. And building a membership-oriented newsroom culture is particularly challenging because it requires navigating multiple transformation efforts at once. It’s an embrace of data in an industry that is uncomfortable with it; it’s an embrace of an iterative, long-term product mindset in an industry that works on daily deadlines; and it’s an embrace of the audience members’ intelligence and perspectives as equal to those of journalists in an industry that is used to setting the agenda on its own.

Plus, in a time of tight budgets, many newsrooms have to achieve this change without adding capacity. 

But it is possible!

There is lots of great writing out there about why culture is important, and the research team will share a few that it recommends. What MPP sought to do with this section is highlight what digital transformation expert Lucy Keung calls “cultural change levers” – a coordinated series of actions that can, when used collectively, help to shift mindsets – and provide practical, actionable tips on when and how to pull them. 

It’s unlikely that you’ll only have to pull these levers once. Culture change efforts will be required at different points in the lifecycle of a membership strategy, and it is never “done.” A pre-launch newsroom will have to bring skeptical team members on board, while a mature member-driven newsroom may have to figure out how to instill a membership mindset among new team members who joined from a more traditional newsroom. It may only take a couple of months to identify your early internal supporters and empower them, but it could take two or three years before everyone in your newsroom becomes curious about your members and interested in having a relationship with them. 

This is why you’ll see the research team occasionally repeating suggestions throughout this section. 

In this section, MPP will provide:

• Baseline best practices for culture change
• Practical advice on securing leadership buy-in
• Actionable insights into how to build a coalition of the willing for membership, and how to handle skeptics
• Tips for communicating membership plans to your newsroom
• Examples of rituals that can cement membership culture
• Details of how crises can act as a catalyst for culture change
• A framework for measuring culture change in your newsroom
• Resources to help you troubleshoot common barriers to culture change

The section is designed for you to quickly jump to advice on whatever particular challenge you’re faced with. However, if you are planning a culture change strategy wholesale, it may also be useful to note that the sections are arranged to loosely track with Kotter’s stages of change. Designed by Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter, this eight-step model highlights the key processes organizations need to go through to successfully effect change. 

What are culture change best practices?

Regardless of a newsroom’s particular challenges developing a member-focused culture, there are a handful of fundamentals any newsroom should have in place.

Establish a shared definition and language of membership. This is vital to ensure that everyone is operating from a place of shared understanding and pulling in the same direction.  The language you use to talk about the membership transition will shape how people perceive it, and if you’re not consistent, you leave room for multiple interpretations that can make communication challenging. 

Be clear about how membership differs from other revenue and engagement models you could have chosen, such as donations and subscriptions, and why you chose membership (Jump to “Defining Membership”). Make time for conversations about how you’ll talk about the role that members play in your journalism. Experiment with different ways of talking about it until you find what feels right for your organization and your membership program. One way to do this would be to task an internal committee of advocates with writing your membership launch announcement and FAQ (Jump to “Launching membership”). Richland Source in the U.S. has everyone on the news team write and send a Christmas membership appeal email each year, which helps all of them get comfortable with the language of membership.

Provide space for constructive criticism and concerns Resistance to change often comes from not feeling heard. Create opportunities for colleagues to raise and discuss their concerns in a supportive environment. These spaces could include monthly AMAs with leadership or the team in charge of membership or regular “office hours” where staff can bring issues or questions to the membership team one-to-one. Making it clear there are appropriate spaces for sharing constructive criticism also means vocal skeptics can’t “hijack” high-profile communications events or moments of celebration. The research team talks more about creating such spaces in “How do we convince skeptics and hold-outs?

Provide space for creative thinking – and ‘bad’ ideas. Change is complex and your newsroom’s membership journey is likely to have many twists and turns. Make room for these by having structured time on your newsroom calendar for creative thinking, whether that be for figuring out big, overarching questions such as “What is our membership value proposition?” or more targeted problem-solving, such as “Should we offer swag as a benefit?”

South African podcasting studio Volume Africa said during a presentation at the Membership Puzzle Project summit that building in structured time for creativity was crucial as they thought through their membership offering because it gave them dedicated space to sort through a range of ideas, good and bad. Volume’s co-founder Paul McNally said his team had previously become wary of giving time over to creative thinking because of fear that changes in direction could “disrupt the whole business.”

“What we realized is that we can contain our creativity [within these dedicated sessions]… it won’t throw everything out, but it will keep us able to refresh [our ideas],” he said. “Allowing creativity into your newsrooms in a controlled way, not in a scary way, is really useful.”

A slide from Volume Africa’s presentation at the MPP summit

Create process templates for membership work. A real or perceived increase in workload is a common barrier to change. To ease the transition, create a “stop doing” list – an idea MPP has previously borrowed from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as documented by the American Press Institute. By taking some things off your team’s plate to make time for membership work, you’re signaling both that it is a high priority and that you understand they already had a full plate before.

Second, consider templating as many processes as possible so that it can quickly become as routine as many of the editorial steps your journalists are used to. This reduces both the workload and the fear around doing something new. German site Krautreporter, for example, uses various survey templates to make it easy for all their reporters to involve audience members in their work.

 

How Krautreporter uses surveys to engage, co-design, and grow

Krautreporter is running three to five surveys at any point in time.

