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Sustaining local press

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13th November 2017

Small and medium size businesses are now spending more on advertising with Facebook than they are with local newspapers.

That was one of the headlines to come out of a presentation at Press Gazette’s Digital Journalism Summit earlier this autumn – and probably surprised no one.

You only have to look at the local press to see how threadbare are many titles’ advertising inventories. And while the free papers may look a little healthier for ad content, it is likely their ratecards are taking a battering and ad yields are therefore unrewarding.

But rather than watch and wail as local newspapers go through the mincer, isn’t it far better to be forward thinking and seek alternative models to sustain them?

It is clear there is still an appetite for ink and paper journalism – although readers have had their patience and loyalty sorely tested in recent years as their favourite titles have wilted and shrunk in size and quality.

But it’s not too late to regroup, revive and relaunch – as long as publishers acknowledge the need to find different funding models.

The Membership Puzzle Project, a US-Dutch initiative, is doing some fascinating work in an attempt to establish a new way forward for quality community-based journalism. Here’s how the project sets out its manifesto:

“The top problem facing public service journalism has been the same for over a decade: the collapse of outmoded business models and the search for a sustainable path.

“At first it seemed that as readers moved online and the news went digital, the ad spend would follow. Now we see that the big digital platforms – Facebook and Google – are capturing most of that money, because they own the data that allows for better targeting. Clickbait, ad blocking, invasive tracking and fake news only add to the misery – and all take their toll on reader trust.
“So where is the sustainable path? It seems increasingly likely that readers who value a public service press are going to have to sustain it themselves – by contributing money, sharing knowledge, and spreading the word. A good term for this is membership. But membership won’t work if it’s just begging for cash. There has to be a social contract between journalists and members. Working out what that contract should say is the core challenge of the Membership Puzzle Project.”
This is a public research project that runs from May 2017 until May 2018. Findings are being published throughout the year.

What will the project do?

  • Collect what’s already known about making membership work in the US, by seeking out the people who have deep experience with membership models and asking about best practices.
  • Research all the ways that readers can contribute, not just their money but their knowledge and expertise.
  • Synthesise the key membership lessons learned by De Correspondent in the Netherlands, and make them available to American journalism.
  • With this knowledge, help De Correspondent launch a US edition in the near future.

The Membership Puzzle Project was founded by NYU professor Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 program and De Correspondent.
Professor Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 is a digital first graduate program (MA) at New York University with a focus on innovation and adapting journalism to the technology we use today. The curriculum emphasizes project-based learning. Students, faculty and visiting talent work on editorial and web development projects together – such as the Membership Puzzle Project.

De Correspondent is a Dutch news organisation optimized for trust. Their membership model is working extremely well in the Netherlands. De Correspondent has over 56,000 members paying either 60 euros a year (about $65) or 6 euros a month ($6.50). Members follow 21 full-time correspondents who have self-defined beats or obsessions, varying from climate change to the future of education. Correspondents bring readers into the journalism process by sharing what they are reporting on and asking for help. De Correspondent is transparent about its budget and growth, and bills itself as an “antidote to the daily news grind.” De Correspondent aims to launch a US edition in the near future: The Correspondent.

The Membership Puzzle Project is being funded by the Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and First Look Media.

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots in the US. It invests in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L Knight once published newspapers. The goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which it believes are essential for a healthy democracy.
Democracy Fund says it is a bipartisan foundation that invests in organisations working to ensure the US political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Today, modern challenges – such as hyper partisanship, money in politics, and struggling media – threaten the health of American democracy. Democracy Fund invests in change makers who advocate for solutions that can bring lasting improvements to the US political system and build bridges that help people come together to serve the nation.

First Look Media says it is defined by its bold, independent spirit – from journalism that holds the powerful accountable, to art and entertainment that shape US culture. Launched by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, First Look Media is built on the belief that freedom of expression and of the press, diverse voices, and fiercely independent perspectives, are vital to a healthy democracy and a vibrant culture.