Friday, November 17, 2017

World Politics Review's old-school cool

Hampton Stephens built a subscription publication long before it was trendy

Anyone who thinks that a paid subscription model can work only for tech industry publishers should talk to Hampton Stephens.

Stephens was a graduate student working out of his apartment’s spare bedroom in Washington D.C. when, in 2006, he started World Politics Review (subscribe). He thought that he could populate the site with the kind of informed commentary that he craved as a reader, wait for a huge audience to show up, and then watch the ad dollars roll in. It didn’t quite work out that way. “The kind of coverage that we wanted to do was just not going to scale to tens of millions of visitors,” Stephens says. “It’s definitely a smaller niche audience that is looking out for specialized information.”

Instead, Stephens did something that was considered blasphemous for the time. He asked readers to pay. Some, comfortable in a world of free content, were openly hostile to the idea. “I remember getting hate mail from people,” he recalls. Nine years since making the transition to a paid publication—the going rate is $75 a year or $25 a quarter—WPR has six full-time employees, revenue in the mid six figures, 1,500 individual subscribers, and (most lucratively) two hundred institutional subscribers. The revenue has supported not only a meaningful business, but also meaningful journalism. WPR publishes stories with an international perspective that bring deep context to important world news, be it xenophobia in Eastern Europe, how the U.S. is inadvertently helping Boko Haram, or Xi Xinping’s growing power. “People understand when you’re producing this high quality content, that has a cost to it, and you need people to reimburse you for that cost.”

Stephens, a native of Alabama and now resident of Florida, started his media career in marketing for the D.C.–based National Journal Group but quickly got the bug to be a reporter. He covered politics for a group of small newspapers and ended up as managing editor for Inside the Air Force, a defense industry newsletter. Seeking to bolster his journalistic credentials, he studied for a master’s degree in international relations at the Institute of World Politics, and started writing more deeply about foreign affairs. However, he was disappointed by the lack of outlets for the kind of writing he was into. As a hobby, he started WPR and then, after graduating, turned it into a business. He reckons he has earned the equivalent of an MBA in subscription publishing over the last decade.

For most of its early life, WPR was probably too far ahead of the curve. The publication quickly won a small paying audience but progress was slow until 2012, when it started selling subscriptions to institutions. Growth has been strong over the last four years, and Stephens expects WPR to be profitable in 2018—a goal he had previously deferred in favor of investing in the business. Just as WPR’s fortunes are improving, the prospects for subscription publishing are also tracking up. Stephens believes the industry is approaching a tipping point. “All of a sudden it seems like the trend toward reader-supported content is undeniable, and the model that we have been working under is now, finally, on trend.”

He attributes the transition to a combination of cultural and business shifts. Just as consumers have become aware that the internet has broken the status quo media business model, the “fake news” phenomenon has underscored the importance of quality journalism. At the same time, venture capital-backed companies like Vice, Vox Media, Mic, and BuzzFeed are starting to hit the limits of the “scale first, money later” approach to publishing. While such companies struggle to justify their valuations, others like The Information and The Athletic are demonstrating the value of building a sustainable business on the strength of payments from readers.

“If all your revenue comes from advertising, then your real customers are not the readers, the real customers are the advertisers,” Stephens says. “I tell people that if they believe that journalism and quality information plays an important role in liberal democratic society, they need to recognize that the only way that kind of information is going to be supported is through direct payments.”

It might once have been blasphemy, but now it’s almost gospel.

Subscribe to World Politics Review

Monday, November 6, 2017

News from Substack: First customers, a new hire, and what’s next

Hello and welcome to our first subscriber-only update!

We’ve been amazed and pleasantly overwhelmed by the early support for Substack. It’s great to see that people just get it. We want to help writers make money. We do that by dramatically lowering the barriers to starting a subscription publication. That approach has always made sense to us, but it’s gratifying that smart people like you seem to agree. Fixing the media’s business model problem is the first step in building a new ecosystem for publishing.

To that end, we’ve launched publications for our first two customers. They’re off to fast starts.

  • On October 16, Bill Bishop launched the paid version of Sinocism, a newsletter about the most consequential China news of the day. Bill started with a charter price of $11 a month or $118 a year and immediately converted enough followers of his free newsletter into paying subscribers to bring in six figures of revenue on day one. As he told the Wall Street Journal, within two weeks he was already making more money than he ever made with a corporate salary. After locking in his most loyal subscribers at the special rate, Bill is now increasing the price of the newsletter to $15 a month or $168 a year. Subscribe to Sinocism.

  • On November 1, Kelly Dwyer launched The Second Arrangement, home to some of the best cultural commentary on the NBA—including nightly capsule reviews of every single game—and a window into the curious mind of one of the most gifted writers in sports. It’s early days for Kelly, but, as he told his readers on Friday, his early subscription revenue has at least allowed him to turn his cable back on. Subscribe to The Second Arrangement.

In the news

The media has started paying attention to Substack.

