The Membership Puzzle Project Explores the Path to Sustainable Journalism

What does the future of sustainable journalism look like?

The Membership Puzzle Project is seeking to answer that question.

Founded by New York University and Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent, the yearlong public research project aims to explore the viability of a reader-supported membership model for news organizations. The initiative is funded by the Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund and First Look Media.

“If we look at media from a historical perspective, it’s primarily been a transactional relationship between the news outlet and the reader,” said research director Emily Goligoski. “But we’re starting to see a real paradigm shift in the way some organizations are engaging with their audiences.”

Emily Goligoski

One standout example Goligoski has encountered during her research is Inside Story in Greece, which regularly invites its members to pitch ideas for investigations and then allows a handful of them to co-report and publish with their editorial team. This model not only gives readers the stories they want but provides a better understanding of the journalistic process so often misunderstood by the general public.

“While the New York Times is probably not going to undertake something like that with its members, I’m encouraged they have created a reader hub within the newsroom. They are really trying to inspire their staff to be thinking about what matters to their audience and how they can serve them better,” she said. “I think it behooves all of us to be asking those types of questions.”

Goligoski said that organizations who are transparent with audiences regarding the investigations they are about to undertake tend to experience greater support from their members.

“That is something that our newsroom partner De Correspondent has found to be really successful,” she said. “They are pulling back the curtain and letting people into their reporting.”

The team has interviewed more than 40 news outlets so far, with the majority being digital-first publications as opposed to legacy institutions. However, Goligoski emphasized they also are looking to learn from membership models in areas beyond the news industry, such as unions, gyms, churches and activist organizations.

Goligoski said the group plans on publishing an open database soon with information about organizations that practice effective forms of membership.

“We hope it becomes an open source repository for people to contribute and discover new ideas pertaining to the membership model,” she said. “We want to provide a tool that offers specific and detailed examples for any type of news outlet interested in either revamping or implementing membership programs.”

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Published: November 14, 2017


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