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Meet Jay Rosen, the man behind the Membership Puzzle Project

Aarthi Rayapura

In the past decade and a half, the news industry hasn’t just been decimated; it’s been crushed. The rapid invasion of digital news sources—including social media sites, with their addictive allure and second-by-second news coverage—is one of the culprits.

Another big shift is the sharp decrease in advertising dollars: Pew Research reports that newspaper advertising revenue fell from $37.8 billion in 2008 to $14.3 billion in 2018, a 62% decline. And the ad revenues that didn’t vanish got consolidated into the pockets of a very few media conglomerates that swallowed up small-town and big-city news outlets left and right. That means fewer people with more money and more power (and today this often means tech companies not news orgs).

Journalists and reporters have taken a lot of shrapnel in this time. As their newsrooms have shrunk, they’re working harder and longer to keep up with the unstoppable 24/7 news cycle. And that’s if they’re lucky. Unlike the New York Times and Washington Post, both of which have the resources to keep up with the demand, many local newsrooms have shuttered altogether, leaving a yawning chasm for reporting on the city and state issues that affect people’s daily lives (school budgets, housing policy).

Taken together, these assaults to a once-venerated industry have put it on life support. Jay Rosen, Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University, sees the problems, especially those related to the erosion of the relationship between media companies and their subscribers, with unique clarity. And he isn’t ready to pull the plug. “Journalism is in a state of crisis,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s an unsolvable crisis; just something that hasn’t been solved yet. Many believe—and I tend to agree—that newsrooms had become dangerously disconnected from the public they’re supposed to serve. So I’ve spent a lot of my time over the past decade trying to get journalists to mend that disconnect.”

Journalism is in a state of crisis…not an unsolvable crisis; just something that hasn’t been solved yet.

Jay Rosen, Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University

A new model for a new world

And as someone responsible for training the next generation of journalists, it was (partly) up to him to figure out what that meant. Rosen’s particularly suited to take on this challenge. He’s one of the earliest and fiercest advocates and supporters of citizen journalism, encouraging the press to take a more active interest in citizenship, improving public debate, and enhancing life. Rosen’s well-respected blog, PressThink—started way back in 2003—explores “the fate of the press in the digital era and the challenges involved in rethinking what journalism is today.” He’s also written several books about the subject, including Getting the Connections Right: Public Journalism and the Troubles in the Press and What Are Journalists For?

As he looked deeper into possible solutions to the problems of the current media landscape, Rosen began working with the Dutch journalism platform, De Correspondent. De Correspondent is the largest and fastest growing member-funded journalism organization in Europe and provides “an antidote to the daily news grind,” focusing on in-depth coverage by individual correspondents who each focus on specific topics (Rosen eventually helped launch an English version of the site with financial backing from the likes of Trevor Noah.).

In 2017, Rosen collaborated with De Correspondent to start the Membership Puzzle Project, a non-profit organization to study and promulgate “membership” models in the news (like De Correspondent’s). MPP’s mission is to build sustainable news organizations that do the kind of high quality, public-service journalism that inspires readers to become paying members. Think of it like crowdfunding for truth and transparency. “With membership, it’s more like joining a cause because you believe in the work,” says Rosen. “That means the model depends on locating your strongest supporters and persuading them to support you.

“Membership also implies opportunities for participation,” he continues. “In journalism, that could take many different forms from member-only news tips to an organization’s journalists sharing their expertise or knowledge directly with its members.”

One very civic-friendly benefit of the membership model is that it allows news orgs to give everyone the news for free—even those who cannot afford it—because the committed champions are funding it. “Journalism is, in so many ways, a public good,” Rosen says. “It’s not just a product.”

Membership has its privileges

If you’ve ever sat through one of those epic fundraising breaks on your local NPR station, you’re familiar with the model. (Though don’t bring up NPR to Jay Rosen; he’s got a big beef with them right now, but continues to support them nonetheless because he so strongly believes that they need to exist.). The Guardian is one of the larger media companies to offer a membership model. The company says it chose this model to make sure their reporting is “open to everyone, funded by our readers” and that membership support “safeguards our essential editorial independence, emboldening us to challenge the powerful and shed light where others won’t.”

This is just what Jay Rosen has in mind. “Journalism has its biggest effects when it is broadly distributed,” he says. “But there’s also a growing opportunity for more niche journalism membership models.”

Like, for example, Jessica E. (Vascellaro) Lessin, who wrote for the Wall Street Journal for eight years before leaving to start The Information, a $399 a year deep dive on all things tech and Silicon Valley. Or the dozens of other journalists who have ditched their newspaper and magazine staff jobs to launch their own newsletters on Substack. Emily Atkin, formerly of the New Republic, is one of the most successful. Her paid newsletter, Heated, offers original reporting and analysis on the climate crisis and has more than 2,500 subscribers (or in Rosen’s parlance, members).

Best practices, better results

The Membership Puzzle Project has studied these and hundreds of other alternative journalism models to come up with best practices, case studies, and other support for journalists and news orgs who are looking to successfully make the shift. In 2018, they started a small investment vehicle that funds experiments in journalism membership around the world. They also provide the winning organizations with experts who can coach them through the shift, similar to the way VCs in Silicon Valley help shepherd startups to success. “One of our big discoveries over the past few years is that there is a missing piece of tech,” says Rosen. “Most organizations just don’t have the tech (beyond the more standard payment tools) to scale their memberships. I’m excited for the day when we have a way to offer members a variety of ways to participate: you could pay in dollars or you could pay in participation or you could donate your knowledge. That’s really getting to the heart of what makes a member-based news organization so exciting.”

Rosen and his team at MPP also discovered that there is a key distinction on what he calls the “thick” and “thin” models of membership. Thin models are more akin to traditional subscriptions, with maybe an extra benefit or two thrown in for good measure. Thick models offer way more access (to use a journalism term) to the reporters themselves and more ways to contribute to the success of the organization. “Membership gives the public more of a voice,” says Rosen. “And we tell the organizations we work with that to succeed in the membership model, you need to gradually adopt what we call ‘member-full’ strategies. These are routine ways of operating that engage and involve members. For example, an organization could require every correspondent to have a weekly email for his or her fans. This ongoing, predictable engagement involves the members in a way that makes them want to continue to be members because they see the organization as something they’re part of.”

Learning and growing

Rosen admits that the membership model poses some unique challenges for news organizations. They have to be crystal clear with their members on what’s covered under the membership contract. For example, some members might think they’ve “earned” the right to tell a journalist how to write a story; but that’s not how journalism works. “Establishing a social contract between the members and the journalists is crucial,” Rosen says. “And we’ve learned that it’s really hard to start a membership program when you don’t already have loyal users. You can’t just throw open the doors.”

But perhaps the most important thing Rosen has learned in his research is that you really, really need to understand your strongest supporters and that they’re not a monolithic group; they’re made up of many “sub-communities” that have diverse wants, needs, and movitations. “Just like in reporting, it’s really important that you listen well,” says Rosen. “Some people just want to support you with dollars and they do not want to be involved. Other people want a voice of some kind in your organization. Your success as a member-supported organization will depend greatly on how accurate your understanding is of why the people who support you support you.”

Want to dig deeper on this story? Check out the resources at the Membership Puzzle Project.

Your success as a member-supported organization will depend greatly on how accurate your understanding is of why the people who support you support you.

Jay Rosen, Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University

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