*This story was updated.
The crisis of sustainability in journalism has given birth to revenue alternatives based on the relationship between media outlets and their readers. Events and face-to-face trainings are some examples, as well as the membership model, increasingly chosen by Latin American media to engage their readers in strengthening the journalism they produce.
The report “Membership in News & Beyond: What Media Can Learn from Other Member-Driven Movements,” recently published by the Membership Puzzle Project and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, underlines a “core difference” between the membership and subscription models. “Subscribers pay their money and get access to a product. But members join the cause and participate because they believe in it.”
By associating with a journalistic outlet, readers become members of a community supportive of the work done by that outlet. In exchange for their financial contribution, members can have voice in editorial decisions and access to exclusive channels of communication with the journalistic team, as well as discounts with publishing partners.
This is how Brazilian investigative journalism agency Agência Pública’s Aliados program functions. The site recently launched the initiative based on its previous crowdfunding experiences and those of other media financed by supporters, like Spain’s eldiario.es and the De Correspondent of the Netherlands.
"This connection of the public [supporter] with the media outlet is stronger than simply giving. It is having participation, having people willing to defend Pública in a moment of political polarization. It is really a proposal of engagement, of increasing our production with the support of readers," Marina Amaral, co-director of Pública, told the Knight Center.
Pública already had the support of the readers in three previous editions of their Repotagem Pública crowdfunding project in 2013, 2015 and 2017. As part of the program, supporters chose the stories that the agency would turn into reports. There were 34 reports financed with R $213,000 (about US $53,617.80) donated by 2,429 people, according to what Caio Costa, Pública’s audience editor, told the Knight Center.
The idea now is for such support to be recurrent and become a fixed part of the agency's revenue, most of which comes from private foundations, as indicated on its website. With each crowdfunding goal, Pública plans for progressive increases in its production, including the hiring of reporters, creation of a podcast and expansion of the global reach of its content, with investment in republication in Spanish and English.
"The key word for people who will support us or who have already supported us is trust," Costa said. "They are people who trust our work and really believe in the importance of what we do."
By becoming allies of Pública, readers will receive an exclusive newsletter, have access to the comment space on the agency's website, and can vote on a list of options on the site for the month's interview. They also have discounts on partner publishers' books and direct contact with Pública’s audience editor, a post specifically created to serve members of the community.
"The great challenge is to reach everyone who already knows Pública and trusts us, but also to reach the person who knows us, but who can become more involved with us, and to reach a new audience," Costa said.
A journalist with marketing experience, he joined Pública’s team in late 2018 to dedicate himself to this membership program and will be the bridge between the supporters and the agency’s editorial staff, Amaral said.
"It's not something formal, in that he's going to have a vote or the team will pick a story that he brings to us, but he's certainly going to bring in what he's getting from the readers. If readers find, in a hypothetical example, that we are producing more, but our content is more superficial, it is important feedback. Or if there is a theme that the press is not addressing and we have not approached it yet, he can bring that," Pública’s director explained.
For Amaral, financially depending exclusively on the contributions of supporters "is the Eldorado." "If you look at our revenue and see what percentage that means, we're still a long way from that," she notes. In 2017, the year of the last edition of the Reportagem Pública, the crowdfunding corresponded to 3 percent of the agency’s revenue. "In terms of thinking about Pública ten years into the future, we hope this may be a formula.”
SúperAmigos to the rescue!
The site La Silla Vacía, which is dedicated to the coverage of Colombian politics, has been betting on this formula since 2012, when it launched its membership program, SúperAmigos. Since then, 4,784 people have supported them and the site raised 592 million Colombian pesos (about US $180,000).
The program is recurrent and open for year-round membership, but runs campaigns at the end of each year. For the first time in one year, in 2018 the program surpassed the mark of 1,000 SuperAmigos, as Pablo Isaza, commercial coordinator of La Silla Vacía, told the Knight Center. According to him, today there are 1,298 active SúperAmigos, that is, people who have contributed since the last campaign.
“It has been a great success to concentrate ourselves on a campaign that is temporary because it generates urgency in our readers, who say 'I have to contribute, the time is going to end.’ But if for some reason you can not contribute during the campaign, you still have the option to contribute to the campaign during any day of the year,” Isaza explained.
La Silla Vacía's SúperAmigos have their comments highlighted on the site, receive an exclusive newsletter, have discounts at partner stores and can participate in weekly staff meetings in the newsroom in Bogota.
“The SúperAmigos have that benefit and they can send us a message by mail when they want to come. Usually one comes every 2 months. It is a benefit that they use very little, but that demonstrates our transparency to all,” Isaza said.
A major challenge, according to Isaza, has been to approach La Silla Vacía’s SúperAmigos. "It has not been so easy, we have seen that people are not so participatory in reality," he said.
The SúperAmigos are also the exclusive guests of #ViernesEnLaSilla, live interviews concerning a theme of the moment that are held every Friday in the publication’s newsroom and that are broadcast on La Silla Vacía’s social networks. However, although around 500 SúperAmigos live in Bogota and are invited every week, "two, three, five participate; at most eight” participate in each event, Isaza said.
