The Membership In News Fund Examines Sustainable Models For Publishers

As publishing finds itself at a revenue crossroads, many outlets are experimenting with new models that might offer a sustainable future without reliance on digital advertising. Events, pay walls and in-house content studios have all become commonplace.

Over the past few years, outlets like theSkimm and The Atlantic have also turned to membership plans intended to foster a connection between readers and editorial staff.

Now, a new nonprofit endeavor is looking to investigate how membership models might impact the media landscape for the future.

Yesterday, The Membership in News Fund launched a new $700,000 fund to aid independent news organizations that are curious about how a membership program might sustain or support operations. The fund accepts applications from nonprofits, for-profits and co-ops.



Sprung from the Membership Puzzle Project, run by New York University and Dutch publication De Correspondent, and supported by the Democracy Fund and Luminate, both of which are funding the endeavor, The Membership in News Fund aims to “increase the depth, variety, geographic reach and financial sustainability of different approaches to membership.”

In exchange for funding, outlets will report back on the ways membership thrived or became unsustainable under their proposed projects. Much like the work Civil is doing to create new modes for sustainable, advertising-free journalism, the fund looks to audience engagement and support.

Jay Rosen, director of the Membership Puzzle Project, told Publishing Insider that the project was originally intended to run for one year, but it was met with such enthusiasm by its funders, it was increased then to two — and will now run through May 2020.

The fund is housed at NYU, where Rosen is also a full-time faculty member, then subcontracted through other sites around the world.

“It’s a global experiment in membership models and news,” Rosen said. “We’ll be supporting the outlets we think can push this practice forward.”

Ideally, the way membership works for news outlets would mirror the way it works for public radio. Those who support the work sustain it financially so it will continue to be available publicly.

Rosen looked to De Correspondent for inspiration in sustainable membership models. Since launching in 2013, the outlet now counts 61,000 paying members with deep relationships to the journalism run by the site and with the writers who produce it. The outlet boasts a $2.5 million editorial budget and 21 full-time correspondents who choose their own beats and an equal number of support staff, with no ads, clickbait, traffic goals or billionaire funders.

“They’re almost solely supported by reader revenue,” said Rosen, which includes membership but also book sales and other reader-oriented efforts.

Ariel Zirulnick, former director of The New Tropic in Miami, will work with the fund full time as its research operations manager.

Rosen explains, “Subscription is a product relationship. Membership is joining the cause because you believe in the work. One of the consequences of that definition is that membership does not require a pay wall.

If you believe in the work ,then you want it to spread to nonmembers, too.”

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