For publishers looking to sweeten the subscriptions pot, the self-improvement economy beckons
6 min read

For publishers looking to sweeten the subscriptions pot, the self-improvement economy beckons

Coursera, Masterclass, Skillshare, and Rosetta Stone have all seen massive spikes in popularity during the pandemic. Publishers should take note.
For publishers looking to sweeten the subscriptions pot, the self-improvement economy beckons

A song to read by: “Back in the Day,” by Erykah Badu

What I’m reading: “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston


How do you convince a visitor to your website to subscribe to your publication? Not since Aquinas’ attempts to figure out how many angels could dance on the head of a pin has such a seemingly simple question stumped so many seemingly smart people.

The answer, frustratingly, is complex. One thing we know for sure, though, is that readers need to see a subscription as being “worth it”; there needs to be an obvious “value add,” to lift the parlance of a product manager.

In recent years, as subscriptions have become increasingly important, publishers have tried to convince readers to pay their monthly fees by baking perks into the subscription cost.

Yes, by inputting your credit card information you get access to all the writing, photography, and analysis, but you also get access to exclusive newsletters, a free bit of merchandise, and maybe even a thank you letter. The more things a subscriber gets with their subscription, the likelier they are to subscribe and stay subscribed.

But publications ultimately have one main thing that their customers want: information. It is the most compelling value-add that journalism will ever have to offer. And recently, a novel method of communicating information has seen an eye-popping surge in popularity: the online class.

Self-improvement, but make it capitalist

The self-improvement economy is the pragmatic elder sibling of the self-help economy. This isn’t “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” but rather professional certification, coding bootcamps, and language acquisition. It is the natural offspring of the unholy union between capitalism and education: the more things you can do, the more your labor (and time!) are worth.

If Tony Robbins and Eckhart Tolle are the faces of self-help, websites like Masterclass, Coursera, Skillshare, and Rosetta Stone are the standard-bearers of self-edification.

Masterclass gives customers the opportunity to hone their craft by following the example of a celebrity expert. Coursera is decidedly academic, offering online learning for free to interested parties. Skillshare teaches users creative pursuits, such as animation and design, while Rosetta Stone and Duolingo put aspiring polyglots on the fast-track to multilingualism.

Self-improvement sites like this are appealing for a variety of reasons. Some users, whose souls and desires are as pure as the fresh-driven snow, simply want to become better people, expand their creative horizons, and manifest their best selves.

Others see professional utility in learning a new skill. Coding bootcamps, such as General Assembly and Flatiron, are the most prominent players in this field, but they are more intimidating than their more casual, liberal arts-leaning peers. Coding academies are also expensive and require a significant commitment of willpower, usually the kind spurred by a career change.

Masterclass, Coursera, Skillshare, and Rosetta Stone all have practical applications as well, and potential customers certainly see them as a means of upping their professional value.

A bilingual anyone is more helpful than a monolingual anyone, everything else being equal. A journalist with a graphic design background is likelier to survive the next round of furloughs than their stick-figuring peer. A basic understanding of business finance could help you stand out in the next budget meeting.

The self-improvement gold rush

Given the uncertainty of the current economy and everyone’s newfound abundance of free time, self-improvement programs have exploded in popularity in recent months.

A fear of job instability (stick) and the potential for career advancement (carrot) have led millions of new customers to flock to programs that make them smarter.

According to Inside Higher Ed, 18 million users have joined Coursera since mid-March, a more than 400% increase over the same period last year.

Skillshare tripled its member sign-ups and recently closed a $66 million funding round.

Masterclass saw subscriptions surge tenfold over the average during parts of the pandemic, with subscribers spending twice as much time on the platform as they did before.

From April to June, Rosetta Stone saw 92% year-over-year growth in its consumer language segment. Duolingo saw a similar increase, with new users spiking by 101% in March alone.

Interest in coding bootcamps, online classes (including MBAs), and other self-improvement staples have all risen as well. Across the board, people are using the pandemic to expand their skill set.

Where publishers come in

After covering, researching, and writing about a subject for years on end, journalists can become experts in their fields.

Sometimes this expertise is more objective: Jeffrey Toobin is a great legal journalist because he is also a great lawyer. Sometimes this expertise comes via osmosis, such as Kara Swisher having spent years covering the tech industry.

