Hi, I'm Emily Goligoski from the Membership Puzzle Project at New York University. Membership Puzzle Project is a research jointly funded by the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund, and we're based at New York University Journalism school where I'm speaking to you today.
Our project researches journalism organizations that are diversifying revenue and audience engagement practices with a particular focus on optimizing news for trust. And I come to this work from a background as a journalist and as someone who has deep work in design thinking, having worked at the Stanford D School, and at Mozilla Foundation, and most recently on the audience research team at the New York Times.
And I'm really thrilled to take you through not only some of our projects findings, but also provocations that they might bring to bear for your own work in product and service design.
And I should quickly start by saying while much has been made of crowdfunding as a means for project success and measurement, asking your supporters for money is just one way to tap their interest. And we study a wide range of business models, including donation, subscription, and membership. So really thinking about audience revenue. And these are phrases that are very often conflated and confused. But there are important differences. With donation, we're conveying a charitable relationship. With subscription, a more transactional product base exchange. And that works really well for a range of sites. There's no value judgment there. But what our project is particularly fascinated around is membership in which people give their time, their energy, their money, and their ideas to contribute to a cause because it's something that they believe in. And at the heart of our project is really this social contract between an organization and its members. What is it that's given and received on both sides?
In approaching this work, we think a great deal about how organizations can be more human centered. Can think not just about feasibility and viability, but also the desirability and the differentiation of what they do.
As part of this work, and I'll quickly just speak to some of the research methods that we employ, we talk a great deal to staff and freelancers behind new organizations around the world. We talk to their supporters, we engage in qualitative research with the people who support their work to understand what they value. And then thirdly, we look at spaces well beyond news. And this may be particularly of interest to you. And we look at other contacts in industries that might have valuable knowledge to bear as it relates to fostering a culture of belonging and participation.
I'll quickly speak to that research specifically. And here, in our analogous research work, we've really sought out organizations that make member their most important stakeholders. So in the news business that would be different than pursuing advertisers or chasing traffic. We really think of this as sort of aligning incentives between creators and consumers or constituents. And I want to make two quick notes here, which is that we focus on an organization's most habituated audience members, its most loyal one to ten percent of users with the idea that designing well for those people can have virtuous effects on everyone else that a site serves. This is not to say that by bringing your core users, your habituated people, closer to the work that they then enjoy special favor. And I think there's no one better than product designers, reporters, editors, and other people who do this work day in and day out to be skeptical of the agenda, that someone beyond their organizations might bring.
So I just want to be clear that we're not saying that your audience members get to enjoy special favor. This is not TSA pre check where they're skipping ahead and they're able to get through more quickly or get special access. That's really not the intention. What we're thinking about is creating a set of stronger more democratized institutions.
And in this work, we've studied a wide range of faith based organizations. Here you can see Equal Barrios, which is a community lead volunteer group in Brazil, which joined forces to revitalize some of their neighborhood springs during the city's worst water crisis in decades. And which has a lot to tell us about community organizing and about how to really deliver well on both sides for both creators and constituents.
At a high level, some of the things that we've learned from studying these spaces outside of news that may be of interest to you are that successful membership organizations around the world have developed ways of listening and fresh ways of thinking about what their audience members needs. And really strong feedback loops to get it right. We very often hear the idea in journalism and well beyond it that something feels broken with our public institutions, with the ways that we share information on social platforms, the places with interact with news, our banking institutions, our governments. And that membership is one way to being to restore the trust that has been lost. Or at least that's the promise that really robust membership in its most thick or interactive forms might be able to offer.
Something that we find from spaces outside of news is that they frequently are able to adopt agile approaches that look different and more flexible than those that they may have historically used. And I think that's a great promise. These organizations often decide not to scale, not to grow, beyond their ability to serve their individual members. And this is a real point of differentiation with subscription driven businesses.
