And from the ashes, the subscription-based blogs have risen
5 min read

And from the ashes, the subscription-based blogs have risen

First The Dispatch, then Study Hall, then Discourse Blog and now Defector: Creative teams of writers are building exciting new sites on the backs of subscriptions.
And from the ashes, the subscription-based blogs have risen

A song to read by: “Where Is Love?” by The Equatics

What I’m reading: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley


Welcome to the world, Defector Media

Earlier this week, a new media company named Defector Media announced itself to the Twitterati. Next week I’ll be interviewing one of its founding members, so I’ll save the in-depth description till then.

The main thing you need to know is that when Defector sprang into existence, it did so with a subscription campaign. The dozen or so staff members tweeted a link to the site’s landing page, where users were met with their options for subscribing. On the page, Defector announced that its real site would be coming in September. This was just a place where you could sign up to subscribe.

Within days, the campaign netted more than 10,000 subscriptions, according to Defector’s Twitter. Assuming they mean paying subscribers, even at the lowest possible monetary amount that’s $57,500.

(That’s if you assume 10,000 people signed up the $69/year option, which breaks down into $5.75/month [lower than the $8/month option]. Multiply that by 10,000 and that’s technically the lowest amount of money, calculated per month, they could make off 10,000 “subscribers.”)

The brilliant thing? The whole enterprise feels like a Kickstarter, as if you’re helping get a project you love off the ground. And in a sense, it is that.

But what it is really is a pre-sale. Defector landed more than 10,000 subscribers (and 100,000 Twitter followers, by the way) in less than a week, which is an amazing basis on which to build a media company.

Now, before they’ve even written an article or launched a website, Defector has a reliable income of at least $57,000 a month.

Why is this relevant?

Because just a few weeks ago, Discourse Blog launched their subscription product on Substack and generated more than $60,000 in revenue in the first few days.

Study Hall, which just launched its new website, is trending upward in a major way, thanks to starting as a newsletter — a Patreon success story! — and expanding as they raised more revenue.

And of course you have The Dispatch, the consortium of conservative writers standing on each other’s shoulders while wearing a trench coat. Jokes aside, it’s the most lucrative newsletter package on Substack — the site’s first bundle to generate more than $1 million in revenue — and it’s expanding into a bona fide media company.

What do Discourse Blog, Study Hall and The Dispatch all have in common with Defector Media? They are websites built from Day 1 on the backs of subscriptions.

Subscriptions again? Stop it, Mark!

Okay but hear me out. These “blogs” (that feels wrong, but “publishers” feels a little too august, sorry!) have figured something out. By basing your financial strategy on subscriptions from the get-go, you can build up steadily with very little money.

Discourse Blog was a group of people writing for free on the side. When they saw that there was a huge audience craving their writing, they threw it behind a paywall and pitched subscriptions as a kind of “support the media you love” kickstarter. And it’s worked, wildly.

Study Hall, to my understanding, had a similarly casual start, though I could be wrong. It’s certainly growing, and it has certainly maintained its idiosyncratic style and voice.

The Dispatch was the brainchild of a number of industry veterans who had a lot of industry clout to throw around. The site’s readership came pre-baked thanks to the writers’ massive personal audiences, but they’ve built the concept into a real company. Though I do not share most of their views, what they’ve done in terms of laying the blueprint is pretty impressive.

And now you have Defector, the perfect blend of casual and surgical. A voice-y, confident rollout with a streamlined business plan as backdrop has set the tone for what the site hopes to accomplish.

Subscriptions have enabled all of these sites to come to life. That’s a big deal!

But what’s the catch?

How many other sites can ride the subscription wave? Nobody really knows. Subscription fatigue doesn’t seem to be a thing, even though everyone thought it would be. But the jury’s still out on that. I, meanwhile, have like 10 subscriptions and no money for food.

Also, consider the fact of their imported audiences. Each of these sites was able to raise a huge round of fundraising because — get this — they were already popular. It’s like when someone who has $1 million makes another $1 million dollars — it’s a lot easier to do when you have a head-start.

I don’t begrudge anyone for this — they certainly earned their renown and they are all great writers. It just means that for the other writers who don’t carry their readership in their back pocket, getting a lot of people to pay attention to you will still be an uphill battle. So the subscription plan works a lot better when you already have some industry clout.

What’re the benefits?

Well, from day one these sites are in close communication with their readership. Listening to what readers say they will pay for will help guide their content-making decisions, as a subscription relationship is inherently more of a two-way street.

This model can even help bring more media representation to marginalized groups, who are often ignored as potential audiences for their smaller sizes. In a user-payment system, all you need is 5,000 paying customers and you can have a business.

They can add in advertising if they like, but these sites have built their financial model on a more stable foundation: the subscription. This means that if advertising disappears — or rather never appears — or if a pandemic, hypothetically, forced live events to close, you will still have consistent stream of revenue. That makes a world of difference.

You also need far less money to launch, which means you don’t need to go through a VC or take out a loan. To my knowledge, at least two of the four above-mentioned companies are worker-owned, in fact, which is nearly impossible when you need, say, $2 million to launch even a scrappy little media startup out of thin air.

And if the blogs are a success, that money gets divided up right into the pockets of the writers. Of course, as the blogs grow they can hire infrastructural workers, but all you need initially is a group of talented, preferably famous writers.

In Summation

Subscriptions are already generally considered to be a key part of saving the existing publishing industry — now they might also be the source of entirely new media companies.

Follow these four blogs and see how they do. If things work out, these sites could prove that you can build new media companies on the backs of subscriptions.

Some good readin’

— This piece from Hunter Harris, possibly one of my favorite people on Twitter, about Flo Milli for Vulture.

— An open letter from Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton to Meredith Kopit Levien, the new CEO of The New York Times Company. Open letters can be corny, but this one is sharp and light. (Nieman Lab)

— The only piece that made sense of the Four Technocrats’ appearance in Congress. (Politico)