  • Jack Marshall in the Wall Street Journal (Nov 1). Key quote:

    “Were I starting today I would certainly be interested in a tool like Substack”—Ben Thompson

  • Ricardo Bilton in Nieman Lab (Oct 5). Key quote:

    “Once you get into all these niches, you realize that there are so many of them. The area under the long tail is huge.”—Chris Best

  • Anthony Ha in TechCrunch (Oct 16). Key quote:

    “[These niche publications] are about doing something really good and really meaningful for a small number of people.”—Chris Best

  • Peter Kafka in Recode (Oct 16). Key quote:

    “Getting a thousand people to pay for your work is really hard. Having to have technical skillsthat easily scale to multiple authorsunrelated to what you produce is an unnecessary barrier.”Ben Thompson

  • Erin Griffith of Wired mentioned Substack in an article about new media companies betting on subscriptions (Oct 7). Key quote:

    “One venture capitalist has called digital advertising ‘a prank the tech industry played on the media industry.’”

What we’ve learned so far

  • Group subscriptions are hard to do well. Many of Bill Bishop’s subscribers took advantage of a group discount by signing up through their institutions. We set up a basic system to process those subscribers, but we’re working on a much better feature that will be more automated and intuitive.

  • Customer support requires a lot of TLC. Our CEO, Chris, has been personally replying to subscribers who have questions about billing or technical issues.

  • There’s still room for optimism about the future of media. People we’ve talked to about subscription publishing are so interested in the possibilities that it’s impossible to not feel a little excited about what this could all mean for the long term.

New hire!

We’ve made our first addition to the Substack team, bringing our burgeoning ranks to a total of three human souls. Jack Read, former CTO of Fansi (which let fans subscribe to independent musicians and pop stars), has joined as our product development lead.

What’s next

  • We’re working on new features across the platform to serve publishers, including the addition of analytics, upgrading the CMS, and optimizing the subscription sign-up process.

  • We have more great private beta publishers waiting just off stage. We can’t wait to tell you more about them.

That’s all for this week! Thanks for your continued support of Substack.

Any questions? Fire ’em at us: hello@substack.com

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Kelly Dwyer, NBA raconteur, goes his own way

Substack’s second customer fires up The Second Arrangement

When we think of the ideal Substack publishers, we think of people who can reflect and inspire passion among a core group of readers. Few writers fit the bill better than Kelly Dwyer, who we consider one of the great NBA writers today.

Dwyer came up in the late nineties and early aughts by building a cult following around Behind the Boxscore, a column in which he reviewed every single NBA game every night of the season. It’s not exactly the sort of thing you’ll see in your local paper. Dwyer’s known for his wry observations (“The first thing we pulled out of our stocking this year was Gordon Hayward’s antipodal ankle”), cutting insights (“He’s Hunan Shrimp”), and ruminative paeans to under-appreciated beauty (“It’s getting cold now, so you look to what warms. The leafy ones, still clinging”). He’s the closest thing to a beat poet anywhere near the NBA. “One of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has said.

Today, Dwyer, a journeyman whose travels have taken him through NBATalk.com, Sports Illustrated, and Yahoo Sports, is launching his own thing: a subscription publication to free his expansive mind from the shackles of click-mad chicanery. It’s called The Second Arrangement. The tagline: “I rise when the sun goes down / cover every game in town.” It sits, in the parlance of the Hot-Take Economy, at the intersection of the NBA and Steely Dan. With the arrival of The Second Arrangement (subscribe) comes the return of Behind the Boxscore, emailed to subscribers at the end of every basketball night. And there’ll be more: features, podcasts, and other drips of sweat from Dwyer’s keyboard to bring relief to the league.

Dwyer, who lives in Lafayette, Indiana, started Behind the Boxscore for OnHoops.com (RIP) in 1999. “I was already up, already watching this stuff, already taking it in,” he says. “Already coming home from college parties with shitty lager on my breath. I’m that addicted to it.” He wanted something that would quench an unquenchable thirst for the game; something that informed and entertained. Something more than boilerplate. “That’s what I wanted to read, so that’s why I started writing,” he says. The column was an extension of an obsessive streak apparent in his work from a young age. At 12, he wrote a biography of Queen based on liner notes from the band’s CDs. At 17, he wrote a thousand-page NBA almanac with biographies of every player. “I am terribly miscast as an orthodox writer.”

His go-deep-and-weird approach to writing has probably cost him some money over time, but it has maximized his credibility. When Dwyer landed his Sports Illustrated column at age 24, he did it for free. His wife’s hairdressing work paid the bills. He graduated to $150 a piece, but his main income came from tending the bar at a Best Western alongside a lounge singer whose nightly masterwork was a drum machine-backed rendition of Lady in Red. Collared shirts; aprons; wine bottles on the ties. “That’s the low-point bar,” he says today. “It has not been easy to be a sports writer.”

In June, Dwyer was laid off by Yahoo, where he had worked on the Ball Don’t Lie blog since 2009. “It was my dream job,” he said at the time. “I wanted it for life.” Reflecting on the call that ended his employment, Dwyer says it was rough. “It was deadening for a second. And then I drove to the hair salon and waited for my wife’s blue eyes to show up, and then we had a little cry.” In the months that followed, he did normal-person things: traveled around the state; got a library card; focused on being a better husband and dad. The job market for sports writers didn’t look encouraging. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and Fox Sports, to name a few, were laying off writers by the dozens. Clickbait ruled the day.