We have written a great deal more about this if it's of interest to you, including most recently for the Guardian. But I really would encourage you that getting fascinated with what your supporters value, understanding the needs that they have and taking a really empathetic approach to that is a really stellar place to start any community engagement work.
What I'm most eager to share with you today is what we call our member manifesto, and that is things that we've heard from audience members, from supporters of independent news at a handful of news organizations around the world. And this shot from City Bureau on the south side of Chicago, which is a community journalism lab, sort of shows your the way that we've embarked on this work. Gathering small groups of people together, community members, people who are either current or perspective members of the news organization together with designers, developers, editors, and reporter to have a conversation about what's not working, what supporters hope to see more of, and work that the two groups might undertake together. And this act of meeting in person is fantastically important because it provide nuance into the needs that community members have that can be very difficult to replicate through inbound Twitter updates or emails or through survey responses. I think there's great value in actually sitting down, hopefully having a meal together if it's possible, to really hear about the specificity and the transparency and the vulnerability that community members increasingly tell us they're looking for.
And what I'm excited to share with you are some of the top themes from that research. And this has a lot to bear for for profit organizations as well as non profit and co-op groups too when it comes to restoring the social contract.
The first thing we hear, stop doing what you're doing. We hear a great deal about this idea that something is broken, that people are deeply dissatisfied with mainstream news. Coverage almost often feels like it's piling on to the same stories of the day. Feels like tidy, very polished sound bites that lack humanity. We hear a lot about the importance of a calming user experience, which I'll talk about, and we hear a great deal about requests to go deeper and to offer coverage that is unique that community members couldn't find anywhere else on the web or in real life.
I want to highlight two organizations that have done really well to almost be an antidote to this work. The first is the Daily Maverick, which is an investigative news site from South Africa. And it has a reader covenant document on its site that is well worth reading in full. I'll quickly just paraphrase a bit from it. And it's the first of its kind document that I've seen on a news publisher site which is this is what we hope might happen in the course of collaborating with you. We expect you to tip us off to important stuff we might not otherwise know about, and we hope that if you choose to do that you'll use your real name. We want you to bring your wisdom and insight to share with us and with other readers. And this idea, I think is an invitation to restore civility in online comments.
Another example, Inside Story, which is an investigative site in Athens, Greece had an outpouring of story ideas from their readers after the Greek debt crisis. And they're a small organization, they did not have the bandwidth to follow up on all of these story ideas. And so they said to their community members come together in person. Pitch one another on the ideas that you have. You should then vote collectively on the best ideas and we'll give co reporting resources to those particularly strong ideas. What I love about this idea is that the community members, the three people whose stories were voted on by their fellow readers and whose stories were green lit got a deep look into how the business of news is done, how a story is reported, and the goal there is not that they turn around and become professional journalists. The goal is that they develop a deeper appreciation for what goes into the work. The reporters who get to show how they do their work not only serve in an educational capacity, they also get their name on another ... They get their byline on another story.
And thirdly, community members benefit because this ended up resulting in three new story investigations that the site would not have published otherwise. And I think what really worked in this campaign, the Your Story contest, was the idea that it was highly participatory and it involved not only what the journalists know how to do, but also ideas and some energy and time on the part of their loyal constituencies.
This leads to another theme that we hear in our work studying supporters of independent news around the world, and that is requests for more inclusive and participatory processes. ProPublica has done an amazing job of this with its recent maternal mortality and IBM layoffs stories. Not only to surface the personal lived experiences and the professional expertise of community members, but then also to come back full circle and recognize those contributions. We find that organizations that have relevant really highly personalized ways to be of service stand out. It's not like the same old invitation to take part in a public radio pledge drive. It's much more specific based on what individual community members know.
And some of the other ways that we see individuals contributing to news and to other causes they support include serving as moderators of comments, event hosts and programmers, fact checkers, volunteer graphic designers, audio editors, sources, product testers, and much more.
