Membership as a new business model and the failure of “The Correspondent”

The news has broken that the Correspondent (De Correspondent’s English-language site), is shutting down on December 31.[1] The case of The/De Correspondent was the biggest, after the Guardian, example of the membership model. And while the surrogates of membership that penetrated subscription model in the biggest American mainstream media still pay off, mainly because of the Trump bump, the prospects of the membership model itself looks less and less brighter.

Perhaps, this is just a misplay of the Correspondent that I described in a chapter of my book Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization (the excerpts are below)… The final diagnosis for the ‘pure’ membership model is going to be made by the Guardian, whose performance in 2020 has not looked great as well. Probably, this is because of the pandemic; though, again, the pandemic did not obstruct the Trump-based surrogates of membership-subscription in the American mainstream media from bringing in significant reader revenue…

***

The membership model has become perhaps the brightest (or even the only) ray of light in the media market over the murky past two decades. Many other media organizations have started applying different elements or versions of membership in their business.

Most membership ideas revolved around selling a symbolic affiliation with quality (or local, or activist) journalism. Different programs of engagement with the brand are usually offered as a supplement, ranging from seminars and festivals to readers’ participation in the newsroom planning meetings and teleconferences.

The membership evangelists from the Membership Puzzle Project distinguish the “thin” model of membership, when members just donate money to their favourite media outlet and mostly resembles donors, and the “thick” model, when members also show up to events, offer advice and feedback and interact.[2]

There is also some merging area between “subscription plus” (or premium), when subscribers buy the product but also express their support, and “membership lite”, (or “thin membership”), when members patronize and financially support journalism but otherwise rarely engage.[3]

The Membership Puzzle Project created a database of news orgs employing different forms of membership and had collected more than 160 names from around the world by 2020.[4] Each media outlet in this list has a ‘mission statement’ that is essentially an offer behind the membership pitch, with a range of areas of commitment – from investigative journalism to helping to find fun on the Internet.

The list contains many well-recognized and much spoken of names, such as Charlotte Agenda, BuzzFeed News, Columbia Journalism Review, HuffPost, Intercept and others. Some news brands are known for their specific journalist services, such as PolitiFact, which focuses on political fact checking; Russian dissident Novaya Gazeta; the German ‘constructive journalism’ Perspective Daily, which focuses on solutions; and Positive News, which has a similar idea. Perhaps the biggest names, along with the Guardian, on the list are Texas Tribune and the Atlantic.

***

But the worthiest of discussion is the Dutch De Correspondent. Starting with an idea similar to membership in 2013, even before it was called so in relation to the Guardian, De Correspondent managed to raise $1.7 million before its site had even published its first article.[5]

The success factors included the well-known names of its co-founders, prominent Dutch journalists, a well-managed campaign and a well-received journalism manifesto.[6] The manifesto claims that,

We cover stories that tend to escape the mainstream media radar because they don’t fit neatly into the drama of the 24-hour news cycle. De Correspondent provides an antidote to the daily news grind – shifting the focus from the sensational to the foundational and from the attention-grabbing headline to the constructive insight. We refuse to speculate about the latest scare or breaking story, but work instead to uncover the underlying forces that shape our world.[7]

Basically, the manifesto offered to slow down the ‘Hamster Wheel’, as described by Dean Starkman, which journalism happened to be trapped in because of the traffic race on the internet. As the manifesto’s author and De Correspondent co-founder Rob Wijnberg later explained,

We try to tell precisely those stories that aren’t news, but news-worthy nevertheless. Or, as we often say, that reveal not the weather but the climate…. Our ultimate goal: to replace the sensational with the foundational and the recent with the relevant…

It’s no longer our correspondents’ goal to be the first, get a scoop, or be picked up by other outlets. Their goal is to thoroughly ground themselves in the major developments of our time and, along the way, share their learning curve with a growing community of followers.[8]

This was the best ideological substantiation for so-called ‘slow media’, or the “antidote to the news”, as Wijnberg called it.

It seems both Starkman and De Correspondent struck a nerve in fighting the ‘hamsterization of journalism’, as people reacted to the offer very well. By 2017, De Correspondent had 60,000 paying members. “If De Correspondent were published in the United States, it would have more than one million paid-for readers, more than half The New York Times’ number. If it were in France, it would have 230,000 subscriptions, nearly twice that of Le Monde,” commented Global Investigative Journalism Network.[9]

***

The comparison of the Dutch audience to its American or French counterparts made sense, and this sense finally trapped De Correspondent into an unpleasant situation.

For the membership model, as much as for subscription, the size of the audience matters. Unlike (some) generous donations within the foundation funding model, membership is based on a small contribution from many members. To convert the reader base into sufficient money and sustainable income, the scale of the audience outreach has to be significant.

