My project at the Reuters Institute: learning how membership models are helping journalism to thrive

As a journalist fellow, I will study how a few European news organizations created new business models. Here’s why

Jan 8 · 6 min read
Photo by William Bout on Unsplash

In his fascinating book about his years at The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger mentions an analogy that made me think about the precious role of newspapers in society. Alan borrows it from the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who used it once when talking to him over drinks. A newspaper, he said, should be “like a lighthouse that sends out its light to every ship regardless whether or not they pay for its service.” Those who do not pay can’t be excluded from consuming their signals and their consumption doesn’t reduce the consumption of their peers.

The metaphor of the lighthouse is a powerful one and many thinkers have used it throughout history as an example of a public good. It has never been so true (and so false) for newspapers as in the last couple of decades. True because many gave away their digital content. False because their flashing beacons stopped being useful as their news reports got polluted by the corrupting influence of clickbait and gossip news.

In a world where advertising is shrinking and readers are leaving print, how can newspapers still be powerful lighthouses? How can they reinvent themselves as organizations much more focused on reader revenue? Which channels should they use to reach their audiences? Is it possible for them to reinvent their journalism as a service that put the needs of those audiences first? How can they generate an output that is valuable for their shareholders but also for society as a whole?

These are some of the questions I will try to answer this year as a journalist fellow of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The Institute publishes the prestigious Digital News Report every year and also dozens of academic articles and factsheets. It hosts journalists from across the globe and connects them with professional peers and leading academics from different fields. Its core funding comes from the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Its work is also supported by other organizations such as the Google News Initiative and the BBC.

I feel honored by the trust of Meera Selva, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and their wonderful team. The fellowship will give me time to study many of challenges of journalism and to work with brilliant colleagues from Croatia, Hungary, Norway, Argentina, South Africa and Brazil.

In the last few years, I’ve been inspired by the research of Harvard professors Bharat Anand and Clayton Christensen and I’ve tried to apply some of their teachings to my own work. I have also published a few pieces on some of the challenges we are facing as journalists in El País and Nieman Reports.

As a fellow, I will study the membership models of a few European news organizations in countries like Germany, Britain, Hungary, The Netherlands, Denmark and Spain. At the end of my fellowship, I will publish a report that will cover their history and analyze their current strategy in terms of funding, distribution and editorial priorities.

The outlets I will deal with have different sizes. Some of them are companies. Others are nonprofits. Some rely heavily on advertising. Others are investigative outlets whose whole budget comes from their readers. All of them are becoming powerful lighthouses in their countries at a time when quality journalism is more needed than ever before.

I am aware that other researchers have covered the rise of membership models. My report will take advantage of the database built by my colleagues at the Membership Puzzle Project and will be a complement to the report Pay Models for European News, published in 2017.

As the co-founder of two news startups in the last few years, I am obsessed with this topic. Both of those companies were originally focused on reader revenue, so my experience gives me insights that may be useful for my research. El Español, a Spanish digital newspaper, raised €3.6 million during a two-month crowdfunding campaign in which readers became shareholders of the company. Politibot, a startup I founded along with some colleagues to create charts and distribute them through messaging apps, is now sustained by hundreds of members who pay to keep its content free.

In his report Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2018, Nic Newman defines membership as a regular fee paid by loyal users to keep the site free for all. Subscriptions create a more transactional relationship: readers pay their regular fee to have access to the news report.

The difference between membership and subscription models, however, is not always so clear-cut. Some sites grant their members exclusive access to all of their content but let them share it with everyone across the social web. Others keep the main site free and create newsletters, articles or podcast episodes just for their paying members.

Memberships come in different flavors and exploring them will be one of the goals of my research. The other one will be to analyze how a news organization can create a strong relationship with its audience. The ones I’ll study share that goal. Their readers contribute to their efforts by giving money but also by sharing their knowledge and expertise. This kind of approach could be followed by any newspaper with a membership model. I would argue it would be a great idea for every news organization today.

After so many decades depending on advertising, newspapers are trying to reinvent themselves with a focus on reader revenue. As Rasmus wrote in this wonderful piece, this shift will be extremely difficult to execute. Many of the newspapers’ websites are still optimized for traffic.Their journalists haven’t built digital services around the needs of their audiences. Much of the pieces they publish are not worth paying for.

Winning paying readers and keeping them requires a thorough change in the processes and priorities of a news organization. Publishing 300 pieces a day is not a real value proposition. It’s just adding more noise to a very polluted public sphere. As journalists, we should play a leading role in pushing this change. No one has more at stake than we do. However, we will only succeed if we understand the rules of the subscription economy and stop whining about a golden past.

Almost a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote in Public Opinion that “a newspaper that can really depend upon the loyalty of its readers is as independent as a newspaper can be.” Those words were written when advertising covered most of the budget of American newspapers, but they sound even more relevant now, when memberships are created by outlets as different as Quartz, Zetland, Tortoise, and Buzzfeed News.

Independence from big companies and politicians is more important than ever. A business model with the audience at its center is more likely to shun the temptations of the attention economy and to report on threats like climate change and the rise of authoritarian rule around the world.

“A newspaper is a business but is much more than a business,” wrote C. P. Scott, the legendary editor of The Guardian, in a piece he published to celebrate the first centenary of the paper in 1921. “A newspaper is [also] an institution,” he added. “It reflects and it influences the life of a whole community; it may affect even wider destinies. It is, in its way, an instrument of government. It plays on the minds and consciences of men. It may educate, stimulate, assist, or it may do the opposite. It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influence are in the main determined by the balance of these two forces.” As we rebuild our business models, we should keep that balance in mind.


If you have any tip that could be useful for my research, let me know by writing a comment or by sending a message to this email address.


Written by

Fellow at @risj_oxford. Co-founder of @politibot & @elespanolcom.Bylines at @niemanreports @univision @el_pais. @elmundoes alumni.Winner of García Márquez Prize

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