Local newsrooms are tasked with representing their local communities and the issues and topics that matter to them. For that reason, it seems especially important for there to be reader advisory boards and feedback loops in place to ensure that the local community can share feedback with the newsroom. But if your newsroom or publication is in a pre-community state, Rebecca Quarl has suggestions on scalable measures that you can take to let your audience know that you value their readership.
Rebecca has the unique vantage of having worked across 28 for and non-profit news organizations with the News Revenue Hub, originally starting her career as a journalist. Her firsthand experience with news membership as a community model raises an interesting approach for scaling community tactics across the newsroom.
Patrick and Rebecca also discuss:
- Why Rebecca left the agency world to rejoin newsrooms
- The readership survey that Rebecca conducted with those 28 news organizations
- Membership as a shared responsibility across the newsroom
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On making time to connect with your readers: “For our clients who are spread pretty thin, if they don’t have time to manage an online community or don’t have time to really harness crowdsourcing, I tell them that’s okay. Let’s instead do an audit of your e-mail products and figure out how to drive that daily habit and essentialness and make it something that people are opening and clicking regularly. Instead of using that time to moderate an online community, let’s make sure that at the end of each day you’re checking all of the responses that you got from e-mail subscribers and responding to each one.” –@rebeccarives
On the importance of buy-in for membership: “Where we’re seeing membership programs really take off is [in] the newsrooms that see membership as a shared responsibility. [In] the newsroom [that] has decided together that membership, more than page views or unique visitors or the latest newfangled metric from Google or Facebook, becomes the highest indicator of success and so there’s a collective buy-in on this notion that membership is the highest sign of engagement for our newsroom, that’s when the magic happens.” –@rebeccarives
On membership as a community model: “Membership, first and foremost, is a newsroom saying that we believe the healthiest business model for the news is one in which readers help sustain it, and that sustainment is not about exclusivity. They’re not donating because they are going to get something that other readers cannot. It’s about creating a sense of belonging, again, in this sort of membership community and feeling like you’re putting your hard earned dollar between something that is holding the powerful to account.” –@rebeccarives
About Rebecca Quarls
Rebecca Quarls is the director of client relationships for the News Revenue Hub, working with 28 for and non-profit news organizations around the country to preserve the sustainability of public service journalism. Specifically, the Hub is focused on helping client organizations grow their email subscriber list, loyalty and engagement within that list and then conversion to membership. At the Hub, membership—not unique visitors, not page views, is the highest measure of success and the ultimate sign of an engaged reader community. Rebecca was previously the membership manager for the Texas Tribune.
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Rebecca Quarls on Twitter
- The News Revenue Hub
- The Texas Tribune
- The Times-Picayune
- Jay Rosen, journalism professor at NYU, on Community Signal
- Metrics that move the needle
- Bassey Etim, community editor at the New York Times, on Community Signal
- The American Journalism Project
- The Coral Project
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:28] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. We’re talking with Rebecca Quarls about membership models for news organizations, the untapped potential of your e-mail list, and the rejection of the paywall. If you enjoy our show and find value in it, please consider supporting us on Patreon. Full details at communitysignal.com/innercircle. We are grateful for all of our backers including Maggie McGarry, Marjorie Anderson, and Carol Benovic-Bradley.
Rebecca Quarls is the director of client relationships for the News Revenue Hub, working with 28 for and nonprofit news organizations around the country on the big experiment that is sustainability of public service journalism. Specifically, the Hub is focused on helping client organizations grow their e-mail subscriber lists, as well as loyalty and engagement within that list and then conversion to membership. At the Hub, membership not unique visitors, not page views, not insert the latest metric as dictated by Google or Facebook here, is the highest measure of success and the ultimate sign of an engaged reader community.
What really makes them happiest, what validates the effort that goes into producing everything on and off of their client organizations websites, is when regular people were so compelled and engaged by the newsroom’s work that they make a small dollar contribution that is meaningful to them and to their partners. Previously, she was the membership manager for the Texas Tribune. Rebecca, welcome to the show.
[00:01:44] Rebecca Quarls: Hi, Patrick. Great to hear from you. Glad we were able to make something work.
