Exploding our ideas of membership: A CUNY summit

We are holding an important event at CUNY on August 26 exploring membership strategies for media — beyond pledges and paywalls.

Let’s be honest: In most news organizations, membership is just another word for subscription or for hawking tote bags. At this event, I want to see us push far beyond the present state of the art and challenge ourselves to reimagine what membership can mean for news organizations and their relationships with the people and communities they serve.

We will start with sessions led by two innovators in membership: public-media genius Melody Kramer (who just released a superb report with her latest ideas) and local media’s best friend, Josh Stearns, who is working on membership experiments in the New Jersey news ecosystem. We will learn about best practices in membership from outside the media industry (what could the frequent-flier miles of news be?). And — this is the critical part — we will take all that information and inspiration and then, in the best spirit of the unconference, brainstorm new opportunities for membership for news organizations of various types and sizes.

Here is the sign-up for the event.

I see three frontiers for innovation:

* New tribes: A person might feel an urge to join a club called the Guardian because it takes on causes or NPR or even The New York Times out of patronage. But does anyone really want to belong to — will they feel an affinity and loyalty to and want to brag about their special relationship with — say, Columbus Dispatch? Not so much. But one might well want to belong to the Columbus pissed-off commuters’ club or the Columbus school improvement society or the Columbus environment alliance or the Columbus senior club. My point: communities are internally, not externally defined; they are not built outside-in or top-down under brands. The premise of our social journalism program at CUNY is that we must begin by listening to communities and understanding their needs before we can serve them well. The same goes for membership. The opportunity is to build membership from the bottom up by serving many communities with many affinities, loyalties, and needs that we can answer.

* New currencies for contribution: We can extract value from our relationships with the public we serve in so many forms other than just cash. Indeed, we must learn to value our people — our users, our readers — beyond just their circulation dimes or CPM pennies. We must value them as individuals rather than as members of an anonymous mass. To join a community, we should value and credit the public’s effort, expertise, contributions of content, volunteer marketing (i.e., social media love), commerce (buying things through us or from our advertisers), and showing up (coming to our events). I explored some of these notions in a long-ago post that speculated about a reverse pay meter; Melody explores many more in her report.

* New currencies for reward: When we give our members nothing more than access to our content, then we are merely putting a new label on an old business model: the subscription. We can reward members in so many more ways: with access to events and our journalists, with some voice in the allocation of our resources, with social capital, with discounts from our advertisers….

Out of these ideas and more that we will explore on August 26 will come many new models for membership. The product of the day will not only be potential new business models but also new ways to look at–to quote my friend Jay Rosen–the people formerly known as the audience. When our members are our collaborators, the recipients of our services, experts, and our friends, then the nature of our product — our service — called journalism changes fundamentally. If we have any hope to compete with Google, Facebook et al for the attention and affection of the public we serve — and for the first-party data that will rescue us from advertising commodification — we must reconsider our essential relationship with them. We must become members of the same clubs.

If this is of interest to you and your news organizations, please sign up now.

How (not) to interview

Here’s an object lesson for journalism students in the art of the interview.

Poor Sundar Pichai, the No. 2 at Google, sat down for an interview with a New York Times technology reporter, only to find himself bombarded with the same question a half-dozen ways, to wit: Aren’t mobile phones bad for us?

First question: “Do you see mobile phones heading down a path of social unacceptability? Do we have a problem of overuse?”

After acknowledging that phones can do good things — goddamned miracles, I’d say — the reporter came back to his plaint: “But then people start doing things like checking their email at dinner. Are there things Google is doing to return people to where they are and reduce the temptation to look at their phone?” Like everything else, isn’t this your fault, Google?

Sundar tried to politely deflect: “You’re asking questions that have nothing to do with technology. Should kids check phones at dinner? I don’t know. To me that’s a parenting choice.”

The reporter tried again. And then again: “As you have risen in the ranks at Google, have you noticed that people use their phones less in meetings with you?”

And again: “Have you done anything to ease back? I have a policy that I’m not allowed to walk around the house with my phone. It has to stay in one room.”

Oh, jeesh. I imagine the reporter getting Grandma’s telephone table from the front hall and tying an iPhone to it. Some of us would say that eliminating the need for wires was progress.

