Choosing an Experience: Membership programs are just the beginning of the relationship.

Author:Tornoe, Rob

Member supported news?

It doesn't seem that far-fetched. After all, local public radio stations have been relying on donations from listeners like you since well before I was born. So why have so many news publishers rallied around erecting paywalls instead of simply asking readers to chip in to support the news?

In the U.K., the Guardian has been the poster child of generating revenue simply by asking readers to donate. Since 2016, the newspaper has grown from 12,000 members to north of 655,000 monthly supporters today (and another 300,000 who made one-time contributions last year), with a goal of adding a million more, most of it driven by simple requests for readers to support the paper's journalism added to the bottom of news stories. The success has helped pushed the Guardian into profitability after losses for forecast to exceed 80 million [pounds sterling] a year.

Sign me up, right? Not so fast. For starters, a successful membership project isn't just a subscription by another name-it's an editorial mindset that values a strong relationship with readers, not just the one-way street most news organizations remain accustomed to. Think about it like this--subscribers pay to access your newsroom's content, while members are joining and participating because they believe in your mission.

"We see membership as programs that treat readers much more than an ATM," said Ariel Zirulnick, fund director at the Membership Puzzle Project, a public research project based out of New York University that's working to fund and guide news organizations interested in pursuing a membership strategy.

"There are a lot of people who, when they first begin to try membership, see it as a conversion funnel ... once someone starts paying, it's the end of the journey, we've achieved what we need to achieve," Zirulnick said. "We see membership as the moment (a reader) converts to a member, it's just the beginning of the relationship."

In 2018, the Membership Puzzle Project launched its membership in news fund, which Zirulnick said was designed to provide coaching, knowledge sharing and a financial runway to news organizations around the world to green light promising experiments centered around membership models.

One of the project's success stories is halfway across the world in Cape Town, South Africa. There, a digital-only news outlet called the Daily Maverick has swelled to 7,000 members who support the organization's commitment to quality, long-form analysis...

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