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.