It’s not hard to see what was happening here: The same reporter had an “analysis” published the same day on devices and programs to get users to crack that addiction the reporter thinks we have to our phones. He interviewed Pichai and decided to make a blog post out of the transcript, giving us a window to the sausage factory. The writer wanted a quote for his story. So he did what reporters often do: He asks the same question over and over … until he gets the quote he wants for his story. That’s how interviews are too often held: to fill in a blank the writer has already made rather than really listening and being open to new information and new angles.

When a reporter does this to me, I finally say: You can ask the same thing as many times as you want but I’m not giving you the answer you want. Corporate executives trying to make nice can’t do that.

The state of hyperlocal

newsTow-Knight just released a new survey of the state of business at hyperlocal sites, conducted by Michele McLellan, creator of the authoritative Michele’s List.

The bottom line remains: This is a tough business. A third of them bring in more than $100,000 a year; the rest under. Almost half are profitable and another quarter have a steady flow of income. Most are heavily dependent on advertising. The good news, as far as I’m concerned: Many have hired business and sales help.

This is important work, for as I wrote in Geeks Bearing Gifts, I believe that beat businesses can be a building block of broad new news ecosystems in communities. This is why we now support Michele’s List at Tow-Knight. This is why we just held training for new beat businesses here. This is why I work with the Dodge Foundation in New Jersey on helping to support and build the news ecosystem in my home state. We need more training in business to bring these journalists running beat businesses to sustainability. But as Michele shows, this is also hard work, damned hard work.

Michele suggests possible areas for further research. I will argue to foundations that care about healthy news ecosystems that they should help support their growth by giving seed grants and funding training for new beat businesses. I hope other journalism and business schools will help train these brave entrepreneurs who care about their communities.

An object lesson for native content makers

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 7.24.54 PM

Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, finds itself between a lump of coal and a hard place by working for old energy companies while it also tries to appeal to corporate responsibility clients.

And therein lies an object lesson for media companies getting into the business of making and publishing native content. For that work — “telling brands’ stories,” as we euphemistically put it — puts the media company into the business of a public relations or advertising agency. It forces us to ask: Whom do we serve? And what does our brand stand for?

In What Would Google Do? — inspired by ad genius Rishad Tobaccowala — I came to argue that public relations firms should take their title seriously and represent the public to the company rather than the company to the public. It necessarily follows that if a brand owner flouts the advice of such a public envoy, then the envoy needs to fire the client or it will lose its trust from the public.

Are public relations (or advertising) companies willing to do that? Judging by the evidence of the story pictured above, no. And that’s not at all surprising. PR companies exist to fall on their own swords for their clients.

But what of news companies? Will they be willing to fire a brand and give up the business of telling its story? Where are the lines? What if Shell Oil comes to your news organization, checkbook in hand, to tell its story, or that fracking company that advertises every Sunday morning wants you to make a video about the wonders they enable? Or a gun maker while you’re exposing deaths by firearms? Or a drug manufacturer when your newsroom is busy exposing how drug makers addict children to opioids? Is it one matter to publish their ads and another to make them?

Just asking.

Calling all entrepreneurial–and social–journalism educators

At CUNY on July 16 and 17, we are holding our second annual summit for entrepreneurial journalism educators and combining it with our first annual summit for social journalism educators. Two, two, two mints in one.

Here’s the sign-up.

We will start the day on Thursday, July 16 focusing on entrepreneurial journalism education, this year focusing on the teaching of design thinking and once again sharing best practices. That afternoon, we will join with social-journalism educators to share problems and solutions. And, because unconferences are de regueur, we’ll reserve time to break into discussions that you want to have. The next morning, we will shift our focus to social journalism education. Because this field is so new, we will focus on defining what social journalism is: definitions, pedagogical goals, and the relationship with mainstream journalism education.

My colleagues at CUNY — Jeremy Caplan from entrepreneurial journalism and Carrie Brown from social journalism — and I will share our experience teaching in both fields.

You should sign up and come if you teach or want to teach in either field. Everyone is welcome to stay for both halves as we figure there will be much overlap.

This was a great event last year at which we shared many best practices and solutions to each others’ problems. It is back by popular demand.