That is why membership hardly fits local news orgs or the media of a limited language base. They would better rely on larger donations of more generous and bigger sponsors.

Joshua Benton from NeimanLab called the Guardian “a weird newspaper” partly because it had “nearly two-thirds of their readers coming from outside the country they’re based in.” [10] Anglophone newspapers can have this luxury. Guardian News & Media deputy chief executive David Pemsel, when introducing the membership model in 2014, highlighted that this represented “new, meaningful ways to monetise our huge audience of over 100 million global users.”[11]

The Guardian had the prospect both to monetize its already-existing 100 million readers and increase this number even more, as the English-reading audience on the Internet has reached 1.106 billion and constitutes the world’s biggest online language population.

De Correspondent had a native language niche of only about 24 million; which is very limited for a media business model, based on small contributions, to be a viable prospective reality let alone even sustainable. They wanted and needed more.

***

In 2017, De Correspondent, with its proven successful ideology of ‘unbreaking news’ and membership, decided to expand into the English-reading online audience.

They started an extension campaign very wisely. De Correspondent established the Membership Puzzle Project in partnership with the New York University journalism program led by Jay Rosen, one of the world’s most prominent media experts.

Having started studying “membership trials and membership errors”[12] in the media around the world, the Membership Puzzle Project found that membership know-how is in high demand. They managed to secure $700,000 in foundation funding to support membership projects in 17 countries[13] under the patronage of the Membership in News Fund.[14] While studying membership cases and innovations, they also promoted the idea of membership in the audience.

The US/Anglophone-focused fundraising campaign for the Correspondent was launched at the end of 2018. They aimed to raise $2.5 million in a month. They got to $1 million in 9 days and then it stalled. Jay Rosen rushed for a final attack and pitched the idea on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.[15] That show, by the way, was unusual because Noah had lost his voice and used his smartphone voice assistant to interview Rosen.

The goal was reached, and $2.6 million was raised, a fact that was very well-received by media folks, as it seemed to prove that “people formerly known as the audience” (the metaphor created by Jay Rosen back in 2006[16]) are willing to pay for quality journalism in the form of donation.

***

But soon after, the shocking-for-many news about the ‘unbreaking news’ project broke. As stunned media people on Twitter tweeted;

After raising millions in donations based on very lofty, high-horsey talk about fixing the broken US news industry, The Correspondent says it won’t open a US newsroom and never wanted to be a US national news org.[17]

Indeed, as De Correspondent stated on March 25, 2019:

We’ve closed our campaign office in NYC, and we have decided that we won’t open a newsroom in the US for now. We don’t aim to be a national US news organization (we have founding members from more than 130 countries around the world!) but instead want to cover the greatest challenges of our time from a global perspective—in English. For that vision, Amsterdam is as a great place to start.[18]

Jay Rosen and other ‘ambassadors’ sounded confused. Rosen said in NiemanLab,

I think it’s understandable why people had the impression that there would be a U.S. headquarters, because some of the signaling that The Correspondent did, especially earlier in 2017, first half of 2018, was suggesting that. So that’s not anyone’s fault but the Correspondent’s, because there was talk about a New York base… And there had been a lot of indications … that a U.S. headquarters was in the deal.[19]

In his blog, Rosen stated that, “Yep. The Correspondent screwed up in its communications with members.”[20] The scandal broke, and the Correspondent tried to explain and doctor the story, awkwardly, and finally admitted in an “unsigned unconditional apology” that, “We screwed up”.[21]

The story cast a shadow over the membership model in the US. There were also talks that some earlier fundraised money had been used for later fundraising, not journalism, which raised questions about transparency.[22] As an old Russian saying regarding a delicate situation with guests goes, “The silverware has been found, yet an unpleasant aftertaste lingers.”

As of March 2020, the Correspondent had 50,000 members.[23] This is not that impressive, being well below fundraising campaign expectations, and it did not even outperform its Dutch mothership (60,000).

Apart from all the local factors, the American misplay of De Correspondent highlighted a significant pitfall of the membership model. The newsroom using this model cannot do what it wants. It must do what the members want.