Further reading:

How do we secure leadership buy-in?

Leadership’s role in supporting membership isn’t just about hiring the right people and allocating money in the budget to support the work. Professor Lucy Keung, a digital transformation expert who has worked with newsrooms such as the BBC, CNN, and NPR, explains that a leadership team’s role in setting norms and embodying priorities “matters so much because people at the top who don’t buy in give a ‘free pass’ to those lower down to do likewise.” 

If you’re the person in your newsroom tasked with executing on the membership strategy but don’t have the buy-in from the top that you need, MPP suggests applying Hearken’s three-step process for getting engagement buy-in. Below, is one way you might adapt the framework for membership:

Step 1: Get curious 

Hearken writes: “If you don’t know why [leadership] might want to try out engagement, it’s time to simply ask. Uncovering people’s motivators is one of those skills journalists have honed their entire careers — there’s no reason you can’t put those skills to use in your own newsroom. Get curious about what people are working on, what they need and what they’re struggling with.”

Adapting this advice for membership, MPP recommends asking questions such as, “How does membership fit in with our organizational goals? How might it solve some of our broader audience and revenue challenges? What concerns you about this shift toward membership?”

Step 2: Make your pitch 

Hearken suggests using just five slides for an engagement pitch, answering five key questions. 

  • Why you’re proposing the idea 
  • Who the idea will help you serve that you’re not serving right now
  • What the idea will bring you that you don’t have right now
  • What success will look like
  • When and how the work will be carried out

When pitching any sort of membership effort to leadership, it’s important to be realistic about how soon they will see results, and how many resources it will take to achieve those results. You should be prepared to answer questions such as “If that reporter is helping you respond to callouts, who is going to do their weekly brief?” 

Step 3: Build your “beat” 

Hearken underscores that engagement is a process, not a product. The same can be said of membership. After that first pitch, keep building your case by trying small experiments that begin to make the case for membership, such as a survey to gather data on your loyal audiences. Be sure to report back to leadership what you’ve learned from each experiment. (Jump to “Adopting a product mindset” for more on designing tests).

When Daily Maverick in South Africa realized its tech stack would not be ready in time for a full membership launch as scheduled, they decided to launch a one-time donations drive to test some of their key assumptions about whether, why, and how much loyal readers would financially support them. The results gave them vital information that influenced the design of their fully-fledged membership program, which they launched a couple of months later, and gave clear evidence to leadership and the rest of the newsroom that they were on the right track. 

 

How Daily Maverick tested its membership assumptions pre-launch

Daily Maverick took advantage of a delay with its membership program launch to answer some questions it had about its potential members.

Further reading:

How do we build a coalition of the willing?

Sometimes, you might be facing the opposite scenario: you are a leader, or your organization has a leader, who is fully bought in to membership but lacks support among those who will be tasked with executing the membership strategy. 

To build that mid-level support, you first need to identify who is already attracted to the ideas and practices of membership – or at least curious about them and open to hearing more.  Rather than trying to convince everyone at once, focus on creating a coalition of the willing – those who are ready to experiment with new ways of working. By starting with a handful of people on smaller projects, you can begin to collect proofs of concept that can be used to bring skeptics on board. You’ll be able to point to the early adopters and the results of their work and say, “See? It works!”

Here are the basic steps to building your own coalition of the willing in your newsroom:

Conduct a cultural audit and map your stakeholders. Before you can make changes, you need a solid grasp of the current culture and where your coalition members are in the organizational chart. This will help you to understand the size of the challenge you’re facing, the potential for change, and which areas/individuals represent opportunities/sticking points. When building your coalition of the willing, you’re aiming to identify early adopters who already express enthusiasm, or at the very least a belief in the need for change. 

WAN-IFRA’S recent Cultural Change report suggests doing this with a staff questionnaire touching on broad questions of mission and vision. MPP would also recommend asking some more specific questions looking at their feelings about membership.

Questions in this cultural audit survey, carried out either as a group or asynchronously in the writing, might include:

  • Why do we exist as an organization?
  • What is the company’s value proposition? (Jump to, “What is our value proposition?”)
  • What excites you about the prospect of membership in our newsroom?
  • What concerns you about the prospect of membership in our newsroom?
  • How do you think membership will affect the work you do?

The answers to these questions should help you identify who is most open to memberful ways of working (for tips on synthesizing survey results, jump to “How do we generate insights from our audience research?”). Look out for answers that:

  • Place the audience at the center of the company’s mission, vision, and value proposition
  • Express enthusiasm for the prospect of membership in the newsroom over and above it being a new source of revenue
  • Point to a positive attitude about trying new things that don’t have obvious or easy answers 

It is common for newsrooms at this stage to have significant gaps between who their journalists think their audiences are and who they actually are. Identifying that gap in a non-accusatory manner is a good way to cultivate curiosity about audiences and openness to new ways of working with them, particularly if the exercise reveals a significant gap. MPP coach Javier Borelli created an audience assumptions and newsroom culture change exercise, which he first tried with Tiempo Argentino in Argentina, where he was president. 

The exercise is simple: first you ask your staff members a few questions about your audiences, then you confirm or disprove their assumptions through an audience survey. The final step is to walk your newsroom through the two sets of data, focusing the discussion on any major gaps.