[00:01:46] Patrick: Me too. We met at South by Southwest in 2015 when you were working at an agency doing marketing, PR, and crisis management. Prior to that, for two years you had worked in a community facing role at NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and then after you left the agency job for two years just about you worked at the Texas Tribune. Really, but in that gap you had spent about 18 months away from news organizations. In that time, did anything change? Like when you started at the Texas Tribune, did you notice anything thing like, “Hey, this is different”?
[00:02:29] Rebecca: Yes. To back it up even further Patrick, my first job out of college was as a community reporter for a magazine in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I went to college at LSU. I started as a reporter doing profiles and features on everyone from the local bookstore owner to prominent women in the community that were breaking the glass ceiling of their jobs and then moved into the community engagement space at NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune as you indicated.
I’ve had the interesting and fortunate advantage of seeing a couple of different news models up close from a local print lifestyle magazine that was doing really well in terms of local advertising in a small community, to a daily national newspaper that’s owned by a large corporation. Then again, whenever I did re-enter the news at the Texas Tribune working for a nonprofit newsroom and seeing the difference in the way that reporters comfort themselves whenever they’re working for a nonprofit versus when they’re working for a large daily owned by a corporation.
It’s been interesting to see from the way that the reporters and editors interact with one another to the way that folks are perceiving audience engagement. It was different in each space.
[00:03:40] Patrick: What brought you back? When you left that space for a little while, you went agency side, applied your skills, certainly, and skills that you learned as a journalist, as someone who works at news organizations, you get a better understanding of PR crisis management, it ties in very well. Not an uncommon switch for someone who works in media to go to the agency side, go to PR and crisis management because they see it play out on the media side. Why was it that you went back to the media after that agency time?
[00:04:06] Rebecca: Sure. Good question. I think that working on the agency side, I’m surrounded by folks that are doing media relations at their desks every day and I’m hearing my colleagues make phone calls to former colleagues at theTimes-Picayunee. They would just sort of be a heart-bursting moment where I know that my colleague here at the agency who would be on the other end of the phone with an editor, and I just missed it. There’s part of the news that has just gotten under my skin, and I love the industry.
In addition to that, I think, a decision on my part to go back to the news was about being able to expand my impact on this industry that I’d fallen in love in. Taking those communications, marketing, and audience engagement skills and being able to apply them in a way that felt meaningful to me and felt meaningful to the newsrooms for which I work.
[00:04:59] Patrick: You’re at News Revenue Hub now and listeners to the show will be familiar with the membership model for news organizations because we just recently had Jay Rosen from NYU on the show and talked at length about that. You mentioned to me before this show that, “There are a lot of pie-in-the-sky ideas out there right now in the membership space.” Give me some examples.
[00:05:18] Rebecca: I’m passionate about taking some of those pie-in-the-sky ideas and making them feel actionable and feel right to each organization. We’re working with 28 non-profit and for-profit newsrooms around the country. Most of my contacts at these organizations are wearing a lot of hats. Most of them are not only trying to think about how to grow their e-mail list and engage their subscribers and make their newsletter products more sticky. They’re also trying to figure out the membership marketing piece and how to talk to folks in a way that’s meaningful and that’s aligned with their editorial mission and their editorial tone and authenticity.
Whenever you’re working with folks that are wearing a lot of hats, we’ve got to talk about prioritization. I think the pie-in-the-sky portion comes from taking time again to think about the newsletter first and foremost. If your time is limited, maybe thinking about that before you think about starting a Facebook group for your readers or starting an advisory council with your readers.
There are some engagement ideas that I don’t currently have any data that indicate like a downstream effect on the organization’s financial sustainability. I’m working with folks who do have limited time and for example, we’re finding that e-mail drives loyalty and conversion to membership more than any other marketing mechanism combined. We’re finding the ability for you to move people through the middle of the funnel if you will, so from a website user to an e-mail subscriber, to a converted donor is more correlated to downstream sustainability than it is to have a large and passive website audience.
Again that means working with folks on driving loyalty, driving the amount that they find your e-mail newsletter products essential to their day-to-day lives, so they’re consistently opening and clicking them. Like I said, trying to drill down on that.
[00:07:10] Patrick: Let’s take a pause and talk about our great sponsor, Higher Logic.