One supporter of City Bureau, who was in that photo that I shared a few minutes ago, [inaudible] told us, "Play to my strengths." And that becomes a really wonderful participatory design principle. This concept of really task me with what I am best prepared to do, not just something that any other volunteer might be able to offer.
Another example is The Ferret from Scotland, another investigative news organization, which has turned its live event series from a chance to meet The Ferret, a chance to get to know their staff, into an opportunity for collaboration and education. So they had hosted their meet The Ferret events and there was relatively good community interest. And they said, "You know, let's actually go a layer deeper. We have this really valuable set of expertise in the form of what our reporters know how to do. Let's have them teach that, provide some lessons into the ethics of reporting, how to conduct fact checking, et cetera. And then let's actually task community members with some work that's not just busy work, it's not just for the sake of it, it really is coding and fact checking to help investigations in progress. And this redesigned event series has become an absolutely oversold very popular Sunday night series in their newsroom. And I think embodies a lot of the principles that we hear supporters say they want.
Another idea is the concept of be more human, be clear with me about what your community norms are, what the codes of conduct look like, and how you go about your work. And this last bit is really crucial. One organization that I see doing this especially well is Outside Magazine, which in its most recent print issues has started running what I think of as a recipe card. Sort of a look at this is the number of hours that went into the issue that you hold in your hands. I think this act of pulling back the curtain and of making work less opaque is really fantastically important and here's why. In many of the news organizations supporter bases that we go and visit and where we host conversations, I've been surprised by the extent to which most long time supporters, professional people who really understand what the organization is trying to do, often can't name more than one or two people behind the organization. And that suggests to me that we have a real visibility problem and that there's a great deal that we can be doing to make our work more transparent and more human.
I am really eager to see publications and other creators do more of this act that we see with Outside Magazine, basically showing the recipe of what kind of skills, what kind of expertise went into the work, instead of the idea that one day this just landed on your doorstep.
Not only do we hear a request from supporters to know what people bring to the work, why did they choose to pursue it in the first place, what their background is, we also hear a lot about this idea of give me regular substantive ways to contribute to your work. And projects that undertake that spirit are better poised to make products that serve their users needs and to raise money doing so. We've seen this time and time again, that it's possible to both expand your supporters skills and their loyalty while serving your own larger cause related goals.
We work closely with a Dutch organization called Day Correspondent, which I think of as sort of the patient zero for membership in news. Each of their individual correspondents is expected to spend anywhere from a third to half of their reporting time in close touch with members of their knowledge communities. So that means that audience development and audience engagement isn't just night and weekend work. It's not just something that happens in the last 10% of the reporting. It's something that they engage individual people with relevant knowledge and time to offer in the other 90% of their reporting. And one of the ways that they do this is by publishing correspondent driven newsletters that are published in addition to sort of the larger institution wide weekly news dispatch. And this is not intended to just be a chance to show what you've been working on and to publicize your own work as a correspondent. The idea is that it's a really ample space to ask community members what should I be thinking about? What would you add to these stories that I'm currently reporting on? What should I know that you know?
And this is a really vulnerable act. It actually has the opposite effect that I would have expected. Community members will say to us, "The act of saying I don't know and I would like people to help fill in gaps in my knowledge is actually really welcome." And it really distinguishes organizations from very slick presentation in which there's no opportunity for them to be involved. Members really are at the heart of this work and at the center of that desirability, feasibility, viability graphic that I showed earlier.
One way that Day Corespondent has been involving members in their reporting recently in a New in the Netherlands refugee resettlement series. And it's an initiative that brings together existing readers, Day Correspondent members, and newcomers to the Netherlands. And it pairs existing readers and people who are asylum seekers, and has them work together on a joint reporting effort which includes a monthly questionnaire that they both respond to. So the idea is that it's reporting but it's also a chance to get to know what new members of the community value, what their experiences are like, what it's like to work within a bureaucratic system and to relocate. All topics of huge geopolitical importance that also can be very destabilizing and understandably emotional.
