As news organizations move toward a more reader-supported business model through memberships and subscriptions, outlets are bringing positions into the newsroom to help bridge the divide between the editorial and commercial sides of the organization.
The Guardian has re-built its business around membership, and in spring 2018 it appointed its executive editor for membership. Lee Glendinning, who formerly led the Guardian US.
“Roles like membership editors are sort of the ‘connective tissue’ between the readers, members, supporters and what’s happening in the newsroom and what our editorial priorities are as an organization,” Glendinning told me from London.
The Guardian recently announced that it has more than 1 million paying supporters around the world and it made a small operating profit in its most recent fiscal year.
Of course, very few news organizations have The Guardian’s global scale and its level of resources, but, that being said, there is a lot to learn from how Glendinning and her team think about integrating membership into the organization’s editorial approach.
This week in Solution Set we’re going to look at how The Guardian’s membership team connects with readers and how it builds membership into its editorial flow.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one fabulous thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
Here’s the TLDR:
• The Challenge: Facing severe revenue shortfalls, The Guardian made a major bet on membership and reader revenue.
• The Strategy: To maximize membership, The Guardian created a new leadership position in the newsroom to bridge the organization’s editorial, commercial, and product teams with its supporters.
• The Numbers: The Guardian reported an £800,000 operating profit in its most recent fiscal year, and membership was a significant driver of its success.
• The Lessons: Creating an established revenue stream through membership is more than just connecting with your audience. It’s about taking it one step further and supporting the newsroom with that feedback.
• The Future: The Guardian’s main focus now is on both retention and acquisition while it continues to serve its supporters around the world.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down to get more detail on The Guardian’s approach to membership.
Recent years have been a challenge for The Guardian. The London-based publisher lost £44.7 million in its fiscal year that ended in April 2017. That was an improvement from the £68.7 it lost the previous year.
As a result, to try and cut costs, The Guardian eliminated about 300 jobs, reduced the size of its print paper, and more.
The Guardian has famously eschewed a paywall, and in 2014 it initially launched a membership program to try and generate revenue directly from its readership. In 2016, The Guardian said it was doubling down on membership to try and overcome the challenges to its business. The plan aimed to cut costs by 20 percent while reaching break-even by 2018/2019.
The bar was set high for The Guardian to deliver its promise not just on breaking even but creating new revenue lines from audience engagement on an international level.
But to achieve these goals it needed the newsroom to buy-in.
As The Guardian built out the infrastructure to support its emphasis on membership, it realized it needed someone in the newsroom to lead the reader revenue effort from the editorial side.
In April 2018, The Guardian appointed Lee Glendinning, who had previously led the outlet’s US operations, as its executive editor of membership.
The role was first created in 2016, and Glendinning said it was a challenge to take on a position that didn’t fit neatly within the traditional definition of an editor in the newsroom. Her role, she said, is to bridge the newsroom, the commercial team, and The Guardian’s readers.
“Roles like membership editors are sort of the ‘connective tissue’ between the readers, members, supporters and what’s happening in the newsroom and what our editorial priorities are as an organization,” said Glendinning. “[It’s about] how we can explain that to people around the world who are supporting our journalism and what we do.”
In her role as membership editor, Glendinning and her team are focused on using the outlet’s journalistic output to build loyalty and ultimately get people to support the work. Her main focus is bringing forth the stories that are resonating with the most people and finding how to use the language and products around those stories to generate revenue.
“There is lots of innovative and experimental work going on to define our approach to grow and build our membership,” she said.
The Guardian’s newsroom is now supportive of its emphasis on membership and reader revenue, but Glendinning said there was some skepticism at the beginning.
“People didn’t know what to think,” she said.
Glendinning and her team set out to demonstrate how valuable membership could be to the newsroom and the organization as a whole and realized that to get the newsroom onboard readers needed to buy-in first.
By talking with and listening to readers, The Guardian hopes it can provide the newsroom with important insights about what they care about the most and which articles drive the most reader support.
For example, The Guardian has prioritized regular communication with its members and readers to “test the temperature [and] to learn more about where they might be coming from or the issues that may be important to them.”
The Guardian publishes a weekly newsletter that shares the stories it thought were most important that week and includes behind-the-scenes insights into what is happening in the newsroom.
In addition, it publishes another series, written by a different editor or reporter each week, that details what their job entails and discusses the stories they’ve been covering. This offers an inside look at the newsroom, creating a more personal experience for newsletter subscribers.
The Guardian will monitor which stories are garnering the most financial contributions via direct-article messaging and use those articles for the newsletters to maximize support.
In addition to the newsletter, the membership team personally responds daily to emails that readers send with questions and comments about the journalism.
Newsletters, of course, are just one way Glendinning’s team has been able to incorporate messaging asking for support into other areas of The Guardian’s editorial products.
If you’ve ever read a Guardian article online, you’ve surely noticed that yellow box at the bottom of the page asking you to support their work. Recently, Glendinning has been working on the aesthetics of that direct article messaging to make it into something that works more seamlessly into the article, rather than apart from it.
For example, a recent Guardian article covered the potential impact of President Donald Trump’s decision to lease public land for oil and gas drilling. It had this message at the end:
“For The Guardian, reporting on the environment is a priority. We give reporting on climate, nature and pollution the prominence it deserves, stories which often go unreported by others in the media. At this pivotal time for our species and our planet, we are determined to inform readers about threats, consequences and solutions based on scientific facts, not political prejudice or business interests.”
While not every article posted on The Guardian’s website has this feature and not each one is topic-specific, this strategy aims to grab the attention of readers who wouldn’t normally contribute financially.