Higher Logic is the community platform for community managers with over 25 million engaged users in more than 200,000 communities. Organizations worldwide use Higher Logic to bring like-minded people together by giving their community a home where they can meet, share ideas and stay connected. The platform’s granular permissions and powerful tools, including automated workflows and consolidated email digests, empower users to create their own interest-based communities, schedule and manage events, and participate in volunteer and mentoring programs. Tap into the power your community can generate for you. Higher Logic, all together.
Let me flip that question then, what’s a pie-in-the-sky idea that you hear being repeated a lot, that you think is not a good idea or something that is not productive?
That doesn’t require anyone to name names or talk about specific outlets, but certainly, there’s a lot of strategies talked about. I talked to a lot of organizations working on similar problems. What’s one thing that is something that you hear people say, a fair amount but internally either by data or simply your own intuition from your experience in the space which is deep, something like, that’s really not worth the time investment?
[00:08:13] Rebecca: One of those pie-in-the-sky ideas right now would be managing a robust online community. As you know that’s pretty resource intensive and I don’t have data currently that shows a correlation between having a robust online community for a newsroom, and its downstream effect on a newsroom’s financial sustainability. We’re seeing products out there right now that a lot of our clients are installing to their sites that allows readers to submit questions to reporters and to participate more in the process of journalism.
I think there’s most certainly a value there. I’ve seen that the quality of engagement amongst those folks that are participating in journalism as a qualified need to become a donor or a member of your newsroom later on. I’m not seeing the direct through line there. For our clients who are spread pretty thin, if they don’t have time to manage an online community or don’t have time to really harness crowdsourcing, I tell them that’s okay.
Let’s actually instead do an audit of your e-mail products and figure out how to drive that daily habit and essentialness and make it something that people are opening and clicking regularly and maybe instead of using that time to moderate an online community, let’s make sure that you at the end of each day are checking all of the responses that you got from e-mail subscribers and responding to each individual one.
[00:09:42] Patrick: That’s a great touching our point because I think if you’re on Community Signal, we are very interested in the community aspect of it, but again that’s not always saying, “Push in the community.” In membership programs, I took a look at several of the News Revenue Hub partners and in the membership tiers and what’s offered. To what you’re saying, I didn’t see much tied to reader-to-reader online engagement or online community with readers. In-person events, yes, but anything online with readers interacting not as much.
Now, it sounds like that represents a strategy point. Part of this is maybe this side conversation about data unification. If someone starts a Facebook group, for example, and I know this because I manage several active Facebook groups as part of my day job, and this is the challenge we have, and the challenge we’re addressing is, we want to tie those names to retention. We want to say that these people are in this forum. They retain at this rate, people who are not in the forum retain it this rate, people who are active retain at this rate.
We want to know sort of how likely people are to continue with us based upon the services that they utilize. Facebook gives you very little access to data and graph insights is a joke of an analytical product. We can’t say like, in an easy way, we can’t correlate this person is in the forum, this person retains and have it be in a scalable way. We have to manually check that data, something I actually just recently did, because I was curious myself. We segmented it out for a few months period of time, we verified every single person who retained or canceled and what their activity level was in the forum by hand, and whether or not they were in the forum by hand so that we could see in forecast what it meant for us.
You can’t necessarily say right now that this person in the Facebook group retains at this rate. So part of it is sort of the data mess. All this data is spread out in different channels. News organizations have trusted Facebook with a substantial portion of that community where previously they might be on site and if they were still on site, which is your background obviously at the Times-Picayune, there’s a lot of on site community and comments, you can at least own the data to a point where you can pull out names and e-mail addresses and tie that to billing of subscribers and see, what does this look like?
That’s part of that argument. I realize I’m getting a little long-winded here, but to go back to the main point is the conversations you’re having, is there any point in advocating for on site community right now? Are you talking about that? Are any of your partners offering that as a subscriber benefit, where the ability to comment, interact with fellow readers online is tied to being a subscriber or being a member of the publication?
[00:12:08] Rebecca: Sure. Most of the newsrooms that we’re working with, have an online community, it’s open to all readers, not just readers that donate or contribute financially. I totally hear you on the issue in tracking efficacy. The best thing how we try to help clients is working with them on mapping the signup source of those folks that are community members on Facebook or as a commenter on your site.