Audience assumptions exercise
Download

Carrying out a cultural audit in this way has the added benefit of presenting staff with the real-world thoughts and feelings of your audience, which can be a valuable tool in challenging any unhelpful or outdated assumptions that you uncover. 

Now that you’ve identified your coalition of the willing, here’s what to do with them.

Celebrate the work of early adopters. Once identified, it’s not enough to just let your early adopters lead your membership experiments. You also need to highlight what your organization learns from those experiments, whether or not they succeeded (Jump to “How should we communicate our membership plans internally?”). When Richland Source in the U.S. was participating in the Facebook Membership Accelerator, they had the staff members who were participating in the Accelerator share what they had learned with the rest of the newsroom during their weekly editorial meetings.

If you’re managing an early adopter, make sure you are protecting time in their schedule for this work, and not just adding it on top of their usual workload (a “stop doing” exercise can help identify which tasks could be dropped to make way for membership work).

Give early adopters a ringside seat to membership strategy development, including internal decision-making and member interactions. Doing so will give you more advocates in the newsroom. To give them an insight into internal decision-making, you could consider creating membership working groups or small internal committees to tackle certain challenges, big questions, or projects, such as choosing a platform for hosting meaningful discussions with members. See here for an example of how The Bristol Cable in the U.K. manages membership strategy using small, interdisciplinary committees

 

How The Bristol Cable manages membership cooperatively

To avoid a hierarchical structure that would run counter to its cooperative model, The Bristol Cable's uses a circular staffing model.

Mediacités in France has taken this one step further by creating working groups that include staff and members. Each working group contains between three and six members, two Mediacités staff members, and Mediacités engagement editor Pierre Leibovici. They currently have three working groups, each focused on a different issue: gender equality in articles and on their team, changes to their editorial stylebook, and transparency about how their journalism gets made. Leibovici said the issues are discussed and debated by staff and members before decisions are made. “They are changing the way staff think about members,” he said.

To give early adopters an insight into member interactions, you could consider adding a Slack bot that posts each time you gain a member. Many newsrooms MPP studied have a question on the member registration form that asks some variation of “Why did you join?” that also shows up with the member update in Slack. These short answers will give your team a window into what motivates your members.

If you’re pre-launch, make sure to share the results of your membership viability survey with your full team. (Jump to, “How can audience research tell us if membership is viable?“) If you do interviews with potential members, you could invite members of staff outside the membership team to participate so that they get to meet potential members first hand. At Daily Maverick in South Africa, the membership team gave the editorial team insight into the potential of member interactions by highlighting experts among their members who could be helpful to reporters as sources.

Provide opportunities to hear from external speakers. You’ve likely had the experience of telling someone close to you the same thing for a long time without it ever getting through to them – until one day, they turn around and say they heard about it from someone else and now they want to do it. The same often happens in the workplace, so if you are trying to inspire or galvanize your willing coalition, consider putting on a series of talks with external speakers or peers working in this space. 

In 2019, Membership Puzzle Project did a series of presentations and workshops with Daily Maverick staff to highlight how other investigative newsrooms were working with audience members. Those presentations don’t need to come from MPP, though. Check out the case studies section of the Membership Guide to find comparable or inspirational newsrooms or see this research on four newsrooms around the world building healthy membership communities.

You could also send staff members to journalism conferences where they are likely to meet with and learn from others enthusiastic about membership. 

Or, as highlighted above, you could give them the opportunity to hear directly from your audience. When Mediacités was preparing to launch membership in 2019, engagement editor Pierre Leibovici organized a series of focus groups in the four cities where they have publications (Lille, Lyon, Toulouse, and Nantes). The local Mediacités teams were each asked to attend. For some members of staff, this was the first time they had ever met a reader in person. 

Afterwards, Leibovici held internal workshops with staff to create a shared definition of membership for Mediacités, based on what the team had heard from their readers. Leibovici also used this process to identify early enthusiasts in the newsroom, and went on to design small experiments with them, such as launching a new newsletter. “It was all experimental, [but] if it worked it was evidence that membership can work and can be tailored,” he said.

Turn your early adopters into trainers. Once your early adopters can independently execute on memberful tasks, pair them up on projects with other members of the team or empower them to lead casual newsroom training. In a recent interview with Splice Media, Jane Mahoney of Private Media in Australia shared how is building an “internal volunteer team” as part of her effort to introduce a more data-driven culture to the three newsrooms she works in. 

These volunteers, who responded to a call-out on Slack, will receive extra training with Parse.ly, the data software platform Private Media uses, and become superusers who will have a #TeamParsley Slack channel for sharing ideas and asking questions. Mahoney said the goal is to create a group of people across the organization who are comfortable working with data and can share that knowledge with the wider group. 

When Richland Source took part in the Facebook Membership Accelerator in 2018, Brittany Schock, at that time a reporter and assistant editor, was added to the Accelerator team. Schock said she initially felt deeply uncomfortable, believing membership to be “a sales thing,” and could not understand why she was there. 

But very quickly she realized that “people buy memberships because of what we do in the editorial team… I went back to the newsroom and told them ‘this is your job, this is why you should care’.” And the message resonated because it came from within the editorial team. “[The feeling was] ‘I’m one of you’, rather than a mandate coming from the sales team,” said Schock.

