Zetland wants to take membership engagement one step further. This is how.

Sara Alfort
Sep 30 · 9 min read

We at the Danish magazine Zetland are about to set off on a voyage of journalistic exploration. Our plan is to investigate how to conduct a public discussion a new way, to challenge the much-too-rigid relationship between the media and media consumer, and to invite our members to enter into a more constructive, insightful, and engrossing dialogue with us.

In case you’ve never heard of Zetland: we are an online magazine without ads or breaking news banners or fast news. Instead we present journalism that gives context, points out nuances, and emphasizes solutions, because we believe that type of reporting is essential to creating a dynamic dialogue in our society.

We launched in March 2016, and today we have over ten thousand paying members–yes, we consider our readers to be members, because from the very beginning their involvement has been a vital element of Zetland’s DNA. The relationship between Zetland and our readers is and will continue to be much more than the relationship between manufacturers of a product and their customers.

Our members’ input has been all-important to the commercial development of Zetland; we regularly involve them in our editorial process, and they have repeatedly proven to be a powerhouse of enthusiasm. One example: within two weeks, five hundred Zetland ambassadors brought in more than two thousand new paying members.

Now, however, it’s time to rethink the involvement of our members, to deepen it. At the risk of sounding overly ambitious, it’s all about creating a Zetland village. Big words, yes, but to ensure that our members are genuine participants, that we don’t isolate ourselves inside our own world, and that we truly are creating a community together, we must strive even harder to involve members.

So how can we do that? Naturally the most obvious place to begin is to ask our members. This is why last May I invited them to a conversation about how to get them even more involved. The result was two incredibly rewarding — and fun! — evenings in Copenhagen and Aarhus. I saw so much enthusiasm, met so many wonderful people, and for me both evenings ended with my head buzzing with ideas, thoughts, proposals, and desires about how best
to get everyone involved.

I’m including a summary of what came out of the two evenings, because I believe that we media organizations can learn from each other (if you are on the same mission, I would love to hear from you!).
I’ve given names to the ideas:
1. The Topic Club
2. The Satellite-Discussion Salon
3. The Zetland Corps
4. The Members Editorial Panel
I admit that a few of the titles sound awkward, but on the other hand the ideas are incredibly good.

One thing all the members agreed on was the importance of meeting face-to-face. In Copenhagen, Alexandra said, ”When you meet physically, you get inspired and build on each other’s ideas in a whole different way than in comment sections, where it can quickly turn into arguments for and against.”
The first idea that formed around the table in Copenhagen was, therefore, that members interested in a specific topic could form a small group. Gunnar suggested that the journalist covering the topic could invite the group in for a meeting four times a year. And a group interested in education or technology or the climate could meet to exchange ideas, experiences, and possible angles for future articles.

”It’s doable to get involved, you talk to others and get inspired and speak up about things you’ve been thinking about. And it’s possible that some of it ends up as an article, and possibly some of it leads nowhere, but at least you get to exchange viewpoints,” Gunnar said. And it’s important to get everyone at the table involved. It shouldn’t be like you’re at a lecture someone is giving, it should be more like a ”club atmosphere,” as Victor put it. This is why I call it the TOPIC CLUB.

The idea of topic clubs took up much of the evening in Aarhus. Specifically, the distance and the barrier that may prevent members from commenting on the online contributors section– which is what we call our comment section — can be avoided in small groups. The members will know each other and be able to attach a face to a comment, the ”distance” is weakened, the debate forum feels safer.

Marie, who has been active in youth politics, suggested we think of the topic clubs as something like the policy groups that spokesmen for political parties use, a network of active party members who discuss, for example, health policy. In that way the topic club would function as a network of peers who can give feedback on articles and present ideas to the relevant journalist, besides being a network for the members themselves who are interested in the topic.

Marie envisioned the network meeting physically once in a while, but also keeping contact digitally in a special room on the platform, where those in the network exchange ideas and information, and the journalist could ask for input on an article she was writing.

Several members, however, pointed out a problem with the topic clubs. These members want to be challenged and exposed to subjects they hadn’t even known they were interested in. During our evening in Aarhus, Katherine, who is studying nutrition and health, said, ”I’d also like to meet and talk about the universe. Just to get out of my own life, out of myself, and not like debating something, more like being curious about it.” Out of this grew a second idea both in Copenhagen and Aarhus, THE SATELLITE-DISCUSSION SALON.

Instead of its focal point being a specific topic, the discussion salon shifts the contributors section following an article to a table where the members’ comments are live and face-to-face. The salon should take place locally and focus on one or more articles, and therefore it should be organized by a local member, independent of the Zetland editorial staff. Alexandra, who is one of the co-founders of The Green Student Movement, said, ”Members could meet in the Esbjerg Zetland community or wherever, and we could start with the month’s article that got the most comments, and maybe you’ve made a video for us with questions for discussion. And we could send our best points back to you.”