“But we still want to continue with these events because they are very interesting and some 80 or 90 people connect by streaming,” he said. “Digitally they are stronger, but we still want the SúperAmigos to know that they have open doors and that they can come to the office on Friday when they are interested and without any commitment.”
One attempt to maintain a direct channel of communication with the site’s supporters is WhatsApp. Just over a month ago, the SúperAmigos began to receive an audio bulletin every Monday through the messaging application. The bulletins, which are about 1 minute and 30 seconds long, are produced and submitted after the staff meeting and contain the three main themes of the week, as determined by the site’s journalists. At the moment, there are about 300 SúperAmigos enrolled in the service, Isaza said.
“The response in general is very grateful. Like they do not expect it; they give us their money but they are not necessarily waiting for something in return, and then they tell us ‘thank you very much, keep doing the work you do,'” he explained.
Like Agência Pública, La Silla Vacía explains via its site the origins of its financing, based on commercial projects and cooperation with international foundations. In 2018, the SúperAmigos were responsible for 7 percent of the site’s revenue. The goal is for that figure to reach 14 percent in 2019 and 35 percent in five years, Isaza said.
In the six years of the program, the SúperAmigos have expressed that they support La Silla Vacía "because it is an independent, innovative media outlet that is doing different things in Colombia,” the coordinator said. To expand support for the site, therefore, maintaining independence is one of the keys, he believes. As well as keeping all content open to all readers, whether they are SúperAmigos or not.
“At the moment, the big media outlets, in Colombia and around the world, are closing off their content, preventing people from entering and browsing several stories if they are not subscribed. We have learned that much of this success is that we continue to be open and that our content is for all users regardless of contribution,” Isaza said.
A newspaper that grows through the community
Uruguay’s la diaria, in turn, has membership in its DNA, as Lucas Silva, journalistic director of the newspaper, told the Knight Center.
The printed newspaper was born in 2006 and "thought of with subscriptions in mind," said Silva, who also heads the journalist cooperative responsible for the media outlet. While at first the commitment with subscribers involved the delivery of the printed product everyday at the doors of readers, in recent years the importance of digital subscriptions and the editorial participation of the people that sustain la diaria has grown, Silva explained.
Even though the newspaper continues to use the term "subscriptions," "we conceptually move to something more like a modality of membership," he said. "I believe that for the audience we addressed in Uruguay it was clear from the beginning what we refer to as subscription, but in fact we use the concept ‘la diaria community’ a lot, which at some point is better assimilated to certain characteristics of membership.”
According to him, today there are 13,000 people who pay for one of the four types of subscription of the newspaper (between print, digital and Lento magazine), which represents 81 percent of the publication's revenue. They are part of la diaria’s community, which is advertised on their page as "a dynamic community of knowledge."
In addition to discounts on various services such as cultural events and courses, including at the university level, community members are invited to contribute their knowledge and expertise in the newspaper’s editorial projects.
“Knowing who they are, where they live and having the opportunity to talk with them is giving you a lot of guidance on where to go proceed with your editorial proposal. We do surveys very often with them, we ask their opinion about the newspaper, what things they would improve, what things are missing,” Silva said.
This dialogue helps the newspaper make decisions, he said. “We have learned that many times readers are quite different from the staff of journalists. Sometimes journalists think that the reader is that partner that you have at your side in the newsroom. That is a bit complicated because it is not like that. That back and forth with the community of readers will allow us to make content that in a way ends up giving a service to that community. It is not that we work on demand, but you are attentive to the needs. That's like an advantage.”
An example, Silva said, is the section Salud, which is also a newsletter. Given that many of the members of the la diaria community were doctors, the newspaper’s team invited some of them to talk about how to produce a section specializing in health. They helped to form the editorial proposal and gave suggestions on how the newspaper should cover the subject.
“It is possible to end up taking editorial definitions from the knowledge that the community already has. And it is possible to do it without betraying anything from your original definitions. Obviously, a scientist knows more about science than a journalist who tries very hard to generate scientific content. Basically that’s why we bet on the community,” he said.
On the ground floor of its newsroom in Montevideo, the newspaper is also building a media lab that will partly serve as a space “to more often invite the community of readers, to see the faces, beyond other exchanges or digital conversation tools,” Silva said. “The times we have had conversations with subscribers who have been funding this project for many years, they are often very critical and that helps a lot, it helps you rethink, as a daily practice.”
As an objective to be fully financed by its readers, la diaria has sought to encourage more people to join the community, and that those who are already members are enlisted to expand it. A campaign they are about to launch, Silva said, will ask members to subsidize daily subscriptions of la diaria for new voters, people between the ages of 18 and 22 who are going to vote for the first time in this year's general election scheduled for October.
For Silva, the model of membership, with the engagement of supporters in the maintenance and strengthening of the journalistic media outlet, is the only possibility for la diaria. “I find it very difficult to move towards business models that are based on people paying you without you asking what they are willing to pay for. It should be a combination of what we want to do and what people are willing to pay for. You [as a journalist] have to leave the place where you are the possible reader. The possible readers are very different from us, generally.”
*This story was updated to correct La Silla Vacía's estimate of increasing the participation of SúperAmigos in the site's revenue.