Is there a way within your e-mail service provider to tag and release those folks so that you can watch over time how engaged a subscriber that came to you via your Facebook group versus a subscriber that came to you via participating in a crowdsourcing project on your site versus a subscriber that came to you just by signing up on your homepage? What are the relative engagement levels of those subscribers, and how often are they again, opening and clicking your e-mail newsletter products? Because for us, again, we’re seeing that the funnel is web to e-mail, e-mail to donor, and e-mail is the driver of loyalty and conversion in our wheelhouse.
[00:13:13] Patrick: I feel like just to round out the point that I made in a long-winded fashion. I feel like part of the reason for that is because you actually have the e-mail addresses, so e-mail, they subscribe, whether it’s via MailChimp or something else, you have the e-mail address. You can actually see most likely they use the same e-mail address when they sign up for a membership.
You can see like, e-mail is driving this percent of membership, because we can see that these e-mail subscribers, this percent of e-mail subscribers are actually joining and participating in the program where with some of these other tools and platforms that news organizations have, installed over time, or chosen to use, they just don’t have access. E-mail is sort of a pure, I don’t know what you would call it, it’s not web 1.0, it’s baked in. E-mail is such a core internet feature that because you have access to the e-mail, you own that data, it is that much more trackable, and you can prove that this is a driver and use that in your research.
[00:14:02] Rebecca: Right. As you know, working with newsrooms means that they’re in a uniquely prime position in that e-mail subscribers still really want to hear from you on a regular basis. They actually across all of the newsrooms that we work with, when we work on an audience survey with them to get them started with the Hub, all of the audience survey respondents indicate that they’re news junkies. That keeping up with national, regional and local news via e-mail is essential and that it’s something they want on a daily basis. We’re not up against some of the challenges that other marketers might be dealing with.
[00:14:42] Patrick: You brought up e-mail, that’s what beat you to the punch, because I had read a blog post on the News Revenue Hub website about the top three KPIs that you should track for a successful membership strategy and number of e-mail subscribers was listed first. Another post mentioned that if you used a modal, I remember seeing the word modal a lot today, modal like the overlay on [chuckles] a webpage.
If you use an e-mail subscription model, Hub clients that implement that have raised on average an additional $4,500 per month compared to those who didn’t, so it’s clear and I think it makes a lot of sense honestly, that news organizations, just because of the cash strap nature that many find themselves in to focus on something that already ties in to what they’re doing. They already have e-mail lists in many cases, so it’s just a matter of refactoring how they utilize that list, how they grow that list, the content that they put out on that list and how they promote the membership effort. To me, it seems like a very approachable, low hanging fruit entry point into membership. Am I reading that right?
[00:15:40] Rebecca: Yes, correct. We see that pool of subscribers as a community for each of these newsrooms. As I said, your ability to follow-up with individual subscribers regardless of if they contribute financially to your newsroom is imperative. Your ability to take their feedback and distill it into iterating on the products that you have already created is going to be imperative and then your ability once you have converted those individuals to membership, creating a greater sense of connectivity between those subscribers and those members and the newsroom in which they donate to is also imperative and so it is community building I guess just in a different sense, if you will.
[00:16:21] Patrick: I mean I think a lot of people, myself included, would define community as when you facilitate a space where people who are not you can interact with one another. I think with a lot of partners it seems like that happens at in-person events. I saw that come up in a few of the membership levels that I read through from the News Revenue Hub partners, which makes sense. Community takes all forms. Doesn’t have to be online. Obviously, our show talks about online, so [laughs] that’s why we’re talking a lot about it too.
[00:16:46] Rebecca: Right. Beyond the in-person Patrick, I’d say we’re seeing newsrooms conduct virtual events that do allow members to interact with one another in meaningful ways. From hosting a live stream where you have an editor from the newsroom and a reporter breakdown a specific issue or give you sort of the ten things you need to watch going into the next legislative session, and then allowing members to ask questions of one another and of the moderators. We’re seeing that foster meaningful interactions. Also, we’ve got a client who once a month will live stream one of their editorial meetings and members are able to tune in, in person or virtually, and be a part of the conversation in that way.
[00:17:31] Patrick: Are you finding that the partners that you work with and the organizations that you’re talking to and onboarding, are they designating the responsibility for membership to an individual? Are they moving in that direction or are they making it a part of someone else’s job?
