Do you trust the media? Many people do not. 

Why We Invested: The Membership Puzzle Project

Globally, independent media is in crisis, debilitated by endemic audience distrust and eroding revenue models. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer says media is the least-trusted public institution in 22 of 28 countries surveyed. At the same time, digital ad-based revenue models fail to support quality journalism. Google and Facebook account for over 70% of the $273 billion spent each year on digital advertising, and 99% of the growth in that market. Public trust in journalism is further eroded by an ad-based model of social distribution that rewards emotion over truth; reach over engagement; clickbait over quality.

This has profound implications for the societies that we live in: without evidence-based, sustainable media ecosystems that are trusted by audiences, power cannot be held effectively to account.

The Membership Puzzle Project (MPP) is championing “membership” and looking at viable ways it can be used to address the broken relationship between revenue, content, and audience trust. Membership models put audiences at the heart of news, as partners and as financial supporters. Journalists and their audiences engage in meaningful dialogue around the issues being covered. Audiences, who pay to participate, can contribute knowledge, skills, and insights to the reporting process, and journalists invest time in listening to their audiences and are transparent about their reporting process. And this relationship – and community – inherently relies on trust.   

MPP’s Jay Rosen wrote: “Subscription is a product relationship: you pay your money and you get the product. If you don’t pay you don’t get it. Membership is different: you join the cause because you believe in the work...”

To help prove the membership model, Luminate, alongside the Democracy Fund, invested in MPP to help launch their Membership in News Fund. The Fund is designed to support innovative membership models that are being tested at news organisations as part of a global experiment to identify and clarify best practices for supporting and sustaining independent journalism in the 21st century. It will support a set of global experiments to test new membership models in news sites throughout the world, enabling them to experiment with different membership ideas in collaboration with the MPP team, led by Jay Rosen, Emily Goligoski, and Ariel Zirulnick. Emerging news sites on different continents will lead the work of experimentation to get the kind of answers that can inspire creative effort around the globe. MPP is welcoming applications from three kinds of sites; local/place-based; national/international; and subject matter/topical.

Each news site that MPP choses to participate in the project will experiment with a different pathway or hypothesis about how membership can help sustain public service journalism. The idea is to support a plurality of approaches in a plurality of local settings, and also test new ideas.

Our hope is that news models across the world can restore public trust in media. MPP is a major boost to the ecosystem that shares this goal. As Susan Forde, Professor of Journalism at Griffith University wrote in an article for MPP: “Trust is (surely) about respect, recognition of expertise, belief in the mission, sharing of the vision, and a truthfulness from the publication which is achieved through transparency, accessibility, and an overriding sense of public good (selflessness) in the finished work. These are the ingredients that we can look to establish in creating media and journalism that audiences use, that they keep coming back for, and that they support in multiple ways including and beyond with cash.”

Globally, membership models are emerging in countries from India and Brazil to Singapore and the UK.  Luminate investee The Ken - the first digital-only membership product for business news in India – is already profitable, just 18-months into its existence. The Ken publishes one thoughtfully reported long-form story each day, and its journalists directly collaborate with readers on leads, sources, data, and more.  Similarly, De Correspondent, a digital-only Dutch news provider, pioneered a deep engagement model and transparent operating principles to drive trust with their readers. Launched in 2013 after a historic 30-day $1.7M crowdfunding campaign, it is now 60,000+ members strong, and is 85% reader-funded.

We hope that, with the support of the Membership in News Fund, many more such success stories will emerge.