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Bridge Michigan lights the way forward for non-profit news

With assistance from the US Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), News Revenue Hub and many others, Bridge Michigan is a stellar example of how many statewide news outlets are charting a path to revenue sustainability and engagement success. Amber DeLind, Membership and Engagement Director, tells us more…

Would you take a wager on a ‘single editor, one reporter’ online news outlet in one of the US’s Great Lakes states growing to become one of the largest civic news providers and custodians of watchdog journalism in just twelve years?

Neither would I.

Maybe not even Amber DeLind, Membership and Engagement Director at Bridge Michigan, a non-profit, non-partisan online news service covering all corners of Michigan. However, she saw this growth happen in real time and is perfectly placed to provide insights into how Bridge Michigan grew to serve 125,000 subscribers and an annual readership of 600,000. With 22 permanent staff Bridge Michigan is now funded by more than 9000 individual donors as part of a growing membership programme. 

The value of a two-way conversation with readers

There was this “aha” moment in 2019, says Amber, “when we started to take memberships seriously”. That’s when Bridge Michigan adopted a more frequent donation approach, offering tailored membership benefits, refining membership tiers and offerings – with a renewed dedication to community events. 

Even after the events strategy had to pivot to virtual events during COVID-19, the growth continued with monthly virtual town halls and a popular series called Bridge Culture Club. Each of these events attracted new donors, mainly, Amber emphasises, because “we started to understand the value of a two-way conversation with readers… We (now) know that engagement feeds right into our membership programme.” 

Amber has witnessed this first-hand when readers realise her membership team takes reader comments and story tips seriously. “When someone is listening to them (it) can make a big difference especially if you’re in your community feeling like you’re being noticed.” 

Credible journalism

The engagement strategy is being underpinned by credible journalism. In the past 20 years the number of print journalism outlets in Michigan has more than halved, explains Amber. This “information gap” was filled with social media and “sources that were less than credible –  or perhaps partisan”. 

Bridge Michigan stepped into the void. “We would gather folks in rooms to talk about the topics that were being written about in the news, giving people a chance to react and discuss how that issue is playing out in their town or community.” And when COVID-19 struck, the need for credible information increased.

Being a trusted source of news really mattered to individuals. From day one we were sharing all of the information, reputable information, and we continue to do this to this day.

None of the growth would have happened without investing in resources and their (fast growing) staff contingent. Partners like the News Revenue Hub provided technological tools to simplify messages to specific member tiers, take payments or send out member gifts. They also benefited from training programs like the Facebook membership accelerator, Google News Initiative, assistance from the Institute for Nonprofit News and the Online News Association.

With unexpected success, hard work and some good fortune, Bridge Michigan continues to adapt to the future. As Amber puts it: “We try to continue to learn so that we can continue to grow.”

Bridge Michigan sees and raises its readers. Now place your bets.

You can watch our full interview with Amber DeLind below:

Five key take-aways

  • The non-profit online news outlet Bridge Michigan achieved remarkable growth in only 12 years, evolving from a small operation to one of the largest civic news providers in the US.
  • A strategic shift to a tailored membership programme led to over 9,000 individual donors funding Bridge Michigan. 
  • The organisation’s engagement strategy, including fostering a two-way conversation with readers, played a crucial role in attracting new donors.
  • Bridge Michigan stepped up to fill an “information gap” left by declining print journalism and unreliable sources by offering credible journalism. 
  • Investment in resources and staff training contributed to their ongoing adaptation and growth.

No time? Pick up on these time stamps:

40 seconds: “Our mission is to make Michigan in the United States a better place through our non-profit non-partisan journalism and engagement.”

9 minutes: “It became necessary for us to focus a lot of our work on journalism and at that stage we pivoted our engagement strategy towards reader events where people could talk about the topics that were written about in the news.”

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