Membership Puzzle Project and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism want to begin by offering a thank you to the American Press Institute, European Journalism Centre, Facebook Journalism Project, Google News Initiative, Greater Public, Media Development Investment Fund, News Catalyst, News Revenue Hub, Pico, Sembra Media, Splice Media, and Steady, who pointed us in the right direction and shared critical insights with the research team. Their work has helped the practice of membership grow around the world.
MPP and Lenfest also want to thank the 50+ newsrooms we spoke to in the course of writing this guide. Every interview added to our ability to say with confidence what is working, what isn’t, and where we see promise for future experimentation. A small number of the newsrooms featured received a grant from Membership Puzzle Project in 2019 through the Membership in News Fund. We noted this relationship in case studies.
Our research and design style
Membership models in news are still relatively new, which means that the research team has varying levels of certainty about the guidance offered here.
• When you see “MPP believes…” that means that the team has informed hypotheses or or inclinations about its advice, or is drawing on the vision for membership that MPP holds.
• When you see “MPP suggests…” that means the advice is based on early knowledge.
• When you see “MPP recommends…” that means the advice is based on observing multiple “tries” that have confirmed that this advice works. This is our strongest level of certainty.
• When you see “MPP has observed” or “MPP has seen” that means we have seen something happen but we don’t have enough proof to say it is a finding.
• When you see “MPP has found” that means we have seen something happen multiple times and feel we have strong evidence that this is an approach that will work.
• When MPP encountered a tension where we did not feel comfortable ruling on because of incomplete knowledge, we listed questions that newsrooms should ask to guide themselves to the right solution for their newsroom. We tried very hard to avoid false certainty.
This guide was designed to be friendly, accessible, and modular. Newsrooms’ membership journeys are rarely linear, and this product reflects that. Sometimes you’ll see the same information in more than one part of the guide because we recognizes newsrooms think about components of their membership program at different stages.
We have made it easy for readers to jump between topics, to zoom in to an illustrative case study in the middle of MPP’s guidance before zooming back out to industry-wide learnings, and to dive right into the middle if that’s where you are.
Through working on this guide, particularly through our user research process and review board (more on both below), MPP came to understand “inclusion” as not just representation of different perspectives in newsrooms, but also the accessibility of knowledge. MPP strove to make this guide actionable for newsrooms who cannot easily access consulting and mentorship.
MPP began working on the Membership Guide before the coronavirus pandemic. We tried to strike a balance between acknowledging the limitations that coronavirus introduced while ensuring this guide would remain relevant beyond that point. We spent less time on events and offered advice on marketing your membership program during a crisis, for example.
How MPP will keep this updated
Membership Puzzle Project sunsets on Aug. 31, 2021, and we will keep this updated through then, in partnership with the Lenfest Institute. We are also exploring ways to keep it updated beyond that date.
The research team is planning two additions to the handbook this fall: one on member-owned cooperatives, and one on how to implement the culture change that membership requires.
This guide is a living resource, and MPP is eager to hear from you about what other additions would be helpful. Expect to see regular additions of case studies, and small updates to MPP’s advice as the team gains new knowledge. Subscribe to Membership Puzzle Project’s newsletter and the Lenfest Institute’s newsletter to learn about updates.
If you have a suggestion for something we should include in the guide, let us know at email@example.com.
The user research process
Before finalizing our approach to the Membership Guide, product manager Yvonne Leow guided us through a user research process to challenge assumptions about the goals, challenges, and needs of membership-concerned staff in newsrooms.
MPP spoke to 25+ individual newsrooms around the world: legacy organizations and startups, local and national newsrooms, and digital, radio, and print. We spoke to founders, CEOs, engagement editors, marketing officers, and community managers.
We asked them questions such as “What does membership mean to your organization?”, “What’s the most challenging part of your day?”, and “What is your mix of project vs routine work?” Their answers shaped this guide. You can see our user research questions here.
The review committee
In addition to the user research process, which was on background, MPP also convened a review committee to hold us accountable to our commitment to design a guide that would be actionable for the full range of newsrooms who might be pursuing membership.
There were two stages of review: one in July 2020 to outline our approach, share our list of case studies, and ask for their advice on addressing some of the questions that emerged as we dug in to our research, and a second one in August, in which we shared the handbook and asked for explicit feedback. Review board members were compensated.
In addition to suggestions of organizations to speak to, discussions with the review board prompted us to make five further commitments: advice that could be adapted for single-person newsrooms; a probing of the tension between the exclusiveness of membership and a commitment to equity; simpler advice on business modeling, benchmarks, and technical decisions; a detailed, practical look on what it means to be a member-owner; and a more expansive definition of “member.”
Some of these were actionable before publication, and some are commitments we will address this fall.
A small number of subject matter experts also reviewed more technical sections of this guide.
About case studies
MPP treats the “try” as a basic unit of membership practice. A try is any experiment with members where the outcome is unknown. The research team had four key criteria for selecting case studies:
• Can we isolate the “try” enough to clearly establish what the organization sought to do, how they did it, and what the results were?
• Are there broader learnings from their “try” that other newsrooms could learn from?
• Does this either drive home general advice or offer a creative solution to a common membership challenge?
• Has the “try” been tested enough that we can hold it up as a tactic proven to work?
The case studies included upon launch are only a starting point, and were chosen based on their applicability to questions surfaced during user research. MPP will continue to add new case studies throughout the next year. If you have a membership “try” you want to share, email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The research team allowed newsrooms featured in case studies to see them before publication. We believe this was appropriate because we requested significant transparency and a high level of detail from them, and wanted to ensure complete accuracy in this resource. All numbers are self-reported.
Metrics and goals surveys
Membership Puzzle Project also set out to benchmark the metrics and goals of member-driven newsrooms around the world by sending out two surveys:
• Membership Metrics Benchmarking survey: This survey collated the metrics that member-driven newsrooms use to track their audience loyalty and membership revenue.
• Membership Goals and Successes survey: This survey encouraged newsrooms to share their goals and definitions of membership success, and the indicators they use to measure them.
MPP sent the surveys to 46 newsrooms. Thirty-four newsrooms returned the benchmarks survey, and 40 returned the goals and successes survey.
These newsrooms represent a diverse array of geographies, newsroom sizes, coverage types, and business models. To boost the response rate for this first round of data collection, MPP sent surveys to the newsrooms featured in the Guide, the newsrooms MPP has worked with in the past, and newsrooms that members of the research team have worked with on other projects. Newsrooms completed the surveys throughout July and August 2020.
The survey results represent a robust snapshot of the range of membership efforts underway in news. Because of the quantity of responses collected so far, MPP cannot yet offer membership benchmarks. The goal is to continue to run the survey and ultimately collect the quantity of data needed for each region and newsroom type to be able to offer informative benchmarks.