Further reading:

How should we communicate our membership plans internally?

Federica Cherubini, head of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute for Journalism and a Membership Puzzle Project coach, says culture change is 80 percent about communication. She explains: “The [team driving membership] is deep into membership thinking all day. [But] the staff is not, and you need to bring them along with you on the journey.”  

Any culture change effort should include consideration of how you plan to communicate your intentions to the rest of your organization – not just when the work is beginning and when it is finished, but throughout the whole process. People cannot get on board with something they don’t know about or understand, and blindsiding them 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.

Communication is unlikely to succeed in its goal of bringing your team along with you if it’s done haphazardly. What follows in this section are tactics for building solid internal communications.

Draw up an internal communications plan 

This can be done at any time in your newsroom’s membership journey, whether you are pre-launch and introducing ideas about membership for the first time, or have a more mature membership program that needs greater newsroom support in order to achieve your goals.

Your internal communications plan should include:

  • How often you will communicate with the newsroom about membership: Choose a regular cadence for communication and stick to it.
  • What format(s) this communication will take: Consider channels such as all-hands meetings, internal newsletters, intranet blog posts, or full-company Slack channels.
  • Who you will be communicating with and when: Everyone in your organization is a stakeholder in culture change, but you may consider it useful to communicate with different groups at different stages. 
  • What kind of information you will communicate, and how granular this will be: Every time you communicate, ask yourself: what message are we trying to convey? When considering granularity, you are trying to balance transparency with the risk of overwhelming people. Ask yourself: Is this information going to affect the people I’m talking to? What can they do with this information? Will this lead to a change in attitude? The research team will share more below on what types of information you might consider including.
  • Plans for soliciting feedback and/or input into decision making: Communicating regularly with the whole staff is pointless if you don’t give them ways to give feedback and ask questions. Bear in mind that not everyone will feel comfortable sharing their thoughts publicly, so consider including some confidential feedback channels and/or encouraging 1:1 outreach by holding office hours and responding promptly and thoughtfully to feedback via channels such as email and Slack. For suggestions on how to ensure critical voices don’t overwhelm feedback forums, jump to “How do we convince skeptics and hold-outs?
  • Who will be responsible for communication: Newsrooms often choose members of the leadership team to front their communications efforts, which is sensible given the important role newsroom leaders play in setting cultural norms. But you may like to consider members of your early adopter coalition too, who can advocate for membership on a peer-to-peer level.

In the newsrooms MPP has studied, internal newsletters have played an important role in communicating with the newsroom about membership. Here are some examples of information you might include in an internal newsletter to support culture change:

  • Milestones reached (or delayed): This could include progress on a major piece of strategy work (e.g. the completion of audience research, or a new marketing plan), the launch of a new benefit, or important membership tech stack developments. Remember to also share when there are delays or changes to your plans and why. If you miss deadlines without explaining why, it may come across as you being less committed to the membership transition than you were before. 
  • Key membership metrics for that week/month/quarter: Growth, revenue, retention, and engagement metrics could all be a good fit (for more on what membership metrics to work with, jump to “Developing Membership Metrics”).
  • Celebrations of cultural baby steps: Maybe a new program benefit was adopted at the suggestion of a staff member and members are excited about it, or a journalist sent their first newsletter to members. Celebrating these small moments will underscore the fact that membership is a full-team effort, and will help you maintain a feeling of momentum in between major milestones. At Daily Maverick, general manager Fran Beighton shares moments of what she calls “Insider Ecstasy” – times when a member makes something possible that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to accomplish. An example: When they were able to pull off a last-minute panel about coronavirus at the very beginning of the pandemic because they had a virologist in their member expertise database. 
  • Qualitative feedback from members: This could be comments received from members on what they value about being a member, or how a member-supported piece of your journalism affected their lives. For example, at De Correspondent in the Netherlands, the member support team writes a weekly report about what members are telling them, which is sent to the whole organization.
  • New hires related to membership work: The daily tasks for these roles are often fuzzy to editorial staff. Be sure to share what they’ll be responsible for and how you expect them to work with the rest of the team.
  • How to share feedback: Staff members might have ideas and/or questions in response to what they read in the newsletters. Be clear about the best way to communicate that.

At El Faro in El Salvador, an internal newsletter has been an important tool in promoting an audience-first culture. Audience revenue currently represents just a small proportion of El Faro’s income, and convincing the newsroom of the potential value of membership has been a challenge. 

But after a discussion with staff at an all-hands meeting about what kind of membership information they would like to receive, a bi-monthly internal bulletin is now sent out sharing details of the newsroom’s audience strategy and key membership metrics. This is supported by a 30-minute slot in their bi-weekly all-hands to discuss membership strategy, creating another regular opportunity to put membership front-and-center.

Below is an example of how KPCC in the U.S. communicated with its staff after winning an Online News Association award for engaged journalism in October 2020. Note how Chief Content Officer Kristen Muller uses the email to:

  • Congratulate staff, generally and specifically
  • Highlight the impact of KPCC’s engaged journalism on KPCC’s mission and the wider journalism industry
  • Offer a specific avenue for further discussion with leadership about where KPCC is headed with this kind of work. 