In Copenhagen, much of the discussion centered on how members wanted to feel like a genuine part of the community. Members in Aarhus also touched on this, but they were concerned in particular with being able to talk to others who had read the same article. It could be only a few, maybe five members who met, said Kathrine. ”Just so it’s people who enjoy discussing things.”
Marie came up with a great idea: add an option to the platform’s contributors section and call it the ”Hi, does anyone feel like getting together and discussing this article?” option. And maybe three people in Fredericia will meet at a café and talk about it.

But, asked Peter at the Aarhus meeting, what does Zetland get out of it?
Kathrine answered immediately (and astutely, I thought): ”Nothing except very enthusiastic members who know each other, who get together to talk, and who maybe will speak up more because they know some of the others. I think this would be good for the community.”

Back in Copenhagen, the other Kathrine, who manages a community center, thought that if the members were responsible for this, a small group was needed to lead the way. ”Lots of communities that start up don’t survive, there needs to be continuity, so I know that if I can’t make it this month, members will be getting together next month, and everyone will feel safe and unthreatened, and it will happen on a regular basis.”

Which is how the Satellite Discussion Salon gave birth to another idea, the ZETLAND CORPS. Marie, who is studying political science, said: ”If you want to run with this idea, you could look for members in several towns who will start up discussions. They would be responsible for getting things going. And that might lead to others taking the initiative.”

”But there’s so much competition for people’s attention,” Peter said. ”You’d be up against so many things.”
”I think if some members lead the way locally, others will follow, whether it’s meeting for dinner or even taking a walk,” Marie said. ”And maybe once in a while a journalist will drop by.”

The idea, in other words, is that the local corps member chooses the settings and decides if the group will meet for dinner or a cup of coffee at a café, or at someone’s house, or if they’ll take a walk, to discuss the chosen article. That’s to get away from just sitting around and staring at each other, as Marie put it.
”It could be so great to help start something up this way and get it going,” said Kathrine from Aarhus. ”That way you’ll feel like you’re part of something bigger, too.” She laughed.

”I’d probably start a coffee club.”

These two young women, who seemed to never run out of good ideas, also suggested that the Corps should meet once in while at Zetland’s offices. Partly to meet each other and hear how it’s been going after the discussion salons had been set up, and partly to hear about things such as how best to lead a discussion.

”Members could meet and share each other’s experiences with starting these groups all over the country,” Kathrine said. ”It could be great to talk to some of the others who’ve done the same things you’re doing.”

”Yeah, maybe it could be a type of mini-education, where you can become Zetland’s ambassador in a local area,” Marie said. ”Without taking on a bunch of obligations, but more like signing an invisible contract to be responsible for three things during the next year.”

”It’s something you do because you enjoy doing it, but you’ll also learn something along the way.”

The idea of a corps took a slightly different form in Copenhagen. A shared interest isn’t enough to form a community, Kathrine said; there has to be something at stake. Victor added that what would motivate him to get involved in Zetland would be if he sensed that what he was doing made a difference.

”If it’s going to be on a regular basis, it would be nice to see that you’re gradually building something up. Like, we get together and talk about something, and an article comes out of it. And that leads to what we talk about the next time, and that leads to another article.”

”So there will be people listening when we meet,” Kathrine added. It shouldn’t feel like doing homework, Victor continued. More like being in an engine room, Alexandra said. I’ve called that idea the MEMBERS EDITORIAL PANEL.
Gunnar, who has been working with children and teenagers for thirty years, put it this way: ”If you emailed me and said you were working on an article, and you asked me to comment on two paragraphs or maybe asked what I thought about the article, I would do it.”

The idea is that a journalist has a panel of members who have volunteered to read, comment on, and otherwise give input. These members are likely more motivated by a sense of professional pride than wanting to be part of a community. In Aarhus, Peter, a retired doctor, could see himself as part of such a group, ”because I could contribute,” he said.

Also in Aarhus, Marie suggested a slightly different version of a members editorial panel. Instead of linking a panel to a specific journalist, the group could be linked to a podcast series. When the group met to discuss an episode, the discussion could affect future episodes, she said. The group could perhaps be asked to do something specific that influenced the reporting.

These are the ideas the members came up with in May. Since then we’ve asked members to tell us if they’re interested in being part of a corps that requires a deeper involvement. Over five hundred members wrote back to say they were. Currently we’re establishing the first pilot discussions, where members are meeting to talk about articles while taking a walk in the forest, having coffee somewhere, or in a member’s living room. Our dream is that Zetland will encourage dialogue face-to-face as well as in the contributors section.

But as mentioned, this is a voyage of exploration, and even though we’ve set a course, the destination lies half-hidden in the fog. If you’re on the same voyage, I very much hope you will contact me, because I’m sure we’ll do better sailing as a fleet.

Sara Alfort

Written by

Sara is in charge of driving Zetland’s exploration of new ways to invite members to a more engaging, constructive and insightful form of public conversation.

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