One other thing that I appreciate that Day Correspondent does as an organization is to annually publish how its members money is spent. So where the 60 Euros per year that members provide to the site actually goes. And I've seen a number of Kickstarter creators do this as well. Showing a pie chart with a breakdown of, "If you choose to back this project, here's a really clear and transparent look at where you can expect that your money will go." I am very keen to see examples like this of also how we spent your knowledge contributions. I really want to see examples where sites say, "This is what you gave to us in your time and your ideas and this is where it went to." I think that very direct sort of report back is in many ways like an antidote to the highly opaque projects that we have historically been operating.
One last thing that I'll share about Day Correspondent, as I mentioned that it puts its members at the center. When an existing member shares one of their story links on social media, the person who clicks on it, let's say I'm a non member and I click on one of those links that an existing member has shared. I see a bar at the top of my screen, either my computer or my phone screen, that says, "This article is brought to you by" and then the member's name. It's this really subtle design element to remind people that not only are there people behind the journalism and that it costs money to produce it, but also that there's a person who was the conduit to me getting that work in front of me. If anything, just making for a more person to person based exchange compared to sort of the mass broadcasting that we've all become accustomed to.
A few other themes that have come up over the course of our research. I've been surprised by the extent to which I've heard the word, "Humility." And I think, again, this stands out in sharp contrast to much of the ways that our culture operates. Some of the things that we hear are that supporters of independent news want people who correct themselves when they're wrong, that ask for help when they need it, and that are not so egotistical that they think they're right all of the time. What the Fuck Just Happened Today, which is a Trump News Today site from Matt Kiser includes many ways for community members to be involved. So they can help underwrite Matt and the freelancers work, the individuals who work with him, they can commit code, they can moderate comments, they can produce podcasts. And then I love this example, where in a very frank tone and a very friendly tone, Matt says in one of his emails, "You know, I had a lot of typos in my email yesterday. You caught them, thank you for doing that." And the way that he conveys this I think just ... It feels very human and very refreshing. This feels like a person whose work I want to support.
Another example is Mother Jones' Fundraising articles. And here two people at the top of Mother Jones, the print and web magazine, wrote a long and incredibly detailed piece explaining what a recent private prisons investigation cost them. So actually really breaking down this is what went into this work, this is what it cost us to do this reporting. One thing that really struck me was that the quality of the article was as high, the original article, the original reporting, was as high as this fundraising article. The idea that there was production value parody that the request for support was as carefully considered as the editorial product. This idea that we're not just putting our second shift in to do any sort of marketing or member communications. The idea that we value these things as highly as one another speaks volumes, to me.
And it also suggests that there are ways that we can offer more disclosure into work in progress. The Guardian in the US recently launched a public lands project, and the idea here was that they wanted to undertake reporting that was not otherwise budgeted for into public lands, especially in the western United States. And so they just published a very frank call to community members where they said, "This is what we think it's going to take for us to be able to do this." They beat their goal within 31 hours. And inspired by that support, they actually kept fundraising and were able to surpass, far surpass, their original goal. This is something that we probably would not have seen five or ten years ago. The idea that an organization can involve people in their reporting in their production much sooner in the process. And that feels much more generative and is something that I'm really eager to see more projects undertake.
A few more ideas that we hear directly from the mouths of members. We hear a lot about the importance of a calming user experience. We hear supporters say, "Make it such that I can do what I cam to your site to do without distraction. Without slow to load pages with terrible pop up ads. Without sponsored content links that have nothing to do with what I've just been interacting with. Let me meet other members, let me pay you for your work, let me make sense of a complex news topic without distraction." If there's one thing that you take from this webinar, I hope it's this. That the ways that we host people when they come to our projects, online and off, really does have a huge effect on the ways that they think of us in the years to come and in the ways they choose to support us, if any.