___________

Andrey Mir

Excerpts from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”

_________

[1] Owen,  Laura Hazard. (2020, December 10). “The Correspondent, De Correspondent’s English-language site, is shutting down on Dec. 31”. NeimanLab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2020/12/the-correspondent-de-correspondents-english-language-site-is-shutting-down/

[2] Rosen, Jay, & Peon, Gonzalo del. (2017, October 4). “Introducing the Membership Models in News Database for your use and contributions.” The Membership Puzzle Project. https://membershippuzzle.org/articles-overview/introducing-the-database

[3] Goligoski, Emily, & Myers, Kate. (2018, September 11). “Demystifying ‘membership lite’: Why membership and subscription serve different goals.” Poynter. https://www.poynter.org/newsletters/2018/demystifying-membership-lite-why-membership-and-subscription-serve-different-goals/

[4] Membership in News Database. https://membershippuzzle.org/tools/database

[5] Ingram, Mathew. (2013, Nov 29). “This online journalism startup raised $1.7M in crowdfunding and you’ve never heard of it.” GigaOm. https://gigaom.com/2013/11/29/this-online-journalism-startup-raised-1-7m-in-crowdfunding-and-youve-never-heard-of-it/

[6] Pfauth, Ernst. (2013, November 27). “How we turned a world record in journalism crowd-funding into an actual publication.” Medium. https://medium.com/de-correspondent/how-we-turned-a-world-record-in-journalism-crowd-funding-into-an-actual-publication-2a06e298afe1

[7] Filloux, Frederic. (November 30, 2017.) “De Correspondent’s successful membership model.” Global Investigative Journalism Network. https://gijn.org/2017/11/30/de-correspondents-successful-membership-model/ (A later version – Wijnberg, Rob. (2018, October 16). “Everyone is saying membership is the future of journalism. Here’s how you can put it into practice.” Medium. https://medium.com/de-correspondent/putting-membership-into-practice-2e980c025fc9)

[8] Wijnberg, Rob. (2018, September 12). “The problem with real news – and what we can do about it.” Medium. https://medium.com/de-correspondent/the-problem-with-real-news-and-what-we-can-do-about-it-f29aca95c2ea

[9] Filloux, Frederic. (November 30, 2017.) “De Correspondent’s successful membership model.” Global Investigative Journalism Network. https://gijn.org/2017/11/30/de-correspondents-successful-membership-model/.

[10] Benton, Joshua. (2019, May 1). “Want to see what one digital future for newspapers looks like? Look at The Guardian, which isn’t losing money anymore.” NiemanLab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2019/05/want-to-see-what-one-digital-future-for-newspapers-looks-like-look-at-the-guardian-which-isnt-losing-money-anymore/

[11] Sweney, Mark. (2014, September 10). “Guardian launches new three-tier membership scheme.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/sep/10/guardian-membership-scheme-patrons-kings-cross

[12] The Membership Puzzle Project. About. https://membershippuzzle.org/about

[13] Schmidt, Christine. (2018, October 22). “Here’s how you can be part of a $700,000 experiment in building membership models around the world.” NiemanLab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2018/10/heres-how-you-can-be-part-of-a-700000-experiment-in-building-membership-models-around-the-world/

[14] Membership in News Fund. https://membershippuzzle.org/fund

[15] Benton, Joshua. (2018, December 7). “Jay Rosen pitches the English-language Correspondent on The Daily Show.” NiemanLab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2018/12/jay-rosen-pitches-the-english-language-correspondent-on-the-daily-show/

[16] Rosen, Jay. (2006, June 27). “The people formerly known as the audience.” Press-Think, Jay Rosen’s blog. http://archive.pressthink.org/2006/06/27/ppl_frmr.html

[17] Tom Gara on Twitter. (2019, March 26). https://twitter.com/tomgara/status/1110540015157870594

[18] Pfauth, Ernst. (2019, March 25). “An update from Amsterdam: here’s how we’re building The Correspondent.” Medium. https://medium.com/de-correspondent/an-update-from-amsterdam-heres-how-we-re-building-the-correspondent-f2c5012e6a9c

[19] Owen, Laura Hazard. (2019, March 27). “The Correspondent’s editor-in-chief talks about what U.S. expansion means (and doesn’t — an office).” NiemanLab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2019/03/the-correspondents-editor-in-chief-talks-about-what-u-s-expansion-means-and-doesnt-an-office/

[20] Rosen, Jay. (2019, March 28). “Yep. The Correspondent screwed up in its communications with members. Here’s how.” Press-Think, Jay Rosen’s blog. https://pressthink.org/2019/03/yep-the-correspondent-screwed-up-in-its-communications-with-members-heres-how-it-happened/

[21] Owen, Laura Hazard. (2019, April 30). “The Correspondent apologizes as Nate Silver, David Simon, and Baratunde Thurston speak out.” NiemanLab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2019/04/the-correspondent-apologizes-as-nate-silver-david-simon-and-baratunde-thurston-speak-out/

[22] Ibid.

[23] The Correspondent. https://thecorrespondent.com/



Categories: Decline of newspapers, Future of journalism, Media ecology, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers

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