This is a strong example of several culture change levers being pulled at once (emphasis is MPP’s). 

Subject: We won another award and it is especially meaningful

Good afternoon and congrats to all the Dodger fans in the room!

We want to congratulate the newsroom for winning a THIRD OJA award this year, this time for our engagement journalism. We also won for STUCK both for excellence in audio storytelling and investigative data journalism. This is the first time we’ve won three OJAs at once — a cause for celebration! We will be raising a virtual toast on Friday at 4pm (you should have an invite on your calendars).

The Gather Award is the only national award recognizing engaged journalism and it does so in two categories: overall excellence and micro-newsroom. It was introduced last year, and we’ve won it both times—this year beating out Alabama Media Group, the Marshall Project, and La Nación. This year’s entry featured the Help Desk approach, outreach to families via direct mail, the mission statements, our story about the Orange County School of the Arts, and our Voter Game Plan strategy. It reflects all of the ways that we’ve embraced engagement and not left it siloed like so many newsrooms.

More importantly, the engagement award is an official recognition of the shift in journalism that we are leading. 

Traditionally, news organizations have maintained trust with their audience by reinforcing professional authority. Think of that scene in All The President’s Men or The Post, where a group of mostly white men sit around the table deciding what people need to know. The practice required ‘objectivity’ and reporters were encouraged to maintain a distance from their communities. Engaging with the public is something you did after a story was published, usually by soliciting comments or, more recently, ‘likes’ and retweets on social media. 

This is the kind of journalism many of us have practiced for the bulk of our careers. But it has its limitations: for many years objectivity was defined narrowly by those in power, predominantly white men. It assumes that journalists know what’s best for the audience and that readers and listeners will connect to our stories, even if they are shaped by people unfamiliar with their lived experiences.

Over the last few years SCPR has aspired to chart a new path for journalism. It’s reminiscent of the 1920’s Muckraker movement, where reporters defined and addressed social problems. We recognize that we have a stake in the health of our city. We aim to improve the world and highlight solutions rather than merely observing what doesn’t work. We welcome public participation in identifying problems and ask for community members’ help in reporting on them. We value civic debate, democratic participation and recognize that systemic racism and climate change exist.

Carla Javier’s work on the OCSA story exemplifies how engaged journalism produces more meaningful journalism. She points out that it would have been very hard to find people who didn’t get into the school without the assistance of the engagement team and a strategy to ask those people to come to us. Those voices added tremendous depth to the story. Carla also knew it was a topic that people felt passionately about and she knew backlash was likely. That’s why she made sure the project included a clear explanation of the sourcing in order to build trust even with readers and listeners who were not happy with having the school closely scrutinized. Having made that connection she reports: “All the people who were mad are now tipping me off about other things.”

Libby did a story the other day specifically because the question had come in multiple times from readers. As she explained, with the amount of noise created in this election cycle by misinformation, it’s hard to know what is resonating/worrying people. She said it felt good to be able to address the facts about poll watchers, knowing it was a service to potential voters. 

This goes directly to a critical point made by NYU Professor Jay Rosen on this week’s ‘On The Media’: We are living through a civic emergency. We need to focus on the information needs of the people we are serving, and seek facts and evidence. By working with the communities we cover, and reporting fairly and accurately on the challenges facing Southern Californians, we can fully deliver on our mission.

In the next few weeks, our democracy will be tested in ways it hasn’t for a generation. Stay true to our values, center our communities’ information needs and be kind to one another. 

As a reminder, Kristen will be holding small group/ AMA meetings for anyone interested in hearing more about what we’ve accomplished and where we are headed, sign up here.  

Thanks to everyone for their continued hard work and resilience,

Kristen, Megan and Ashley

Once you have drawn up your communications plan, share it with your staff so they know what to expect and, crucially, follow through on it, even if your membership plans are delayed or take unexpected turns. Consistency is vital here, and your plan should include how you will communicate when you have nothing to say! 

When 444.hu in Hungary was preparing to launch its membership program, leadership made the task of achieving newsroom buy-in for membership more challenging than it already was because they failed to communicate with the rest of the staff about why their membership launch was delayed. 

Co-founder Gábor Kardos said there were good reasons for the delays – the management team could not yet devote resources to strategy implementation and launch – but by making a big company announcement about their membership plans and then going silent about it for months, they left the newsroom doubtful about leadership’s commitment to and belief in the project. 

A robust internal communications plan played a key role in rebuilding trust with their staff after these early missteps.

444 had just launched its membership program at the time of publication and MPP will be sharing a detailed case study on their internal communications plan soon, once enough time has passed for the 444 team to be able to assess and share results. They also spoke about this process at the MPP summit in August 2021.

Put tiny rituals in place

A communications plan will guide the regular, scheduled moments. But these formal communications can be supported by smaller, continuous, and often automated interventions – practices MPP calls rituals. 

We often say at MPP: “What becomes routine becomes culture.” Making something routine is what prevents it from being pushed to the side when something unexpected comes up – which happens all too often in the journalism industry, where the news cycle drives the day to day.  

Rituals are one way to cultivate routine, and if you’re trying to build a member-driven newsroom or steer your newsroom toward that, it’s important to implement these small, regular practices that keep membership top of mind for everyone on your team, not just those working directly with members. 