[00:17:47] Rebecca: Good question. I think it is beneficial to have one person in your organization owning membership, to be thinking about it all the time, to be sitting in on editorial meetings asking themselves, “How are we going to talk to members about this latest investigative series that we’re working on, and how are we going to make that part of the launch plan?” I do think you need someone to own that.
Conversely though, where we’re seeing membership programs really take off is the newsrooms that see membership as a shared responsibility. The newsroom has decided together collectively that membership more than page views or unique visitors or the latest newfangled metric from Google or Facebook becomes the highest indicator of success and so there’s a collective buy-in on this notion that membership is the highest sign of engagement for our newsroom, that’s when the magic happens. To sound cheesy.
[00:18:44] Patrick: That makes sense, and there’s always an opportunity to expand upon it once you do knock out that easier entry point. I guess part of the reason I asked the question is because you certainly, early in your career you had the role of on site community at the Times-Picayune and it’s interesting to talk about that role. I mean, you get different answers. Regionally, it’s hard. Nationally, there are a few examples. Internationally there are a few examples because they’re bigger newsrooms, bigger organizations, bigger scale. The New York Times, for example, Bassey Etim over there has a very senior role, leads a large team and he’ll tell you, “We correlated comments to subscription revenue.” That’s a big organization that has their own financial challenges and maybe constantly assailed by people in power in this country, but they have analytics there that have shown them the value where they can have a 14-person community team. Not so true at a regional level. Regionally, it often does fall to someone else to do something like this.
Whether it’s membership and coordinating membership events and working membership into editorial, like you said, sitting in meetings or on site community or whatever it is. Whatever falls under that blanket of, in some cases audience engagement, in some cases I assume now membership, those roles are somewhat rare for regional outlets at least in my experience, and when they are there, they’re super junior and always looked at as junior.
There’s not like a step up, which I think is unfortunate. Hopefully through finding revenue models and additional revenue models that money won’t just go to say hiring the fourteenth journalist or the seventh journalist or the ninth journalist, but also recognizing that this revenue comes from a source and that source should be cultivated. Hopefully, I feel like these sorts of models present an opportunity for that job as you described of membership to be something that someone can make a career out rather than just being a stepping stone.
[00:20:37] Rebecca: Absolutely. We are actually in the process of working on a study in that regard with the American Journalism Project. Where we’re trying to design the ideal org chart for newsrooms that, as you said, so often we get sort of a dog chasing the tail scenario where you apply for a grant, in so doing you promise that you’re going to do a different or new type of work as your way to fulfill your grant promise.
Whenever you receive the grant, you turn around and you need to hire more reporters to then do that work. That was not being done previously. Creating opportunities for individuals who are either editorially minded or have editorial experience to also flex in business skills and to flash out their business surfs is going to be critical to the sustainability of these newsrooms.
[00:21:27] Patrick: I think part of that even ties into the sustainability of your efforts. I know that there’s, and it’s not like a public fee, I read an article about it preparing for this interview about the fees that are charged in different clients but just making sure these sort of things can have sustainability in existing a resource like this. I know it was created through grants. I see efforts like, for example, the Coral Project, which I think did a lot of really good things and their grant ran out. Now, they’re looking for the next thing to help push this forward. It’s ironic in a way, a sad irony, that the efforts to bring stronger membership and therefore stronger revenue to news organizations often struggle themselves to have revenue to exist beyond a couple of years or a grant cycle.
[00:22:15] Rebecca: I think that is part of why the News Revenue Hub was founded. It’s not the sexy part of the industry but the capacity building portion, clients that maybe can’t have someone dedicated full-time to membership can lean on the Hub to help them build meaningful relationships with their readers through ongoing campaigns and communications that we help execute with them but on their behalf as well.
[00:22:39] Patrick: On your services page, the News Revenue Hub mentions that you conduct an audience survey. What are you asking readers before you launch these programs?
[00:22:49] Rebecca: Good question. We like the survey to be a mix of getting an understanding of the editorial service that they’re providing, as well as priming their audience for the prospective launch of the membership program. The survey is not only, “Let’s assess the interest in what the organization is doing now but let’s assess the reader’s propensity to give once we do launch their program.”
We ask the run-of-the-mill questions about demographics, news consumption, political biddings but then we also go into net promoter score questions like how likely is it that you would recommend this news organization to a friend, or how useful do you find this news organization’s newsletters to you, or if this news organization ceased to exist tomorrow, would you feel like you’ve lost a source of news that you can’t find anywhere else? Would you feel like you’ve lost a source of news but someone else could produce similar content or would you not be impacted one way or another?
