Following the results of the US election in November, both for-profit news organisations such as The New York Times and the Guardian and non-profit investigative outlets like ProPublica and Mother Jones saw a surge in subscriptions and member donations, highlighting a greater need for accurate and thorough reporting.
At the end of November, non-profit news outlet Voice of San Diego launched the News Revenue Hub, a new initiative that aims to centralise memberships by advising and supporting five other organisations in setting up customised membership programmes.
During the year-long pilot, a team at Voice of San Diego will work with InsideClimate News, NJ Spotlight, Honolulu Civil Beat, The Lens and Politifact to hone their membership strategies and set up regular appeals and campaigns to monetise their audiences.
Over the last three weeks, four of the organisations have kicked off the project in their newsrooms, with Politifact set to start in January. While most of the operating costs are covered through a $255,000 grant from the Democracy Fund, member outlets also pay a $500 monthly fee to Voice of San Diego.
Mary Walter-Brown, publisher and chief operating officer at Voice of San Diego, who is leading the News Revenue Hub team, said a waiting list has already been put in place and the project is likely to take one or two additional organisations in January depending on the workload.
It's about telling a story slowly, over time, that engages with the audience and helps them understand their role in supporting non-profit journalismMary Walter-Brown, Voice of San Diego
Prior to the launch, her team worked with the client organisations for about six weeks to help them adopt the back-end technology required, such as relationship management system SalesForce and email marketing service MailChimp, migrate their databases of contacts and set up their membership tiers.
The path from casual readers to paying members
Going forward, the team will help develop the outreach campaigns, ensure readers are receiving the right correspondence and troubleshoot any issues that could arise, for example if a person has signed up to a newsletter or for a membership with multiple email addresses.
At this point, the News Revenue Hub is primarily email driven, she explained, focusing on "automated drip campaigns" that go live at specific intervals to convert casual readers into paying members. As soon as someone subscribes to the newsletter of a participating organisation they will start receiving regular emails aimed at getting them to contribute.
The initiative also focuses on getting readers to establish recurring monthly donations that automatically renew each year, as "retention is such a huge piece of the success of any kind of loyalty programme".
"Readers go down a path where they are slowly learning about that organisation, for example the first email will welcome them and explain that it's a non-profit.
"Then, over the course of six weeks, they will be introduced to the publisher, the editor-in-chief, they'll understand a bit more about the different member benefits available and if that organisation is holding events or has won any significant awards.
"It's about telling a story slowly, over time, that engages with the audience and helps them understand their role in supporting non-profit journalism."
The model is based on Voice of San Diego's own membership programme, which has been in place since 2012 and has become a key revenue stream, with the average reader contributing about $100 a year.
Memberships from people contributing annually between $35 and $5,000 are expected to account for 18 to 20 per cent of the organisation's overall revenue in 2016, Walter-Brown added, with a further 37 per cent coming from high-level donors who give between $5,000 and $200,000.
"[Memberships] play a huge part in our overall revenue and it also becomes a breeding ground for high level sponsors and donors.
"There's a low point of entry for people who discover us to become a member at the $50 level, but as they get to know us and we get to know them and a relationship has already formed, it's much easier for us to bump them up to a major donor or to a sponsor."
Focus on events and opportunities to engage with members
The team has encouraged all participating outlets to set up four membership options for their readers, based on the Voice of San Diego model, but these will be tailored according to the "core competencies and products they have become known for in their communities".
For example, as participant organisation InsideClimate News is a national outlet, Walter-Brown and her team have recommended they create a series of online interviews, where the audience can get to know the reporters and see how they interact with thought leaders and sources.
The News Revenue Hub has a strong focus on in-person engagement and events and most of the organisations have made reader events a part of their first or second tier of membership, Walter-Brown said.
The NJ Spotlight, founded in 2009, is dedicated to covering politics and policy in New Jersey with a focus on healthcare, energy and the environment, and joined the News Revenue Hub on Black Friday (25 November).
It operates on a budget of about $1.2 million with 10 full-time staffers, two thirds of whom are journalists. The outlet relied largely on foundation grants in its first four years, chief executive officer and founding editor John Mooney told Journalism.co.uk.
Currently, one third of its income is derived from advertising and sponsorship from the regular conferences held around specific issues, such as urban policy, but in the last year, NJ Spotlight has started looking for major donors and individuals to become members.
We want to focus more on experiences than giving them a coffee mug or a tote bagJohn Mooney, NJ Spotlight
Out of its 250 paying members, 200 are people who have signed up in the last three weeks, raising close to $30,000. Mooney is confident the numbers will grow to 300 members and $50,000 respectively by the end of 2016, with an aim to double them in 2017 and continue expanding from there.
NJ Spotlight has four membership levels, with different benefits and levels of reader engagement. The minimum readers can contribute is $35 a year, which they can pay at once or monthly, and the maximum is $1,000.
Some of the benefits for paying readers include invitations to events, monthly newsletters, and in the future, they could also have the opportunity to promote a non-profit cause of their choice on the website.
"A lot of people give not to get something back, but because they feel strongly about what we're doing, it's more about supporting a cause they believe in.
"So we want to focus more on experiences than giving them a coffee mug or a tote bag," Mooney said.
One such experience the NJ Spotlight is considering is a quarterly event where members can interact with policy makers, or political figures running for key positions, such as governor or senator.
As part of the programme's "drip-drip strategy", NJ Spotlight will keep striving to acquire more members by sending them emails a couple of times a week, mailing cards to readers who have provided home addresses and asking for support through its website.
"It becomes part of our DNA, something you do all year round and that you keep making adjustments to.
"It's not just about the money, but also about bringing people together, having live discussions, it's all part of the mix these days. It's no longer sitting in a tower, writing stories and thinking everybody is going to read them, you really have to go out and get them and this is one way to do that," Mooney said.
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