The recent numbers about The New York Times digital subscriptions and The Guardian’s memberships and donations were strong. It is anyone’s guess how sustainable their digital growth is in the future, but the trend is encouraging.

It is tempting to play with the idea of the news media industry being 100% funded by the public. I know journalism has never been funded by subscriptions, but what if … ? Or, perhaps the industry could be partly publicly funded by some sort of government allowance.

Media companies continue to experiment with funding models in the digital space.
Media companies continue to experiment with funding models in the digital space.

The idea of the public funding pops up now and then. Most recently, the UK government said it is ready to “save” the news industry and could consider financial perks to the industry. While announcing the government’s review to the sustainability of the news industry, Prime Minister Theresa May said the review will consider if the “government-led solutions” are needed to support newspapers.

However, any handouts from any government could prove an issue for those publications receiving funding from the public. It is a trust issue.

The 2017 Reuters Digital News Report found young people have become more willing to pay for news. Perhaps there is a generational shift going on; younger people are used to paying for their music and other things online. In some countries, such as the United States and Australia, donations to news sites also tripled in 2017. The tide might finally be turning.

The Guardian offers an example. The company has 800,000 people paying for its journalism, and 300,000 are regular paying members. Additionally, 300,000 people have made one-off contributions. Thanks to cost cuts and a growth in funding from the public, the company is expecting to break even in 2019.

In the latest INMA News Media Outlook, Chief Executive Officer Earl J. Wilkinson acknowledged “a broader membership economy is emerging,” but suggested the model may be best suited for local newspapers.

A new guide based on the research of Membership Puzzle Project agrees, but it also believes “robust forms of membership can be a path toward financial sustainability and audience relationships” that will benefit journalism. Yet, the guide notes memberships are likely to generate “less than 10% of total revenue in its first year.”

Sound familiar? Even when news publishers’ digital subscriptions have substantially increased, their digital revenue still does not bring the bacon for them, as the research shows.

Memberships are also hard work. Researchers Emili Goligoski and Elizabeth Hansen rightly point out they are not “about premiums, tote bags, mugs, or local business accounts.” Readers donate to news media companies if they believe their interests align with the company’s and if there is a real interaction between members and journalists.

Membership Puzzle Project is an interesting one to follow. It is a collaboration between the Dutch news site De Correspondent and Jay Rosen from New York University. So far, the project has identified 100 news sites with mixed membership programmes. It offers clear evidence these models are becoming more popular, but as with paywalls, their long-term sustainability remains a question mark — for now.