All roads lead to membership: DoR's journey — Part 1

We’ve read a lot about starting from scratch with a membership model for a media organisation. Or starting up a new product within the wider organisation that has a membership model. But there haven’t been many examples we could find of organisations shifting an already hybrid business model to prioritise reader revenue, while also aligning our existing community initiatives with industry standards around engagement and membership. The ones we could find were from large organisations who could afford the resources and had the expertise for audience research, development, special projects and experimentation.

This article is the first in a series that runs through the transformative moments at DoR in 2019. While the philosophy of membership was present from the early days, when we didn’t know what to call it, and connecting with readers was done with more instinct than method, this year has been about identifying processes and improving our tools. In this part, we’ll share some insights into the process of putting together our membership packages. All quotes are from interviews with DoR staff.

One of three community meetings that celebrated 10 years of DoR in November.

DoR has always been about community — it was supposed to be just one issue of a magazine, an occasion for the founders to prove to themselves, and to readers, that you could do magazine journalism with high quality standards at a time where the mainstream press in Romania wasn’t delivering that. The bet paid off and the first issue was hugely popular — and they made it stick around, with everyone’s support — from words of encouragement, to donated furniture to outfit the first ever newsroom, to being ambassadors who went as far as delivering copies of the magazine to friends abroad when they traveled.

10 years later, DoR has a community of over 2,500 subscribers, an additional 2,000 readers who buy DoR from shops, and a growing readership that has surpassed an average of 60,000 monthly unique users reading its journalism online.

But the road to growth has been difficult: the logistics of delivering a magazine to subscribers in all corners of Romania and abroad, from New Zealand to California, have proven challenging. With an online shop (custom made), a payment processor, a billing system, and a shipping service that don’t all connect to each other comes a lot of administrative work. There’s a lot of customer service involved on all the different platforms — from Instagram DMs to the good old landline phone — to troubleshoot orders, update addresses, track down missing packages.

And there’s the newsrooms’ ambitions to do journalism as we think it should be done: identifying the most relevant approaches to complicated subjects together with our readers, and continuing the conversation after a story has been published. Examples include our stories about responses to domestic violence, that led to DoR hosting meetings of people working to address it; our response following the murder of a teenage girl this summer, who was killed by the man who gave her a lift home, where we consulted with out readers to identify the best approach — we wrote a collaborative journalism piece about how safe or unsafe teenage girls feel and how they discuss these issues; and stories about beekeeping in Romania, where we found sources after several call-outs on social media for community recommendations.

A more cohesive membership strategy is the one opportunity for DoR to connect all these initiatives and the larger events we organise together in a sustainable way: add some new technologies into the workflow to help with the administrative workload; add some new online opportunities for readers to interact with the newsroom; offer an online option for those who wish to support us but don’t want a subscription to a print product; and find better ways to connect our events to our online conversations with our community.

TL;DR takeaway: While a move to membership is not about altering the journalistic practices at DoR, it requires a lot of thinking about how we communicate our mission, in order to ensure that our readers and supporters understand the value our work brings into their lives. In January 2019 we organised a three day brainstorming to start the year with a shared understanding among all DoR staff about what the values of the organisation are, and about why we do what we do. The notes we drafted then now make up our “About DoR” section on the website.

Our main goal with the membership drive is to consolidate the DoR community and build a foundation of tech and better workflows that enable us to grow. We couldn’t do this without first checking in with our subscribers to find out more about their relationship with DoR, what activities encourage them to interact with us, and what’s missing from their DoR experience or from their experience with other media organisations, that we might be able to provide.

To answer some of these questions, we created a survey in Google Forms and consulted one of our friends and subscribers, a sociologist, to make sure the survey was statistically relevant and that the questions were asked clearly and didn’t put off the respondents. One of the things we learned was that too many compulsory open-ended questions could lead to respondents abandoning the survey and not submitting their answers, if they feel like it takes too much time to fill it in (a sad finding for journalists who love open-ended questions).