We’ve standardized the questions that we ask and now we’re actually able to do some comparative analysis. Whenever I go and onboard a new newsroom, we can look at how useful your news organization is perceived by its correspondents compared to 28 other newsrooms across the spectrum. The question of “if we cease to exist tomorrow,” we now have the responses for about 28 other newsrooms so we can see again where you factor into the respondent’s view of your essentialness.
[00:24:18] Patrick: Obviously there’s the type of person who would take a survey, first of all, I would say I would do that. That person can play in extremes, they can be your biggest fun or they can just not like you. In reviewing those surveys, has there ever been one that was really bad like your readers just don’t value you? They would not care if you disappeared and it’s like, “Maybe this isn’t going to work out very well.” I picture that in my head and I find it funny, not for the news organization. Has there been anything like that?
[00:24:43] Rebecca: Yes. To your first point, I agree. Surveys are interesting and they do have their caveats in that you’re going to get the hand raisers amongst your audience. Those are going to be folks that feel passionate about what you do but also equally vocal about telling you what you’re not doing right. Yes, sometimes whenever we conduct these audience surveys jointly with our clients and then we go to analyze the results, it does lead to some uncomfortable conversations with the newsroom and it goes back to having to level about audience understanding and how are you serving them.
Are you meeting them where they are or are you expecting to be the arbiter of how they consume the news? Yes, we have had to have those conversations. Sometimes whenever we’re starting, we can launch a membership program, but the newsroom still is going to have to be thinking constantly about how are we serving our audience?
[00:25:38] Patrick: Have you taken a look at all about how membership supports might be related to leaning of the news organization? For context, news organizations at least in my opinion that I appreciate and this could be, we all have bias. They report things in a way that I find to be honest, truthful, and balanced. There are news organizations who are very clear about the side they’re leaning. They could still report things truthfully, but they come from an angle. Left-leaning, right-leaning, being popular examples. You’ve got extremes of what a liberal news organization looks like and what conservative organization looks like. Those extremes seem to get more polarized all the time.
My curiosity is like — and of course this takes some, I don’t know how you’d identified it, I guess independent. There’s independent organizations that measure like, “Okay, this is a left-leaning, slightly left-leaning, center, right center, very far right, news organization.” Have you looked at, at all sort of is an organization that is more leaning a way stronger to the left or to the right more likely to embolden people to support them? E.G, they have a viewpoint, so that people are more interested in the news that agrees with that viewpoint and so they’re more likely to support them as they cultivate this image of, “It’s everyone against us.” We are the news organization giving you the truth. Is there anything to that, that ties to revenue or anything that you’ve looked at that looks at the leaning of the organization and how that relates to fanatical support or revenue-based support?
[00:27:04] Rebecca: No, I don’t have any data indicating the left or right or center leaningness of the organization as a correlation to how successful their membership program is. I’d say we do though encourage clients whenever as part of say their new subscriber welcome series, to come out with a memorandum of sorts, a front-facing newsletter that subscribers get as their welcome to their list that says, “This is what we stand for.” It will be We believe that there should be quality schools in our community or that our environment is going to impact the quality of life that we have in this area.
I think, you can have biases in the way that are about, “I’m producing public service journalism in the interest of serving that community.” Stating what you stand for and the organizations that are pretty forthright about that do intend to do better. I’d say that in that regard, I believe in the news and objectivity but I do believe as an organization you can decide that there are certain issues that you’re going to advocate for. For example, we’ve got a lot of hyperlocal clients who when they’re talking to members say, “We are the ones fighting for your streetlights and for safer streets.” They’re very, like I said, forthright about that and that’s okay. That actually benefits them in the long run.
[00:28:23] Patrick: I would have been surprised if you had the data, but hey, that would have been interesting if one day you get that data. I’m sure that would give you some media coverage just whatever the headline was, left-leaning outlets tend to generate X% more revenue than right or right this. Interesting to see that. Just like it’d be interesting to see like anyone who does community seriously on site, you know what that looks like obviously but a lot of media organizations don’t and see how that correlates to membership revenues. There’s always studies out there, I’m just asking things I’m curious about.
