In June, non-profit news outlet Mother Jones published a 35,000-word investigation, complete with charts, graphs and six videos, detailing the experience of its reporter Shane Bauer who spent four months as a guard in a US private prison.
The feature had a big impact on more than one level, but the investigation which cost roughly $350,000 to produce only brought in $5,000 from banner ads.
Mother Jones, like many other non-profits, gets part of its funding from ongoing or one-off donations from readers – the outlet already had 2,000 supporters who were giving about $28,000 a month when the editor-in-chief and chief executive officer published a post in August outlining the importance of financial contributions from readers to keep producing this type of journalism.
Here's how two other non-profit news organisations, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and The Texas Tribune, are approaching memberships.
'If you promise something, you need to deliver it'
The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) was co-founded in 2015 by Chris Faraone, who is also the news and features editor for the city's alternative newspaper, Dig Boston.
He wanted the organisation, which has a core team of about five people but also works with paid freelancers, to be a "free-floating journalism incubator," rather than just "another publication".
"In Boston we still have a healthy journalism landscape. There are still a lot of great community and ethnic newspapers, but they do not have any extra money, so the kind of investigations they used to do or maybe even longer arts profiles, have had to fall by the wayside unfortunately," Faraone told Journalism.co.uk.
I'd rather have $5 come in from someone every month than get a one-off donation of $500, because I know we'll have that person for a long timeChris Faraone, BINJ
"My tagline is, when you help fund non-profit journalism, you fund all your favourite causes at the same time."
In the last year, BINJ has partnered on a project basis with more than 25 news outlets, including community and alternative newspapers and Boston-based Spanish language newspaper El Planeta, to report on "the things that aren't being covered or are being covered insufficiently", such as gentrification and surveillance.
In June, BINJ opened up its Medium-hosted website to memberships through Medium's new feature that allows publishers to monetise their content on the platform. Since then, the outlet has acquired 50 members, who can donate a minimum of $3 every month – the average is currently $5 and some readers also contribute larger sums of $30 or more.
"We knew that if this was going to work, we were going to need revenue to come in from a lot of places and the best kind of revenue is recurring revenue. I'd rather have $5 come in from someone every month than get a one-off donation of $500, because I know we'll have that person for a long time.
"But we wanted to make it totally accessible to anyone, because I don't want to be in the business of milking people who don't have it."
BINJ's features and investigations, as well as the five regular columns it runs, are available to all readers, but members get first access to Throwback BINJ, the outlet's series that connects old Boston headlines from the past 300 years with current events happening in the city; exclusive and early access to expanded versions of published features; and invitations to community events.
A the end of August, BINJ organised a pop-up newsroom in Boston, inviting people who were active in Occupy Boston to share their experiences from that time and in the five years since, with the aim of producing a podcast series and a feature story.
The outlet also has a community op-ed section on its website, which both members and regular readers can contribute to.
"Memberships are difficult, you have to stick with them – if you promise something, you need to deliver it.
"We couldn't justify keeping our features or columns from people, so Throwback posts are a great way to show we have an institutional memory, that we care about the history of the city and our reporters aren't just reporting from yesterday.
"There needs to be more of this, remembering what happened in the past. We don't want to be in a vacuum, especially as we are working with a lot of young reporters so we want to show them there is a lot more to understanding politics in particular, than just what happened over the past couple of weeks, months and years."
The case for membership at The Texas Tribune
The Texas Tribune's aim since it was founded in 2009 has been to "educate Texans in a non-partisan way" about public policy, politics, government and other issues affecting the state, said Terry Quinn, the outlet's chief development officer.
This is achieved in a number of ways: through the outlet's reporting on its own website, including data and figures available to the public on topics such as the Texas Primaries, or the salaries of state and municipal employees in Texas; partnerships with other news organisations; community events with key political figures and inviting readers to contribute their perspectives on topics of interest by writing columns for TribTalk, the outlet's 'digital forum for dialogue and debate about the day's news'.
The Tribune is funded through grants and donations from foundations, events, as well as corporate sponsors, but it also offers a number of memberships for individuals, which start at $10 per year for students and go up to a $5,000 annual contribution. Quinn said that from the student level onwards, The Tribune counts approximately 2,500 annual members.
The benefits for members vary from quarterly reports on what's coming up at The Tribune, to event invitations and discounted tickets to the Texas Tribune Festival and exclusive previews of key projects and events.
"The majority of people say they become members purely because they value the work we do and our mission and that is wonderful, but it also makes it difficult to figure out the level of benefit that will resonate and be meaningful to folks.
"Because all our content is free, there's a big overall question still of what's the case for membership. While I think a lot of people get it and support us, there are still people who are a little perplexed as to why they'd be a member when it's all free and this is something that other public media organisations have also struggled with."
In a 2015 report on public media membership, author Melody Kramer, currently senior development manager at Wikimedia, outlined a number of potential, non-financial membership models to help organisations build more meaningful connections with contributors and ultimately, donors.
I think the general public doesn't understand how costly and time-consuming it is to produce this type of reporting, especially when it's something really well done that looks effortlessTerry Quinn, The Texas Tribune
Some of her examples included getting readers to work remotely on digitising, tagging or transcribing certain material in exchange for one year of membership to a public radio station; partnering with local communities and organisations for reporting projects; and inviting people into the newsroom to test a new digital product, share story ideas or talk about the news, before asking people later on if they would prefer to renew their membership by volunteering further and/or donating money.
The Texas Tribune is working to develop and engage communities more, be it in the comments section of the website or on social platforms, as well as getting people to "identify with a certain slice of our reporting, whether that's healthcare or politics" and then coming up with benefits that will give them more value out of that specific area of interest.
"I think the general public doesn't understand how costly and time-consuming it is to produce this type of reporting, especially when it's something really well done that looks effortless.
"So one of the tactics we've thought of to engage people more is doing more 'behind the scenes' in a fun way that paints a picture of why your support matters, explaining what it takes to produce a story and how long, how much travel is involved in that, etc.
"The other tactic is audience segments of interest, which we hope to take to the next level in the next two years by reaching out to, say, someone who reads our healthcare coverage and trying to form a more engaged community with them, to make them feel like they want to be a member, and I think to some extent we already have that.
"To be supported by people at all walks of life and at all levels is very important for us, rather than just being supported by more affluent contributors," Quinn said.
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