In the end, we went for a mix of demographics questions (as we hadn’t done this type of research in a few years) and questions regarding our subscribers’ view of our journalism, their information needs, and how we could improve our offering. We chose not to include specific questions about features on the website, as our goal was to identify their wants and identify common trends in the community, and then find the best way to answer them ourselves.

We were overwhelmed by the response. We promoted the survey through our newsletter for subscribers and through direct emails to our community of just over 2,000 members, and received 529 responses.

An exciting takeaway was that, for a question regarding how much respondents thought our journalism was worth financially, 80% said it was worth more than we were currently asking for in subscriptions, with 40% saying it was worth double or more. This gave us confidence that we could raise more funds from readers and count on their support for new membership packages in the future.

The survey enabled us to understand some of the ways our readers were finding our journalism online (mainly through the newsletter), and how they wanted to interact with each other and with the DoR team. For example, they wanted an online space for the community beyond the open comments on the site, which we will work to provide in the next year, and they wanted to meet some of the people who are at the centre of DoR stories.

The survey also highlighted that a number of our readers who lived abroad or outside the larger cities in Romania wanted some online way of participating in our offline events — we will be investigating opportunities for this in the next year.

A meetup with DoR readers in Transylvania, as part of our pop-up newsroom.

While this questionnaire gave us a useful birds-eye view of our community and our role within it, we felt we needed to go deeper and organise interviews with a few of our subscribers. This would be an opportunity to follow up on some themes we identified in the survey, and to ask more abstract questions, such as what they think of when they hear “the DoR community” and whether they feel part of something.

Our interview questions were heavily geared towards understanding subscribers’ perception of the DoR community because it will be a central part of our membership offering. We didn’t consider putting our journalism behind a paywall (and still don’t plan to), so our membership benefits will centre around consolidating a community spirit, a sense of belonging and shared connection to DoR’s mission.

Everyone at DoR, from reporters to the newsroom manager, design and developer, took part in the interviews. We organised pairs of DoR staff who would contact survey respondents who ticked the “I would like to talk more” box, and conduct interviews following a question guide.

We found several interesting insights:

  • Some of our subscribers are only interested in the print magazine, and are not up to date with everything else we are producing;
  • Some feel they are part of a community in the sense that they feel part of the newsroom, not part of a group with the other readers;
  • Many would be happy to act as ambassadors for our work;

TL;DR takeaway: Get the whole staff involved with community surveys and interviews. It helps create a shared ownership of the initiative and also helps gather valuable feedback on the clarity of the questions you’re planning to ask before you speak to your readers. Read more about working together with your audience in this story about the ingredients of resilient journalism from the Engaged Journalism Accelerator, and find out more about what makes a good survey from this engagement playbook by Krautreporter.

The survey and interviews were not the only opportunities to consult with readers this year, ahead of sitting down and strategising membership. We organised several community meetups, with the support of DoR’s former distribution manager, and current community manager, Carla Lunguți.

Until this year, her role was centred around processing orders for subscriptions, customer service, and supporting campaigns to drive subscriptions. She now has an overview of everything community-related, and plays an instrumental role in the production of events that bring our readers closer to our newsroom. Speaking about the first event with 50 guests she organised this year, Carla says “there is a little energy that goes into something that has a great effect”. “If you know roughly what you’d like the event to look like, there’s not a lot of time you have to invest in making it happen.”

Carla after a shipment of DoR leaves the printers.

She settled into a workflow that keeps events a shared responsibility for everyone at DoR. “You can make mistakes whether you do it all yourself, or share the work,” she says. “What I share is the logistics side at the event, there’s a need to have more people there. We always split roles — who welcomes people, who has the guest list, who runs the slides, who turns off the lights.”

For the past month, we had weekly “meet the reporter” events in our newsroom, and organised three meetups with our readers to celebrate 10 years for DoR — with presentations from founding editor Cristian Lupșa about the journey to where we are today and our lessons along the way.

TL;DR takeaway: Creating the context for offline meetups with your readers is a valuable method to foster a feeling of belonging. For everything to run smoothly, make sure you have a checklist with tasks that need to be done and who’s taking care of each one, from greeting people at the door, to turning the light on after a film screening.