I mentioned, when I heard Jay Rose on this show before. When I had him on, he drew sort of a line between membership and subscription saying that subscription is when you pay for a product and receive the product, while membership is when someone joins a CAUSE because they support it. Following that definition, if we accept that, do you think news organizations should be careful about who they take money from?
[00:29:13] Rebecca: I think that news organizations in general should be transparent about who they’re taking money from. Most of our clients are diligent about disclaiming if a particular area business is the focal point of coverage that also is a supporter of the newsroom financially, but you are clear in your disclaimers about that. I don’t think accepting money from any party should impact your editorial coverage of that party. I just think there is a little bit of church and state still in that regard. Equal opportunist in terms of diversifying revenue streams and accepting money from those willing to give it to you but that it doesn’t ultimately go back to any sort of editorial planning.
[00:29:56] Patrick: Yes. I think just to provide some additional context to that question. When you look at someone who does a bad thing. They could become a pariah, or they’ve done something legitimately bad. They’ve hurt someone, and so, separating product from cause. If this terrible person bought a product from Amazon, no one cares. That’s a private customer relationship. If someone is supporting the cause of say, I don’t know, donating to a political campaign or supporting a non-profit.
These days, there’s often calls to give that money back IF the person has done something that is so heinous that a substantial portion of the public is disgusted by them being associated with whatever that thing is or that politician. It just strikes me as possibly a downside of this cause-driven side of it, is that you’re lying to people who support your cause. I will not be shocked one day when a news organization may have to say, “You know what? We don’t want you as a member anymore, because you did this terrible thing and you are not the type of person that we want supporting us.”
Of course, hopefully, at the rate we’re talking about $12 a month, $14 a month, $8 a month, whatever it is, that won’t be such a catastrophic impact to the bottom line, and yet it’s still a statement that one day it might need to be made. Even if it feels strange to say that now, I feel like that won’t be a huge shocking thing when and if it does happen.
[00:31:16] Rebecca: No, absolutely. I think that newsrooms do have to make tough decisions from time to time when it comes to some of those larger gifts. As you said, the everyday donor that’s supporting your newsroom, those folks, we’re not so much worried about the alignment of their value. We are, of course, we want them to value the product, and we value their feedback, but I think you’re talking about more like the big fish givers if you will. Yes?
[00:31:37] Patrick: I know any and all. Honestly, because I feel like the cause-driven mentality blends you to a cause where you align on a values perspective, oftentimes, whether or not that’s fair is a whole another question, but when you position yourself that way, I think it aligns with the idea that we are supporting this cause. Do you want that person supporting your cause? As opposed to, I went down the street and bought USA Today.
No one cares. They don’t care. They don’t know me. They don’t really care if I live or die. I’m paraphrasing what I think they might be saying. I think it could be any and all. I think it’s just this idea of, I’m contributing to a cause, I support that cause, do you want my support? Just the tricky, when you get into deeper personal relationships like that, where it gets back to the like, I support this cause. There are different nuances that come up in that relationship.
[00:32:25] Rebecca: I think that would be why in launching a membership program, one of the bigger goals is that membership even more than corporate revenue or major gift revenue, your membership revenue is the one that lends most to you as an organization, your transparency and your credibility because the more diverse that pool of everyday donors is, the better because, again, it’s representative of the whole community and not one particular agenda.
[00:32:54] Patrick: Would it be fair to describe membership models as a rejection of the idea of a paywall?
[00:33:01] Rebecca: Yes. I believe membership first and foremost is a newsroom saying that we believe the healthiest business model for the news is one in which readers help sustain it, and that sustainment is not about exclusivity. They’re not donating because they are going to get something that other readers cannot. It’s about creating a sense of belonging, again, in this sort of membership community and feeling like you’re putting your hard earned dollar between something that is holding the powerful to account.
[00:33:30] Patrick: That’s a great place to wrap up. Rebecca, thank you so much for taking the time with us today. I’ve enjoyed the conversation and best of luck at News Revenue Hub.
[00:33:39] Rebecca: Thanks, Patrick. It was great talking with you.
[00:33:41] Patrick: We have been talking with Rebecca Quarls, director of client relationships at the News Revenue Hub. Visit fundjournalism.org for more information. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. See you next episode.
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