Occasionally, as is often the case with cultural expertise, this can be the product of a naturally incisive thinker who decides to become a journalist; Jia Tolentino, Wesley Lowery, and Rebecca Traister come to mind.

Sometimes, this expertise might not be as glamorous, but it could be just as valuable. I used to love Quixem Ramirez’s commentary on the San Antonio Spurs, and one of my favorite music writers is Austin’s own Rachel Rascoe.

In short, after spending years in the field, extensively writing about a subject matter in depth, some journalists reach a level of erudition in their fields that could qualify them to speak on the subject with others.

This is what makes the rise of the self-improvement economy so intriguing. Publications are old hats when it comes to packaging and repackaging their journalists’ expertise into different forms. Writing, of course, is the main one, but there are also podcasts, newsletters, video shorts, infographics, etc.

Publications already traffic in the information economy; moving into the self-improvement universe is just a lateral step away.

Same product, different packaging

Unlike reporting the news, speaking on a podcast, or making a television appearance, educational videos like the kind you’ll find on Coursera or Masterclass have much longer shelf lives.

A veteran tech journalist could film a handful of videos explaining the ins and outs of big tech’s checkered history with anti-competitive legislation, and the videos would be relevant for years. Sprinkle in a few exclusive anecdotes, an insider tip or two, and you have a product that could make a subscription seem a lot more valuable.

Pete Wells could film a series of videos telling gourmands all the red flags he watches for before he’s been seated. Taylor Lorenz could walk Boomers through TikTok. J.A. Adande could dish on the juicy Michael Jordan details that were too scurrilous to make “The Last Dance.”

Or, consider that these journalists simply talk about the things they know best: how to write compelling stories; how to conduct an interview with a subject in danger; how to fact-check an unreliable source.

These could be taught in journalism school instead of putting on “Spotlight” again, and aspiring journalists could use them to familiarize themselves with the lexicon, methodology, and habits of great journalists.

It’s hardly far-fetched: Bob Woodward has a class available for purchase on Masterclass right now, and his reputation has never been worse.

Sealing the deal

Following in the footsteps of the Patreon model, publications could offer these videos behind a paywall. Pay $10.99 for a subscription, and you can access them all.

Unlike an article, these series would require some time to watch, improving the odds that new subscribers would have to stay subscribed for a while to watch all the way through. This model would both encourage on-the-fence readers to subscribe and give current subscribers more reason to re-up their monthly commitment.

Or, to put the OnlyFans model into play, these educational series could be additional purchases. You pay your $10.99 to subscribe, which buys you the opportunity to pay an extra $5.99 per video. I always think is an impossible sell, but some sex workers on OnlyFans are making more than half of their income through these extra purchases. People will pay for more access to people they like.

Any number of price models could work, but the line of logic remains the same: Readers visit publications’ websites because they want information. Millions of people have expressed a willingness to pay to consume edifying information, from an expert, in video form. Publications employ dozens of such experts. The dots practically connect themselves.

Potential issues

As I’ve noted before, when “normal” employees become “talent,” complications can arise. Who owns the IP of these videos? If a journalist becomes incredibly popular through these educational shorts, can they go solo or will their contract restrict them? Would the journalists be paid more for their work on the videos?

If the answers to these questions seem obvious, it’s because they are. But, that hasn’t stopped employers from royally fucking them up time after time.

Bon Appetit is just the latest example of what happens when “talent contracts” find their way into the offices of magazines and blogs. The “Call Her Daddy” drama is an ongoing example of the intellectual property issues that can erupt from the most unlikely of places. And BuzzFeed has dealt with its share of prominent podcasters abandoning the mother ship.

This is all to say that when journalists become anything more than just journalists, it can get complicated. But hindsight is 2020 right?

Some good readin’

— Emily Ratajkowski’s stunning personal essay. (The Cut)

— Haley Nahman’s brilliant feminist critique of Emily Ratajkowski’s stunning personal essay. (Maybe Baby)

— For Blackbird Spyplane, Jonah Weiner interviewed Nathan Fielder?? If you don’t understand that sentence, lose this number. (BBSP)