A ritual that cultivates internal buy-in for membership should: 

  • Happen on a regular cadence.
  • Be easily repeated. Rituals should be automated or templated as far as possible.
  • Happen in between major touchpoints such as all-hands meetings.

You could consider rituals that:

Make sure your whole newsroom can see when a member joins and why. As we mentioned previously, many newsrooms MPP studied have a newsroom-wide Slack channel that is integrated with their membership CRM or payment processor so that it updates each time a member joins. This type of ritual is particularly powerful if your member registration includes a spot where members can share why they joined, and that field ports to Slack. Be sure to regularly tag reporters and editors when their work is cited as the reason for joining. Richland Source in the U.S. goes one step further by using their automated Slackbot to connect staff with new members – every time a member joins, reporters are asked to send a note of thanks to the new member. 

Highlight the impact of your work with members. It could be something like a counter in the newsroom of how many stories you co-produce with members each month or highlighting a “Conversation of the Month” from whatever community forum or platform your newsroom uses. For The Tyee in Canada, it’s a Slack channel called #impact-moments in which staff can share instances of The Tyee’s member-supported reporting out in the world – cited in the House of Commons, for example. The Tyee uses these “impact moments” in membership appeals, which shows reporters how their journalism connects to membership growth. 

KPCC in California tracks the impact of its membership work by tagging all of its stories that originate with audience curiosity or involve audience members in some way. They also created “loyal and local” dashboards for their reporters to track loyalty metrics on the stories they produce. The dashboard reports on the number of loyal users per story (or people who have three or more web sessions in a 30-day period) and compares it to the median number of loyal users for their stories. This way, reporters don’t just see  “500 loyal users” – but instead, they see “500 users is 20 percent above or below your median for the last six weeks.”

Vice President of Community Engagement and Strategic Initiatives, Ashley Alvarado, said these rituals have revealed that stories done through engagement have more engaged minutes, and more loyal and local readers – who are more likely to become members – than other stories. She explained: “So, we’d say ‘Hey, these stories contribute to our bottom line and so that’s another reason to do it.”

Executive Editor Megan Garvey and Audience Insights and Development Manager Patrick Dougall have worked with KPCC reporters on how to incorporate the dashboard into their workflow. Garvey encourages reporters to focus on this loyalty metric, above all, when assessing the performance of stories. 

As Dougall explained: “We’ve tried to educate the newsroom that we’re not as focused on getting a huge amount of traffic for your individual stories. It’s really about – how many people do you inspire loyalty with? And then we’re working to use a lot of that [audience member] loyalty to a specific reporter to deliver more targeted membership asks.”

Further resources:

How can crisis moments build a culture of membership?

Crisis moments create huge openings for culture change as traditional ways of thinking and doing “unfreeze” and people are forced to reach for new behaviors. Many newsrooms MPP interviewed found that the COVID-19 pandemic acted as a major change lever. The overwhelming response to callouts for audience questions quickly overrode newsroom resistance to this type of engaged reporting, even in newsrooms that had been trying to make progress on this for years. 

Savvy newsrooms can take advantage of crises to push a culture in a new and more positive direction. Here are some ways you can use crises to build a culture of membership.

Use overwhelming moments as a catalyst to systemize memberful routines. Between January and August 2020, KPCC/LAist in the U.S. received more than 4,000 questions from the community (at the time of publication August 2021, they had received more than 7,000 questions). The California newsroom had plenty of prior experience letting community questions guide their journalism, but the volume of questions they received about COVID-19 stretched their newsroom capacity, forcing them to systematize their approach at a level they hadn’t before. To handle the influx of questions, the newsroom introduced systems such as an “if this, then that” workflow, staggered work schedules, and a master database for the whole newsroom of all questions received. 

All of these tactics are examples of process templates that make membership work routine and reduce fear around increased workloads, a common source of resistance to membership in newsrooms (for more on this, jump to “What are culture change best practices?”). With these new systems in place, KPCC answered all but a handful of coronavirus questions directly, but it also allowed them to design more resonant editorial coverage, helping the practice of engagement gain credibility and enthusiasm across the newsroom, and brought deep clarity to the purpose of their journalism. In this way, using overwhelming moments in a crisis as a catalyst to systemize memberful routines can help newsrooms struggling to gain buy-in.

 

How KPCC answered 4,000+ community questions about coronavirus

They used an “if this, then that” framework to handle the influx of questions they received.

Use crisis moments as the catalyst for a new relationship between your team and your audience. In 2016, Argentinian newsroom Página/12 faced two existential challenges: that of making digital journalism profitable and a change of government that put it in a disadvantaged position for government advertising, a key revenue source for media in Argentina. (Each administration tends to favor the outlets they feel more comfortable with. When the conservative Macri government came to power in 2016, it put most of its advertising with other media.) 

So when Página/12 redesigned its website in 2016, it also leaned into its slogan “The Other Look,” a nod to its status as an “opposition” newspaper. The new slogan was part of its effort to build stronger identification with readers seeking a place for critical coverage of the Macri administration. Página/12 found its earliest members among those readers, and leveraged an intellectually engaged readership to cultivate an online community built on comments. 