Dwyer saw a better way. He wanted to write for an audience that paid him directly. That way, he could write what he wanted, how he wanted, and on a schedule that made sense. He wouldn’t have to worry about ads getting in the way of his words, and he wouldn’t have to fret over pageviews. “I’m sick of having my column show up fifty-second because I didn’t write the headline right,” he says. He envisages The Second Arrangement as a “themed conversation” between him and his readers. It will have an intimate feel; unvarnished. No bullshit. Just Dwyer, his words, and his readers.

“I want to be driving really fast in a slow car,” he says. “I want people to be able to feel the road with this one.”

We couldn’t be happier to help him step on the gas.

Subscribe to The Second Arrangement.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Maximizing passion

Hardcore fans will pay for great writing

A common question we hear is: “How many people do you think are out there who can do well from subscription publications?” Our answer is that we see two clear cases:

  • Group 1: writers like Ben Thompson who can write useful analysis or news about a particular industry for which that industry’s members will be happy to pay (especially if they can put it on their corporate credit card); and

  • Group 2: writers who are expert in, or passionate about, a particular niche and can build an audience by covering that niche exceptionally well.

It’s easy for people to see the potential for “Ben Thompsons of industries other than tech”—and indeed, Substack’s first publisher, Bill Bishop, fits that mold. But the second category requires more imagination. To many, it’s not yet clear that readers will happily pay for non-professional online content, notwithstanding the rise of Patreon, which is due to pay creators $150 million this year, and The Athletic, a subscription sports news network that has raised $8 million.

So why do we think that Group 2 is going to be a big thing?

Well, for a start, we just believe strongly that people will pay to read high-quality stuff about the subjects and people they care most deeply about. But thanks to Patreon and a nascent pre-Substack subscription publishing movement, it’s also clear that a meaningful number of people are willing to pay good money for podcasts about war history, YouTube shows about video game critiques, in-depth NASCAR reporting, body building, and many other niche interest areas. As the barriers to starting subscription publications are lowered, we expect to see the emergence of many more “monetizable” editorial niches.

One of our favorite new subscription publishers has observed that passion is the key underlying ingredient for this emerging economy. Ben Falk, a former VP of basketball strategy for the Philadelphia 76ers, has just launched Cleaning the Glass, a stats-and-analysis site for hardcore NBA fans (subscribe). Falk, a data-crunching Moneyballer who also happens to be an exceptional writer, goes deep on the NBA, breaking down the mechanics behind a modern defense, examining the evolution of big centers, and showing how behavioral psychology influences which players get picked in the draft, to pick just a few areas of his coverage.

In last week’s introductory letter for Cleaning the Glass, Falk said he was committed to “quality above all else.” He didn’t want to maximize clicks, because “that drives a certain type of behavior and content: catering to a more general audience, hot takes, lightning rod topics, controversy, argument, click bait.” Asking readers to pay was the best way to run the kind of publication he dreamed of reading himself.

“A subscription-based business, on the other hand, needs to maximize passion. It’s not about the number of people you can get to click on your site and skim your article or video. It’s about the number of people who see it and love it and are willing to pay for more of it.”

Falk doesn’t want to be beholden to advertisers. He wants to be beholden to “the true fans.” By paying $7.50 a month or $75 a year, they allow him to bring light, instead of heat, to complex topics. Those paying fans allow him to elevate the standard of discourse around something for which all involved share a deep passion: the NBA.

It’s a beautiful model for a beautiful game, and it’s one we can’t wait to see more of.

Got any niches that you’re dying to see a subscription publication cover? Email us your ideas at hello@substack.com.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Why we’re in private beta

Moving fast and slow

Since we launched our first customer’s publication, Sinocism (subscribe), we’ve received a flood of inquiries from publishers interested in using Substack. That’s awesome and we hope the interest continues. But we want to make it clear that we can’t take everyone just yet.

Substack is, for now, in private beta. That means we’re working with only a small number of hand-picked publishers until (probably) the end of 2017.

We’re rolling out in this fashion because we want to build a product that subscription publishers absolutely love. We think the best way to do that is to start by serving the needs of a select few customers and getting the product right for them. That means we need to invest a lot of manual work in every customer. Since we’re just three people right now, that has to be a small group.

Our goal here is to build a wonderful, stable product that can scale to hundreds, and then thousands, and later many more publishers. We want to build a new ecosystem for independent publishers to make real money from subscriptions, and for readers to get friction-free access to content they care deeply about. We believe that’s a huge opportunity for everyone, so it’s important that we don’t mess it up by getting ahead of ourselves.

So, absolutely reach out to us at hello@substack.com. If you are a writer with an established audience who wants to charge around $10 a month, we want to work with you soon. If not, we will put you on our waitlist and keep you updated as we roll out more broadly in the near future.