Carla’s role wasn’t the only one that changed profoundly this year. Since September, DoR has a chief operating officer, Jo Ilie, previously editor in chief of Școala9, the education website powered by DoR. After attending a fast-track MBA in the first half of 2019, Jo realised DoR’s story was similar to those she heard while in class. So she wanted to make a difference in steering the ship. First, she left her role at Școala9 to become more involved with the transition to membership, and found several other responsibilities along the way — eventually assuming a role that puts her in charge of our administrative and financial efforts. These were duties our editor-in-chief used to split with two longtime colleagues who this year have left DoR for new challenges in different industries.

One of Jo’s first initiatives in her new role was to get the entire team together for a collective, one-day brainstorm about what might change in DoR’s relationship with the readers, and what won’t. The full-day meeting took place on 1 October, and involved outlining all of the reader-focused initiatives we’ve had since the beginning of DoR (which filled a rather large whiteboard), discussing feedback from the reader interviews, and discussing the labels we want, or don’t want, to attach to our readers: subscribers; members; supporters?

Jo (left) facilitates a conversation with DoR staff about the interviews with community members.

For Jo, discussing how the way we communicate what we do to the world is changing, and coming to a decision together, was one of the most valuable achievements this year.

She worked on financial forecasting with different types of models — both in price, and frequency: monthly, quarterly, annual. “There was a learning curve — I read, went to conferences… There was a moment when it all came together. What kind of support do we want most from readers, what is the cost of this package, and what is the revenue it can bring? What would a worst-case projection look like, and what would a projection based on the current behaviour of our subscribers look like?"

“I think we’ve reached this point naturally”, Jo explains. We didn’t want to receive donations, we wanted for people to see the utility of our work. To support us because they need us, not out of compassion but out of solidarity.

The difficult part starts after the new options will be online. We have to offer something that’s worthwhile, and we have to reflect the relationship with the members in our work. “We haven’t had a chance to think a lot about this yet. It’s not about cash flow, it’s about slowly changing the way we do journalism,” Jo added.

TL;DR takeaway: Run the numbers for the “minimum expectations” scenario, as well as the best case scenario, and set targets for membership growth accordingly. But know that projections won’t necessarily show you the reality, you have to launch and closely monitor the figures to see which scenario you are heading towards. We are close to hitting the play button and seeing which scenario we will face in 2020!

The membership packages we settled on:

Digital with monthly payments;

Digital with annual payments;

Digital + print with annual payments;

We were planning another digital + print package with quarterly payments, but decided against introducing it yet because of difficulties regarding recurring payments (e.g. how would we know that everyone will keep their subscription going for the next quarter if the magazine goes to print on 25 February and some members have their next payment date in March?) and the complexity of having to communicate the logistics of this package to our audience.

Here are all the ways DoR interacts with its community:

  • Customer service through email, Facebook, Instagram, phone;
  • Newsletters;
  • Questions in newsletters about subjects we are working on and our community’s experiences with these topics;
  • Using Hearken and other reader-interest gathering initiatives;
  • Pop-up newsrooms;
  • Surveys and interviews with our members about their relationship with DoR;
  • Meetups with the community about the inner workings of the organisation;
  • Meetups with reporters, in our own newsroom, elsewhere in Bucharest and other parts of Romania;
  • Taking stories to communities that are affected by the subject, e.g. gender inequality discussions in schools;
  • Mediating conversations with stakeholders in certain subject areas (domestic violence response for example);
  • Live storytelling events and opportunities to connect at those events and stay connected afterwards (pledge support cards)

In part 2 of this story, we discuss the technology underpinning DoR’s membership effort, including a big change of plans in September, only a couple of months before launch, and talk about product management and project management in a media organisation without particular expertise in either of those.

DoR would not have been able to update its subscription packages without help from the Engaged Journalism Accelerator, and we are grateful for the advice and encouragement the team provided this year. We recommend their Engaged Journalism in Europe database and their Stronger Journalism Through Shared Power report.

This series is written by Catalina Albeanu, digital editor, DoR. Reach out with questions or comments here or directly at @catalinacma on Twitter. Photos by DoR.



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