But it wasn’t just members that had to be shown how to engage in this new relationship, it was reporters too. Engagement editor Celeste González told MPP she had to invest time teaching reporters the most effective way to engage with members, and how to incorporate that into their workflow. For example, González pays attention to which articles are sparking conversations and reaches out to the reporters directly asking them to join the conversation. Often, they don’t know how to get started, so she suggests some possible replies. This is one way a crisis can be used to spark a new relationship between your audience and your team.

 

How Página/12 built a community in the comments

Página/12 leveraged an intellectually engaged readership to build a membership program built on comments.

Use moments of crisis as evidence that the status quo is untenable. The most obvious example of this would be during a funding crisis, when reader or membership revenue is needed in order to sustain the organization. Present your newsroom with evidence that without change, this crisis will have serious consequences. Credible evidence here could include revenue projections if a new source of funding is not found, or data showing diminishing trust in your organization. Present your vision for membership in a way that inspires an emotional reaction, and as a credible route out of that crisis.

How do we convince skeptics and hold-outs?

There may be myriad reasons why some in your organization aren’t yet on board with membership. Maybe they are legacy journalists struggling with the practicalities of community engagement. Maybe they see it as added work. Maybe they don’t believe it will ever bring the newsroom enough revenue to make it worth their time, effort, and resources. Maybe they fear criticism that will come from being more transparent about your organization and processes.

Firstly, it’s important to reiterate something the research team mentioned previously: You don’t need to convince everyone in your organization that membership is something to shout from the rooftops about. Instead, you want as many people as possible in your organization to acknowledge and understand the value of membership to your newsroom, and to accept its place in your mission and vision. This is very likely to be a gradual, lengthy process, and some people may never come fully on board (Jump to “How do we use turnover to promote membership?“). But, if you are trying to convince skeptics, here are a few tactics you could use.

Revisit your cultural audit/stakeholder mapping. Use this to identify fears about membership (Jump to “How do we build a coalition of the willing?” for guidance on cultural audits) and address these fears directly when talking with skeptics. Make it clear to them that you hear and value their concerns, and talk them through how you plan to address them.

Reframe membership as a continuation of existing processes, rather than radical change. “If new cultural values are framed in terms of old ones, the likelihood of rejection is lower,” says digital transformation expert Lucy Keung. Use what you glean from your cultural audit to explain how the cultural values that come along with membership fit with what your newsroom has long been committed to doing. For example, if your mission statement talks about your commitment to equity, you can emphasize how inviting audience members into your processes and being more transparent is one way to reflect that you see audience members as equals.

Clarify involvement, and create time for critical membership staff. Another common reason for resistance is feeling overwhelmed. If you have hold-outs whose time and involvement are critical to membership, make sure that you are being very clear about what you need from them and create time and space for them to do the work associated with it. First, consider using a tool such as RASCI to clarify exactly how and at what level this person needs to be involved in particular tasks. (Jump to “Who has responsibility for membership?” for a step-by-step guide on using RASCI for this process.) 

Second, consider creating a “stop doing” list, an idea MPP has previously borrowed and adapted from the American Press Institute. By working together to take some things off their plate to make time for the membership work, you’re signaling that it is a high priority and that you understand they already had a full plate before.

Another strategy here is to emphasize the tremendous potential for growth in membership-connected roles. Styli Charalambous, publisher of Daily Maverick in South Africa, said membership has created new career paths for some of their staff and allowed others to upskill. Making clear how a growing membership program could benefit their own career development may appeal to a skeptic’s personal motivations.

Pair up the willing and the wary. A WAN-IFRA-recommended tactic is to make use of your “ready-for-change advocates” by pairing them with “change-hesitant hold-outs”. This could take the form of superuser training (Jump to “How do we create a coalition of the willing for membership?”), or mentoring and workshops. One of the most committed examples MPP has seen of this comes from La Diaria in Uruguay, where they rotate staff from the newsroom into the membership team and vice versa so that both sides understand what the other needs to accomplish, how and when. In May 2021, for example, their membership lead was fulfilling the role of editor-in-chief.

Find a place for their unique skills. If you’re struggling to win someone over to the grand vision for membership, look for small ways to deploy their skills. Are they an evangelist for your newsroom mission? Ask for their help writing your membership launch announcement. Are they an expert on a high-interest topic? Ask them to present at a member-only event. Recognizing, valuing, and utilizing their skills can help them visualize their role in your membership efforts. Jane Mahoney, head of reader revenue at Private Media in Australia, also recommends making sure everyone understands where their role sits within the audience funnel, and how this relates to success for the whole newsroom.

It may take time for a hold-out to change their mind, but if you believe someone has the capacity to ultimately embrace membership as part of your organizational culture, give them the time to get there.

Make the status quo untenable. Elizabeth Hansen, a specialist in newsroom change management and the research director of the Membership Guide, emphasizes the importance of creating dissatisfaction with the status quo to help skeptics understand the need for change. Present them with evidence that without change, a crisis is inevitable or is indeed, already happening and make that crisis credible (Jump to “How can crisis moments build a culture of membership?”). Credible evidence here could include revenue projections if a new source of funding is not found for your newsroom. Present your vision for membership in a way that inspires an emotional reaction, and as a credible route out of that crisis.

