The Lenfest Institute is partnering with the Membership Puzzle Project to create a guide to membership models in news

At the Lenfest Institute our primary focus is to develop sustainable business models for local news. We’ve pursued this goal with our grantmaking, original research, fundraising for and support of The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is owned by the Institute and a live lab for our work.

There’s no silver bullet that will save local news. Long-term sustainability will require a variety of approaches that work for different news outlets and different audiences. 

One of the approaches we’re most optimistic about is membership. That’s why we’re proud to partner with The Membership Puzzle Project – with support from the Google News Initiative – on its capstone research effort. This is the culmination of three years of work: a practical, tactical guide to launching a membership program and establishing “memberful routines.” It will be a handbook, a tool, and a knowledge base, and it will cover the full arc of a news organization’s membership journey, from determining whether membership is the right model for you to best practices for retaining the members you have. 

We’re planning to publish in September.

Our goal is to offer advice, best practices, case studies, and templates that will help newsrooms at any stage of becoming member-driven. We’re designing for both the moment when you’re sitting down to build your strategic plan and the moment when you have to make a quick decision before the end of the day. With so much excellent work already done to begin addressing the questions above, this project will be just as much thoughtful curation of existing resources as it will be original research.

We recognize that many news organizations have rapidly shifted their focus to audience revenue, prompted by coronavirus’s impact on advertising revenue. One of our goals is to help those organizations build scaffolding and strategy around this critical revenue source. 

We’ve already conducted user research interviews with more than 25 news organizations of all shapes, sizes, audiences, and geographic locations, and from those discussions, some overarching questions emerged.

Questions we’re exploring

  • What is the value proposition for creating a membership program
  • What motivates people to become members?
  • What costs should news organizations plan for, and what revenue can they expect?
  • What tools and technology do news organizations need to run a membership program?
  • How does a news organization launch and grow a membership program?
  • What does it take to develop a member-focused culture in the newsroom?
  • How does a news organization retain members and measure the success of its membership program?
  • What does membership mean for news organizations that serve communities underserved by mainstream media institutions? 

How to contribute

We’re creating this handbook with feedback from our users at every stage of the process. That’s where you might come in. We have two questions:

  • Do you have a question we don’t cover above?
  • Do you have an example of something that has worked for your newsroom?

Please share any thoughts or feedback via the form here or you can email [email protected]

Jay Rosen, of NYU Journalism, Membership Puzzle Project’s director, will provide strategic oversight to the project.

Elizabeth Hansen is the research director. Elizabeth is the program lead for news sustainability at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She also co-authored the Tow Center Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement, which is a precursor to this work.

Ariel Zirulnick is the lead editor and one of the researchers. She leads MPP’s Membership in News Fund, which supports 23 experiments with membership models around the world. 

Joseph Lichterman is one of the researchers. Joseph is the Lenfest Institute’s manager of editorial and digital strategy and writes the Solution Set newsletter.

Emily Roseman is one of the researchers. Emily is a digital media researcher and consultant who previously served as the research project manager for a study on nonprofit newsroom business models at the Shorenstein Center. 

Yvonne Leow is our product manager. She is an independent consultant and previously co-founded a local media company called By The Bay.

You can find more information about the project here.

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