Can membership-based community journalism thrive in the U.S.?

Another “journalism” post as a follow-up to my last one. I’ve heard rumblings previously about this community-created, membership-driven model of journalism from The Netherlands’ De Correspondent (click on the “English” button at the top of their page), and today I found this intriguing article from NiemanLab regarding the publisher’s plan to launch a U.S. version in spring of next year.

Why is this such a big deal to me? Because even if a model  based on a business model that gets revenue from membership/subscriber/community sources will even further segment and stratify the news-reading public, at the same time such a model can totally save news media from the peril of serving other masters than their readers/audience.

In the De Correspondent model of journalism, readers run the show—both as audience recipients and as active contributors to stories. De Correspondent has no advertisers or PR agencies it owes loyalty and column inches to. No advertorial “content” driving news coverage, in other words. No articles in editorial amplifying the ads placed by companies that the publisher is trying to keep happy.

For example, have you ever seen newspaper or magazine articles on how how everyone desiring good health should eat more “whole grains” like breakfast cereals and then lo and behold, there just happen to be several breakfast cereal ads in the same issue? Or articles on career advice that emphasize the importance of personal appearance to advance in business, and then here are ads for makeup and personal trainers and clothing stores. While it’s handy to have those ads right there to help you put your newfound insights and resolve into action, it’s also pretty manipulative on the publication’s part to prime you and then deliver you and your credit card to their real audience, to their real customers. You, the reader/viewer aren’t an informed citizen so much as you’re a product being sold to the companies that pay for you via advertising space (or time, in the case of television or radio).

The once-sacred wall between editorial and advertising has been crumbling for quite a while now. Some publications, like Time magazine have openly demolished it. I used to think of Time as a semi-serious news magazine. Now I know it’s really just a content provider.

Not to rant at any length here. I’m just very optimistic about the potential of a new news model and wanted to share this article about De Correspondent.

Milwaukee entrepreneur Roy Reiman did something similar by starting up a publication for farm women that was supported entirely by subscriptions when all the other farming publications were cutting the women’s pages due to lack  of advertising support. Reiman knew from his own mother (he grew up on a farm) how important and looked forward to those sections were to their readers. By providing stories readers wanted and were willing to pay for, Reiman cut out the advertising middleman completely. He built a company on this model that published a number of popular magazines, including Taste of Home, and when he was ready to start retirement in 1998, he sold his majority interest for $640 million.

So it’s possible that with imagination and courage, news media will be able to shed advertising, build a different kind of business model, and actually do okay financially. I can’t wait to see where the press goes from here.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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2 Responses to Can membership-based community journalism thrive in the U.S.?

  1. MELewis says:

    Interesting post. There are publications like this is France, such as Mediapart ( I agree with your reasoning but hate the principle of having to pay for information. Not sure what the answer is, but I do know it would take a lot for me to subscribe. The problem is that you cannot keep content behind a wall for very long. At the same time, you are right about the ads and lack of editorial credibility.


    • I think you’re right that a membership costing money will not be popular. I get annoyed when I try to read articles online and get stopped by a paywall. But I’m so fed up with stupid journalism (for want of a better word) that I’d be willing to pay for articles that were thoroughly investigated and made the connections among topics that presented the big-picture context I need to understand what is happening and how it is significant. I’m also eager to pay for news that casts a wide, wide net. Most news media today seem to pull the same exact stories off the wire, so that if you really want to figure out what’s happening in your community or in the world, you have to read the tiny “world news in brief” newspaper articles (which disappear in online publications ) and be plugged into your own networks.

      Maybe that’s just how it is and has always been. But it would be really great to be able to “design” a preferred methodology for news gathering and have the types of information channels you want to monitor delivered to you from reporters/publications with no ulterior motives or divided loyalties. Maybe that’s unrealistically idealistic, though.


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