Further reading:

How do we use turnover to promote membership?

Any real culture change effort is bound to shake loose some people who don’t want to go where you are heading. In a webinar for MPP’s Membership in News Fund partners on culture change, digital consultant Dmitry Shishkin said this doesn’t have to be approached as an “it’s my way or the highway” situation. Rather, once membership is your organization’s chosen destination, and you have done all you can to explain why (Jump to “How do we convince skeptics and hold-outs?”), your energy is best spent working with people on how you get there. If some people want to choose a different journey at a different organization, that is okay. You wish them well. Turnover is an opportunity to bring in new people who are excited about the opportunity to build a member-focused culture. 

As emphasized throughout this chapter, change can be a slow process, so allow your skeptics or holdouts time to understand and embrace membership. But if members of your team continue to act in ways that weaken or compromise your membership work over an extended period of time, you may have to acknowledge that they will not come on board. Put structures in place that offer them a way out, whether that be exiting the company on amicable terms, or moving to a team or scheme of work where their opposition or ambivalence to membership will not be obstructive. 

If you get a chance to hire someone new, how do you assess whether they have the intangible qualities you need? A good place to begin getting answers to these questions is to return the cultural audit survey highlighted earlier in this chapter and pose those questions during the hiring process. Ask the candidate what they think about the following:

  • Why do we exist as an organization? 
  • What is the company’s value proposition? 
  • What excites you about the prospect of membership in our newsroom? 
  • What concerns you about the prospect of membership in our newsroom? 
  • How do you think membership will affect the work you do?

Look out for candidates who:

  • Place the audience at the center of the company’s mission, vision, and value proposition
  • Express enthusiasm for the prospect of membership in the newsroom over and above it being a source of revenue
  • Have a positive attitude about trying new things that don’t have obvious or easy answers

Brittany Schock, engagement and solutions editor at Richland Source in the U.S., said when they were recruiting journalists as part of the Report For America program, she sat in on the interviews and asked questions that were pertinent to how her newsroom approaches its relationship with members. Her questions included “Have you ever heard of solutions journalism?” and “How familiar are you with the concept of membership?” Schock said her aim was to suss out how candidates feel about this way of working and to communicate from the beginning that “if you’re working here, [membership] is part of the package.”

If you’re hiring for a membership-connected role, you could also use MPP’s membership skills checklist which highlights the key skills to look for. For more on this, jump to “What skills do we need to staff membership?”

Membership skills checklist
Download

What gets measured is what gets done, so make sure any sort of rubric or scorecard you’re using during the hiring process measures the qualities and skills mentioned here, and puts them on par with other editorial skills more commonly assessed during the hiring process.

Further reading:

How do we measure culture change?

Culture change is intangible – there’s no specific metric to follow that can tell you whether you’re making progress, especially when you’re in the messy middle. But if you’re a newsroom leader charged with creating a member-focused culture, it’s not enough to articulate where you are headed and then get to work. If you’re going to maintain momentum and earn the trust of your team, you need to provide periodic updates on your progress. 

Based on the process MPP set out in this Guide’s “Developing membership metrics” section, here is one way to identify how you’ll measure culture change progress. 

Step 1: Formulate a question that you want to answer about your culture change efforts

For example: 

Is our internal communication plan leading to meaningful culture change around membership in our newsroom?

Step 2: Break that question down into its component parts 

For example:

  • Are internal communications about membership reaching our staff?
  • Are these communications leading to meaningful change around membership in the newsroom?

Step 3: Decide on indicators needed for each of these questions

For example:

  • A measure of how many staff members your communications are reaching (i.e. meeting attendance)
  • A measure of behavior change (i.e. hold-outs showing support, involvement in member-focused projects)

Step 4: Set culture change objectives and metrics, based on your chosen indicators

For example:

  • In year one, we will hold 12 all-hands meetings focused on membership with an average attendance of 60 percent of staff.
  • In year one, 75 percent of our editorial staff will participate in our member-only commenting forums.

Use your objectives to structure monthly or quarterly reviews of your culture change efforts.

How can we troubleshoot culture change challenges?

When reviewing the results of your culture change efforts (Jump to: “How do we measure culture change?”) you may find that you’re not making the progress you were hoping for. The table below takes the common reasons why change efforts fail, cited by Harvard Business School Professor John P. Kotter, and directs you to sections of the Membership Guide that may help you tweak your approach for a better outcome.

Reason for failureResources to help
Not establishing a great enough sense of urgency
Making the business case for membership

What makes a strong value proposition?

How can crisis moments build a culture of membership?
Not creating a powerful enough guiding coalitionHow do we build a coalition of the willing?

What skills do we need to staff membership?
Lacking a visionHow do we identify our membership value proposition?

How do we define and measure membership success?
Under-communicating the vision by a factor of 10How should we communicate our membership plans internally?
Not removing obstacles to the new visionWho has responsibility for membership work?

How do we use turnover to promote membership?

How do we convince skeptics and hold-outs?
Not planning for or creating short-term winsHow do we set measurable goals?

How do we test our ideas?

How should we communicate our membership plans internally?
Declaring victory too soonWhat do we need to know about retention?

What are the warning signs you’re not retaining your members?