How Journalism and Associations Can Solve the Membership Puzzle

As news organizations consider new models, there’s a unique opportunity for associations and journalists to team up and solve common membership issues.

Collaboration within the association community is certainly a good thing, but sometimes it helps to get outside your bubble. So here’s my bubble-bursting challenge, especially if your job is membership: Get to know a journalist.

Why? Because right now, journalism and associations are faced with some common challenges, and a few are membership related. By working together, both professions might be able to develop new lines of thinking about recruitment, retention, and engagement.

The latest journalism-related example of a membership conundrum comes from NYU professor Jay Rosen and Rob Wijnberg and Ernst-Jan Pfauth, who cofounded De Correspondent, a member-funded platform for news in the Netherlands. Earlier this month, they launched a year-long project to explore how a membership model for news might translate to the United States. They’re calling it the Membership Puzzle Project.

This certainly is not the first time that an organization in the journalism world has considered a move to membership. In March, Medium launched a premium subscription service for $5 per month that gives readers access to top stories and advanced features, many of which have yet to be released. There’s also the crowdfunded digital magazine Republik, which will be published in German and is set to debut in January 2018.

But to date, De Correspondent has one of the more successful membership models in journalism, with more than 50,000 members who pay 60 euros (about $65) a year or 6 euros (about $6.50) a month for news.

Members get access to writers covering niche beats, including topics like climate change and the future of education. At the same time, writers can engage with readers tapping into their subject matter or niche backgrounds.

Right now, the Membership Puzzle Project is on a mission to talk with experts in membership—attention: that’s you—and they’re gathering intelligence to build a path forward for the future of high-quality, public-service journalism.

Here are just a few ways that I see associations and news organizations working together when it comes to membership.

What News Can Use From Associations

I can’t help but think back to my Membership Blog predecessor, Joe Rominiecki, and his careful reflections on how Alexis de Tocqueville’s “schools of democracy” ideal plays out within associations that cultivate highly engaged members.

A new member might join for one specific reason, but along the way encounter new opportunities or ideas as he or she becomes involved in the community. This engagement benefits both the association and the individual—they both grow as a result of the relationship. News organizations need to think about this as they build similar relationships that challenge readers to think differently.

For example, associations use members they trust as sounding boards for feedback and to provide reliable user testing. And highly engaged members trust their organization. That’s even true for large chapter-based organizations with voluntary networks of regional and state members [ASAE log-in required]. In the end, trust tends to be the currency for associations, and it’s earned through engaging members in activities that provide value to both the member and the organization.

Trust is depreciating for news, and it’s even led Rosen to declare that “winter is coming” for a free and independent press. Priority number one, he says, is to establish a new model that relies on higher reader trust and credibility, which sounds an awful lot like something associations have been doing for years.

What Associations Can Use From News

At the same time, journalism can help associations with engagement tactics like storytelling, data analytics, and content strategy, leading to better member experiences.

It sounds obvious, but talking to a journalist might help you become a better storyteller. According to a recent study from the Meyer Foundation and Georgetown University, 96 percent of nonprofits emphasized the importance of telling their own story. But associations do not always know how to capture the right audience or use the best available techniques for telling members’ stories. Journalists have years of experience and skills to share.

Newsrooms also tend to have a tighter grip on data analytics that reveal insights into how users behave online. Membership teams can learn from the ways that news organizations use tools like Google Analytics to answer simple questions about how users engage and interact with digital content.

Those same analytics can then be applied to a content strategy. This week, my colleague Ernie Smith wrote an excellent blog post about how your content strategy should be connected to users’ habits. News organizations have thought long and hard about aligning content strategy with how readers consume information. And most newsrooms have a strategy in place to guide their digital transformation. But some associations still are thinking through questions that underpin a content strategy [ASAE log-in required]. For those associations, the best practices in journalism could be a useful guide as they move their own work forward.

By starting a two-way conversation, both associations and newsrooms stand to benefit, and the timing is right. The Membership Puzzle Project is looking to connect with leaders in membership to jump-start their project. Consider whether you have expertise to share.


Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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