A project of Democracy Fund

March 23, 2015

A Sense of Belonging: Rethinking Membership Models for Journalism with Melody Kramer

In early February the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Center for Cooperative Media and Montclair State University hosted Melody Kramer for an all day bootcamp on newsroom analytics and membership models. Don’t miss our earlier post on her analytics presentation.


Give People A Chance to Be A Part of Something

A few months ago Melody Kramer asked “So what could we do to strengthen people’s relationships with public radio and with their communities at the same time, while at the same time strengthening public radio’s relationship with the public?” She has turned that question into a fellowship at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard and is working with local stations to develop creative answers.

Photo of MOMA membership sign by Maria Popova, used via creative commons.

But we invited Kramer to New Jersey to tweak her question a bit and talk with us about how any newsroom, especially local online publishers, could develop membership models that draw on the best lessons from public media and beyond.

In general, Kramer argued, people want to be part of something larger than themselves, they want to invest in improving their communities, and they want to find people with shared values. We need to begin thinking about how journalism can help respond to those desires. Done right, membership programs can provide great value for news organizations but can also provide value to members. How you define that value proposition depends on what your community needs, wants and has to offer.

Redefining Value Between Newsrooms and Communities

Value for the newsroom could mean donations or subscriptions, or it could mean time, code, and other kinds of support. Value for the public could mean advancing their own learning, connecting and networking with others, improving their community or even getting some physical benefits like coupons or totebags.

Debbie Gallant of the Center for Cooperative Media, which hosted us, noted that often small community newsrooms are the key connector in the area. These journalists know everyone in town and are constantly serving as a connector or hub. Membership programs should leverage this fact and help turn what we do to bring communities together and build relationships into a form of support.

Look Beyond Journalism to Understand Membership

I recently joined a new co-working space. The organization charges less than any other local work spaces because its members also teach public classes and offer collaborative peer-to-peer trainings. It is not just funded, but also managed, through in-depth participation from all its members.

A sign at the author’s co-working space

As news organizations think about shaking up the membership model beyond subscriptions and NPR style memberships, Melody suggested looking at how other industries handle memberships — such as airlines, Netflix, and gyms. In terms of looking outside our sector, also be sure to check out Melody Kramer’s interviews with people outside of the news for some insights into how you might listen to your community, and what sorts of questions you might ask, as you develop your own membership models.

The discussion dug into how to start a new membership program if you already have a vibrant and engaged community versus if you are just getting your newsroom off the ground. Both models present opportunities and challenges. Organizations with existing communities can tap into their community for feedback on what they want and need but those news organizations also need to make the case for why people should go from readers to members. Sometimes changing a relationship can be harder than starting a new one. Newsrooms who are just starting out can be nimble and test lots of ideas, using many ways to reach out to the community introduce your work. But it can be an uphill climb to introduce your work, build trust and ask people to support it all at once.

We are working with the Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY to host a summit on innovations and experiments in media membership models soon. Please get in touch if you are interested in learning more.