Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
7 mins read

Why building online communities could be the solution journalism needs

women using laptop together

Membership is the heart of any digital economy. Or to be more precise, it is a pacemaker: a potential lifesaver for an industry looking a bit under the weather.

The journalism industry isn’t looking that perky right now. Its symptoms are many. According to Pew Research survey data, from 2008 to 2018, newsroom employment in the US dropped by 25%. In just one decade, the number of employees had dropped from 114,000 to about 86,000 – a loss of about 28,000 jobs by the end of 2018. And if we weigh in the fact that false news is now spreading 10 times faster than real news, the outrageous Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, and the record number of journalists facing imprisonment around the globe, it is becoming more and more evident that free press is in need of something more than an antacid.

Although a lot has been written about the problem of monetization (and rightly so), the issue is not necessarily always a matter of funds, as it is a matter of trust. According to a CJR article, a majority of surveyed Americans said they have lost faith in their media. The reasons behind such widespread distrust are many (the issues of reportage inaccuracies, bias, fake news, sensationalism and ‘clickbait’ are well documented) – but at its core, it has a lot to do with journalists losing touch with the communities they are meant to serve.

Newsrooms, especially those which operate locally, need to understand that failing to get their audience involved will only hasten the industry’s decline. Luckily, the digital world possesses a huge advantage, one which allows journalists to connect with their readership and build relationships with more agency and immediacy than traditional methods of communication: 

The online community.

Considering all the comments on articles, crowdsourced reporting, and social media groups, these ideas shouldn’t be new to journalism. The only question is: how can it be done without sending the wrong message to an already disenchanted audience?

Want to build a loyal online community? Focus on developing a membership business model.

Before we unveil our tips and selected examples of newsrooms with excellent community-building practices, first we need to clarify the underlying difference between the subscription model and the membership model. Although they look very similar on paper, membership and subscription serve completely different goals

A subscription model doesn’t necessarily possess that communal, almost visceral experience. The readership is typically required to pay money in exchange for quality product or service, making the dynamic more ‘transactional’ rather than ‘interpersonal’. No doubt, subscription is able to bring much-needed earnings for many news websites, but the recent trend where for-profit news sites pitch exclusive content as ‘membership’ has the potential to confuse and dissuade audiences even further.

A membership model functions (or at least it should) by inviting audiences to invest their time, money, sources, ideas, expertise and other intangible contributions to support organizations they believe in. According to Emily Goligoski & Kate Myers for Poynter on demystifying the “lite” membership strategy, membership in its “thick” version represents a vital, two-way knowledge exchange between the staff and the members. “By knowledge exchange,” clarified Myers, “we mean examples like ProPublica’s readers tipping off an investigation into IBM layoffs; De Correspondent’s reader Rolodex; and Reveal’s crowdsourced hate report.”

And there is a lot at stake with membership models or as Myers likes to say: “The differences aren’t as simple as for-profit versus non-profit, and the trend in using these terms sloppily risks devaluing the very model that sets true membership apart.“

Overall, subscription and membership represent different value propositions for your audience, and should be considered and applied thoughtfully. Both can – and will continue to be – critical to the future sustainable models that the industry depends on now, more than ever. The only thing that is necessary is more clarity around the terminology. Remember, membership is more than just discounts on products, complimentary tote bags, and exclusive content – it is an experience, one which involves audiences with the world they live in.

Examples of journos who’ve successfully managed to build communities

When Myers got a first-hand look into the membership program at The Intercept, an online news publication dedicated to what it describes as ‘adversarial journalism’, she realized they actually offer many opportunities to deepen its relationship as well as its accountability to its audiences. Besides accepting donations, The Intercept website also receives offers of code, story tips, and activism connected to its work – the lifeblood for good journalism. 