If you’re reading an article on environmental issues, chances are that you care about similar issues. These article-by-article reminders are a chance to seize the very moment when the audience may be emotionally moved by a certain story or the way it was covered and offer them a direct way they can contribute financially to The Guardian immediately.
This strategy cannot be done without working with the newsroom. Finding out what language makes the most sense to convert readers into supporters is an essential part of the process. In her role, Glendinning works closely alongside the newsroom to tie editorial and journalistic output into something readers support.
The direct article messaging has been the most effective strategy they have used thus far, Glendinning said.
The Guardian is able to track which messages are most effective at converting readers, and it regularly tests and tweaks its approach. (More on this in both The Numbers and The Lessons.)
More than 1 million people have now supported The Guardian financially. In April, the organization said it had 655,000 monthly digital and print supporters. At the same time it said that an additional 300,000 people had made one-time contributions over the previous year.
In May, just over a year into Glendinning’s new role, The Guardian hit its goal of breaking even.
It reported an £800,000 operating profit for its fiscal year that ended April 30.
“Reader support was a huge part of that,” Glendinning said.
The Guardian said more than half of its revenue, including both advertising and reader support, is digital. That’s a 15 percent increase from 2015/16.
The Guardian offers many different ways for readers to contribute. No matter where you live, The Guardian will be more than happy to take your money for a one-off or recurring donation. However, there are other options as well that offer readers perks and other benefits.
There are three tiers to its online membership program in the UK: Friend, Supporter and Partner. (Of course, readers in Britain can also purchase the print paper.)
The Guardian also offers a Digital Pack Subscription that costs American readers $19.99 a month, or $199.90 annually. By subscribing, readers get an ad-free experience along with additional coverage.
Readers from all over the world have the option of joining The Guardian’s high-dollar — or high-pound? — membership plan. It offers various levels of special offerings including exclusive events, tours of The Guardian’s printing press and the opportunity to attend a news meeting with editor in chief Katharine Viner.
• Celebrate wins: Last November, three-and-a-half years after launching its membership program, The Guardian signed up its 1 millionth supporter.
It was a moment that the paper marked both publicly and internally. It validated that the strategy was working.
The moment helped abate some of the internal skepticism around the membership focus. Initially, when the paper launched the membership plan, many in the newsroom weren’t sold on it. But by sharing in its success, the journalists have come to understand that this is a sensible approach.
Similarly, The Guardian is transparent in sharing data and what stories and topics ultimately lead people to contribute. Those insights help the newsroom appreciate that their coverage is critical to the success of the operation.
“It allowed people to say, ‘I’m glad this is working, I want to be involved in something that has impact,’” Glendinning said.
By communicating with the newsroom, The Guardian is able to highlight wins and educate on its strategy.
• Different messages for different audiences: At the outset of its membership work, The Guardian focused on a single message to sell the concept.
“When we first started, the idea was focused around supporting journalism during a difficult time in a larger media landscape,” said Glendinning.
But over time, the membership team in the newsroom has developed unique messaging for different sections, and The Guardian has been experimenting with different messaging that depends on what’s happening in the news. (We touched on this a bit in The Strategy.)
Its initial tests have shown that it has been effective in converting readers to paying members.
“I find it fascinating because it’s telling us every interesting direction about what people care about most in what we do,” said Glendinning.
• Test Everything: The Guardian tests a lot, but Glendinning expresses that everyone can and should do the same. She had some advice for smaller, local news organizations that want to solidify their membership programs and enhance audience engagement to produce revenue.
“Test a headline or think carefully about how you want to frame a story,” says Glendinning. “Don’t make assumptions. Be able to test and experience with all of our different ideas to make sure they are resonating with our readers.
Smaller newsrooms don’t have as many resources or as much bandwidth as an international organization, but if data tells you that certain stories don’t do well with readers, all newsrooms have the ability to play around with language.
Test everything and try to embrace new roles, likes hers. “I think as a journalist you have really clear ideas and instincts about what is a news story and what is important,” she said. “These things don’t always translate to what works on messaging or acquisition…What you might be sure of in the newsroom can come across differently in terms of attracting support.”
In the past year, The Guardian reached two key milestones, which we’ve already discussed: It hit 1 million total subscribers and it made a small operating profit last year.
While those are undoubted successes, the paper is now thinking about more long-term sustainability, Glendinning said.
“Now people can see the power in this strategy,” she said, noting that The Guardian still needs to make the argument to readers that there is a long way to go.
Its current goal is to reach 2 million supporters by 2022.
Moving forward, it would like to continue to be more responsive to the news cycle and ensure that the messaging is better connected to the coverage.
So even though Glendinning’s role as executive membership editor is editorial-focused, continuing to stand in solidarity with the newsroom and give them useful information on what their readers want is essential.
Want to know more?
• For a deeper look at The Guardian’s membership model, check out this report The Lenfest Institute and Digital Content Next published earlier this year. It examined reader revenue strategies at The Guardian, Slate, and Tribune Publishing.
• For more on what membership editors actually do, here’s a smart story from Digiday.
• After The Guardian announced its operating profit this spring, Nieman Lab took a look at what lessons can be learned for the future of newspapers.
• Here’s another example of a newsroom thinking about how to position its stories to paying readers. This German newspaper has a “text marketing” editor.
Anything to add?
How has your organization broken down barriers between the newsroom and the more traditional business side? We’d love to hear your examples to feature in a future edition of Solution Set.
A previous version of this story misstated that Glendinning was The Guardian’s first membership editor. A previous version also misstated that The Guardian’s weekly membership newsletter was written by different reporters each week.