Recently we were visiting Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting in the bay area and one of their members, [inaudible 00:28:06], told us, "When I listen to or I read your work, it feels like a good friend who really cares about the issues, knows what's going on in the world, but has chosen one thing, one focus area, that is the thing we need to talk about this week." What this suggests to me is that a calming user experience can also relate to the content decisions that we make and the curation of what we choose to cover and what we choose not to. And so I hope you take this to mean you have great power and great responsibility in editorial choices that you make and what you choose to leave behind, potentially because you know that other people, that your competitors and beyond, have got that. And you can focus on what it is that only you, only your organization, can do especially well.
Finally, we hear a lot about the importance of working in the public interest. As I mentioned, these feelings that something is broken are really pervasive across cultures and we can do better. We can bring our audience listening skills, we can bring our own team smarts to this, to really embark on creating relationships that foster belonging and that better exemplify the kinds of relationships we would want to have in our real lives.
We have been bringing a card sort exercise to community members, and this is available on our site MembershipPuzzle.org. There also is a worksheet version. And it's really intended to prompt a dialogue about what community members value in the organizations they support in and beyond news. We have heard very consistent findings in what we've learned here. So going from left to right, the extrinsic motivation of offering the world something that I think should exist. The idea that I want this work to exist whether people can pay for it or not, I'm happy to help underwrite that work. We hear a lot about the appropriateness of asks. So part of that is really getting the financial request right, not just benchmarking compared to what Spotify or Netflix charge, but truly having done your work to understand what is it that your individual community members might be able to offer and also what might they be able to offer beyond their cash that could be useful to you. What are substantive and knowledge based offerings that they can bring to you?
Transparency, as I spoke about, including why we have chosen to enlist the help of different freelancers and full time staff. I think this idea is something that I'm really eager to see more organizations undertake, which is here's not only who we are, but why you see this group of people behind our work. What are the specific skills and backgrounds and propensities that we wanted to look for as we build our team. Brand design and visual appeal, a call for calm is how I would describe this. And then lastly, the intrinsic motivation of something that I can't get anywhere else in any of the other places that I encounter news and information online.
Similarly, we hear very high consistency in things people say they value less than they might expect. And the first is swag. Branded merchandise. 90% of the time, people we take to who support independent news will say, "I'd rather have my money go back into the coverage than into a tote bag or a t-shirt that I won't use." This is not to say that you don't make these kinds of offerings available. It just is maybe think about whether you offer those for sale at a live event or through an online store instead of giving them away, especially if someone isn't actually going to make use of them and there's another potentially more productive use of their funds.
And then finally, a sense of exclusivity. So for most general market news sites, we hear people say I would rather have the core news product be free and not restricted under a pay wall even if that means that I pay more for paid products including live event tickets, including email newsletters for insiders, but please let the work be useful and be available to people who might be able to benefit from it regardless of their ability to pay. And this is a space that our project is studying in more depth. What are the information needs of low and no income individuals? What are ways they can substantively participate? And what should they receive in return?
There's more information on these topics on our website, MembershipPuzzle.org. And just a few parting thoughts for you. We see that there are really true differences between communities and paid clubs. These things are often confused and I would say that individual community members are quite hip to the differences and I would encourage you, whether you are hosting donation, subscription, or membership, to be really clear about what it is that you're offering and not to mistakenly conflate the terms.
We also know that listening to members can produce very deep insight, going to them directly. And there's really no substitute for talking to members directly. We know, also, that editorial and business minded staff who work with members are very highly in demand. These are called bridge rolls increasingly within journalism, jobs that didn't exist five or ten years ago. And we see that individual news organizations really put a lot of responsibility in these individuals and there is a new set of skills that really are needed that are highly community oriented that are very creative and where we're eager to see more smart people be working in the years to come.
And finally, and I hope you'll take this to heart, that the most engaged members really do want to contribute what they know and want sites to benefit from their expertise. There's more information on this on our site. I hope you will reach out with questions and ideas and best of luck in your own community revenue and community engagement efforts. Thank you.