There are also many programs that experiment and have a very straight-forward approach to building communities. For instance, the Membership Puzzle Project database includes more than 100 newsroom websites, all of which employ a membership business model of varying “thickness”. Each site is open for public use and contributions – and we have picked some of the more interesting examples from the database:

  • Chicago’s City Bureau’s Documenters program not only invites its supporters to attend and document civic events and meetings, but it also stimulates their engagement by paying for these contributions. During the past year and a half, City Bureau hosted nearly 70 Public Newsroom workshops featuring incredible local artists, organizers and journalists as hosts as well as more than 1,200 inquisitive attendees. 
  • Some European sites are creating events that can simply be fundraisers or a chance to broadcast at attendees. They see it as an opportunity to hear from audience members about what they care about and to engage them in decision making (as is the case with The Bristol Cable’s Annual General Meeting of co-op members) or reporting (like The Ferret’s Sunday fact-checking nights in Scotland that are open to members as opportunities to learn and contribute to investigative journalism).
  • Honolulu Civil Beat doesn’t hide its passion for coffee. In fact, it started inviting its members to come to monthly coffee chats with their staff in the newsroom. Mariko Chang, the site’s Major Gifts Manager, said, “It’s a way to build trust and get ideas in the door.” She further explained that these events have led to immense contributions for coverage, including the site doubling down on its coverage of secret police commission meetings and to an event series on news literacy in partnership with the state’s library system.
  • In Sweden, at Upsala Nya Tidning (NTM), Jens Pettersson and his team wanted to know the extent of disruption caused by the local public transport system. They used Facebook to create a group, where users were able to share information with each other about when trains were running late, how crowded carriages were, and other irks familiar to commuters everywhere. 
  • It is quite possible for the membership and subscription models to live alongside one another as long as the distinctions are made clear. The Texas Tribune, for example, offers a membership program and a subscription service for Texas Politics insiders known as The Blast. The value propositions of each model are evident and distinct, beautifully complementing one another as offerings for different types of supporters.

Establishing a dialogue between newsrooms and their communities requires patience and time

A journalist as a community organizer? Is this a viable (or desirable) way for newsrooms to evolve? After all, the advantages are many: engaging audiences improves journalism and transforms passive readers into active, contributing members. And if we are to measure success, it should be done by measuring the community’s consistency to update us with fresh, relevant information. That sort of engagement allows real-time journalism and public service to flourish.

The Internet changed the game radically. Yes, it’s true that it can reduce millions of people to a singular identity, but on the other hand, it can amplify a single person’s unique voice to millions of people. In the rush to get likes, clicks and traffic, it was all too easy to focus on publishing content that satisfied those kinds of volume metrics, but it did so by viewing the audience as a generic readership and through a one-way valve. It is our duty to redraw those lines and bring journalism back to its roots: serving communities and involving newsroom supporters – however possible – is key to this.

Weaving community organically into the newsroom takes patience and time, especially when the daily news cycle requires so much of our attention. How will this value shift happen? According to Lauren Katz for Nieman Lab, this feat can be accomplished “by proving over and over that emphasizing community benefits everyone involved — the journalists, the audiences, and the news organizations. By sharing with our peers what’s working and what’s not. By defining a common language for community work, and developing solid loyalty metrics.

It is also important that newsrooms invest in creating in-house data teams designed to collect and analyze information that will help newsroom leaders answer the following questions:

  • Who is consuming our work and why?
  • Is this audience different from who we would expect – and if so, how?
  • What are the issues and concerns that our audience needs information about?
  • Are there other people who would benefit from our work and how do we get in contact with them?
  • What is the best way we can present our work so that our audiences can easily consume and, more importantly, understand it?

This data is crucial for establishing the value of our audiences to potential advertisers and future sources of revenue. It is critical to ensure that our work is accessible to the people who really need it. It is also critical to ensure that we, as journalists, are all doing our jobs. Back in 2016, journalism took a hard blow. Let’s return its core principles to its roots – and rebuild the audience’s trust anew from the ground up.

Let’s start more conversations, and listen.

by Marko Dorić

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.