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The Technological Imperative of News-Audience Engagement

Emily Goligoski, Research Director, the Membership Puzzle Project
Emily Goligoski, Research Director, the Membership Puzzle Project

As the news industry innovates, technology has become a key element of any successful business strategy. But while journalists have long needed software to power their newsrooms and deliver content to their audiences, today, software innovations have another use: converting casual readers into paying supporters. 

To learn how news organizations are growing their audiences with technology, we recently caught up with Emily Goligoski, the research director at NYU’s Membership Puzzle Project. Emily has spent years in some of the world’s biggest newsrooms developing revenue-generating strategies. She says that although technology is crucial to news organisations’ success, there is much work to be done to ensure that news software is fit for purpose.

What is the Membership Puzzle Project, and how does it use audience-engagement strategies to strengthen journalism?

The Membership Puzzle Project helps news organisations around the world think through who it is that their products or programs are for. We ask journalists questions like: Who are the supporters who are most likely to support your work? Why would those people want to belong to your organisation as supporters? What is it about your work that sets it apart enough to make people feel compelled to contribute? And, what kinds of contributions do you want from your members?

We’ve found that this isn't math that you do on the back of a napkin or that you price in the same way that you'd price what Netflix or Spotify charge. Rather, it's a much more advanced cost-benefit analysis. We encourage news organisations to think about the amount [of time and money] they're putting into any such program because membership is not for everyone or every news organization. It's not a brand campaign that can be turned on and off. What we're talking about is actually much more involved and engaged, and it's important to treat it seriously.

So, essentially you help news organisations by advising them on how to connect with their audiences, in the belief that membership with engaged audiences can replace lost revenue. How important is technology in these efforts?

The tools [newsrooms use] can help or hinder the process of engagement if the rules of engagement and staffing considerations are not ironed out in advance.

Can you explain that a bit more?

I see two challenges. The first challenge is that very often the tools – or the software – are not designed for newsroom use. We see this with news organisations using tools like Salesforce (which is a common customer-relationship management software). But news-community members are not the core customer base for a company like Salesforce. And so, unless you really have people who are trained in how to make the best use of a tool, the solution can be over-engineered software that people are not best equipped to use. Just as you want any news product to be designed to make people feel like they want to spend time with it, technology should also be easy and intuitive.

The second consideration that we think a lot about when we talk about membership support is who are the people in the news organisation that are responsible for implementing membership. Increasingly, we are seeing staff with a dual reporting line, where they report into the business side and also into the editorial side. Moreover, we're seeing membership jobs at places like the Guardian, BuzzFeed, and many other news organisations, where the employees don't just sit within a single department but actually have a larger footprint. That is really exciting because it’s also essential.

Does that mean that the people who are straddling both worlds – editorial and business – have a better understanding of the technological needs that go into audience development?

I certainly hope so. You know, there are various kinds of literacies that individuals who succeed in membership-driven organisations must have. One trait is empathy – consideration for your audience members. Another is technical fluency. Are you able to identify where things are not working and could be better for your users and for your colleagues? The ability to talk to people as they want to be spoken to is critical to translating problems into solutions.

How important is it for a news organisation that uses technology for audience engagement to also have processes in place to support the audiences that they build?

What we often see with independent news organisations is that they want to engage their audiences but do not have the staff or the technology to make that possible. This is a major bottleneck. For example, publishing call-outs – asking the public for documentation or details to help on a story – have become the way that most organisations engage audience members; ProPublica is maybe the most advanced when it comes to this. But being able to go from call-out to actual audience insight is the key (as is doing so ethically). This goes back to that theme of the software being intuitive and helpful and actually making you feel better – not worse – at your job, especially when you're working in a deadline-driven, resource-constrained environment.

It often seems that the most innovative media organisations are also the newest, but you've worked with some legacy organisations, including The New York Times, which is setting the bar for new forms of engagement journalism. Give us an overview of the experimental landscape: which types of organisations are doing the best work?

A question I am often asked is, do legacy news organisations or born-digital organisations have a better shot at making membership work? I think the born-digital sites do have an advantage in that they're often quite nimble, use agile processes and have an ability to move quicker, especially if something is not working or panning out.

And yet, we do see great promise in older, more traditional news outlets. For instance, we are supporting the Dallas Morning News, a legacy metro paper, through the Membership in News Fund. The Dallas Morning News is a subscription business but is thinking more and more like a membership-driven organisation, asking how individuals can contribute in terms of personal and professional expertise.

I also am thrilled to see investigative news organisations like ProPublica in the United States and The Daily Maverick in South Africa (a Membership in News Fund grantee) thinking about the ways that individuals might not just be financial underwriters of their journalism but also contribute meaningfully to the journalism itself.

And I'm particularly excited about an experiment that RED/ACCION in Argentina (another Membership in News Fund grantee) is doing to figure out whether brand sponsors might become involved in underwriting membership so that people who can't afford membership can still unlock the full benefits of what it means to belong.

Newsrooms are collaborating on journalism in new and exciting ways, but most of the focus so far is on editorial collaborations. What about technology partnership? Are the journalists you work with aware of the importance of technological collaborations to their industry?

We're still in the early days of it, but I agree on the importance, especially when that technology is open source. The concept of combining efforts and adding onto one another's work in ways that aren't proprietary is critically important.

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