I think ultimately that the membership program hasn’t worked as well as we had hoped, but I do think it’s one of the more innovative things that we’ve done. It was kind of trying to combine the concept of Kickstarter with The Faster Times. The idea is that you don’t just become a member, you choose your favorite writer in the process. And that writer—just as the writer receives seventy-five percent of the ad revenue—also receives seventy-five percent of the membership fee. We try to avoid the word “sponsor” because we didn’t want it to feel like the writer was begging for money or anything like that.
Then, just as with Kickstarter, if you donate and choose a writer to support, in addition to the standard gifts we would give, like t-shirts or tote bags or a subscription to The New Yorker, that writer can also give you a personal gift or thank-you in addition to the usual gifts. So we’ve had our writers come up with really creative stuff, usually related to their journalism expertise. For instance, they’ll offer to critique someone’s essay, or a food writer might send them a favorite recipe, or a travel writer will offer to send them a personalized travel itinerary. One writer even offered to write someone a personalized erotic story—and not surprisingly, that’s been one of the more popular ones.
There’s a number of issues with these ideas, but first and foremost, I think we haven’t executed it as well as we could have. Not having a big budget, the sign-up process was a little convoluted, and we didn’t have great promotions for it. It’s done okay, but I still feel like it deserves another chance, when we have a little more money to do it right.
Is this a model that you think would work well for other kinds of websites? If other publications were thinking about doing something like this, what advice would you give them?
I think another part of the problem is, something like Kickstarter works in the sense that it’s self-selective for people who want to go out and sell themselves. A certain percentage of our writers have that mentality, but the majority of them don’t. Myself included—I don’t know if I would want to ask everybody I know to put money towards my work. So I think that, if we started a publication and sought out those types of people from the start, and that was our core group, then this model might have worked better. But we were starting with a core group, most of whom didn’t really like that concept. [Laughs.]
So I think, increasingly, in all aspects of professional life, you need to be willing to work social media hard, and sell yourself hard. It takes a certain type of personality to do that. I think it’s kind of unfortunate in some ways, that you have to kind of be your own brand nowadays. But I think that another publication that wants to try this model is going to have to look for those types of personalities.
Right. I think there are a lot of journalists who like to stay in the background. Do people also worry that taking money from donors might mean that they will be expected to write about certain things, or to cover something in a certain way, the way the donor would want it to be covered?
Well, we’re asking for donations of twelve, or thirty-five, or a hundred dollars, so it wasn’t ever the kind of money that I thought would be influencing the writers. So I hadn’t really worried about that. But certainly, we never would have let donations influence our writers.
What do you think of some of the other different kinds of alternative sources of revenue out there for news organizations? For instance, a lot of outlets are looking into partnerships with Groupon or daily-deal type things, The New Yorker puts together conferences, The Nation has a fundraising cruise .
Whatever works! You know, real journalism hasn’t ever really been supporting itself—it used to be supported by classified ads and those kinds of things. There still needs to be indirect ways of supporting the work. So if people can figure it out, I’m all for it. Some of the British papers have had a lot of success with selling merchandise online. Once you have a lot of traffic, there are a lot of possibilities, and it’s just a matter of figuring out what works for you. That’s part of the reason that I remain optimistic about The Faster Times, even though we haven’t made a lot of money.