Last week, CJR released a new report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, entitled “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of journalism.” To supplement Chapter Eight, “New Users, New Revenue: Alternative ways to make money,” assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Sam Apple, founder and publisher of The Faster Times, about what he’s learned from experimenting with things like writer sponsorship and branded content. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Can you describe the original business model of The Faster Times, and how you came up with it?
When we launched in July 2009, the goal was to create a broad news site in the model of HuffPost or The Daily Beast, but with an emphasis on paying our writers. I had read about how much revenue The Huffington Post was taking in, and yet they still weren’t profitable, and I recall thinking that if we made a small fraction of that money, that we could be profitable. I thought that if we reduced almost all of the overhead, we could produce something that would be a strong publication and have money to spread to the writers. Our model was to do a revenue split, where the writers took home seventy-five percent of all of the ad revenue for their pages.
Now, it’s been almost two years, and a lot of things have turned out really well, and I’m glad that we’re going strong at this point, but the revenue situation has not panned out in a lot of respects. We have continued to pay the writers, but it just hasn’t been enough, ultimately.
When you were thinking about reducing overhead costs, what kinds of things did you mean? Like, that you wouldn’t have high-paid fulltime executives?
Right, I thought we could do it without an office—although we have an office now—and without lots of executives. Basically the idea was that we were all journalists and freelancers, myself included, and that we would all pool together and make it a writers’ collective, rather than a top-down thing. I knew that Wordpress, as the web infrastructure, was free, so it wouldn’t be that expensive to create a site. I knew so many people who were already blogging for themselves or for HuffPost for free, and so I thought that, just by the fact that we’d be paying them anything would be a positive step in the right direction. But whether or not paying a little is better than paying nothing—that’s something that we’ve talked about from day one, and it continues to be a good debate. If we could pay a lot, obviously, that would be much better. But sometimes our payments have been small enough that it kind of borders on insulting.
So some people think you shouldn’t pay anything at all, in that case?
My friend, who is a behavioral economist, has argued that no payments might actually be better than small payments, in terms of motivation. He used the example, there have been studies of blood donation, where people tend to give more if there’s no payment than if there’s a very small payment.
Despite that concern, we’ve continued to pay, and the amounts have increased. But one big drawback has been that, for what we can pay, people seem to be willing to do commentary, and reviews, and a certain type of reporting, such as what we call “event reporting.” But what people haven’t necessarily been willing to do, for what we can pay, is go out and really dig up a big story or work the phones hard. We’ve had some exceptions to that rule, but day in and day out, it’s very hard for us to get the kind of reporting that I would like to have on the site.
So we are actually now about to launch a new program, where we pay, in addition to the revenue split, bonuses for any pieces that have solid reporting. We’ve been kind of jokingly calling it “Cash for Scoops.” That’s our next experiment. I do think that one reason I’ve enjoyed working with The Faster Times is that we have kind of seen it as an ongoing experiment, where we can try different things, and see what works and what doesn’t.
Can you tell us about the membership program, how that works, and what was involved in that decision?