Q&A: Sam Apple of The Faster Times, on Alternative Revenue Sources

“Journalism hasn’t ever directly supported itself.”

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?

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.

One thing we’ve done that has worked out pretty well is that we’ve set up a separate arm of the company—we call it Faster Times Media—and we’re basically doing content work for other brands, that’s not work that appears on The Faster Times site itself. It’s basically, we approach them and say, we’re a collective of writers, and as long as it doesn’t conflict with our journalism, we can run a blog for your company, too. We’re trying, as much as possible, to have a clear separation between the two. So the rule is, if you’re written about a brand, you can’t write about them on the site, etcetera. Of the different experiments we’ve tried, it has been the most successful—it’s allowed us to get an office and to start paying people more.

I mean, this is still relatively new, and we’re certainly walking a fine line in this branded territory. We’re working really hard to always maintain a distinction between that work and our journalism on The Faster Times. But so far we’ve been lucky, I think, in that we haven’t really been asked to write directly about a brand, which becomes a little bit more tricky.

One of our first accounts was with the British Airways, for instance, and they didn’t want us to write about how great British Airways is—they wanted us to write about small businesses, which is part of their larger campaign to attract small business owners to use British Airways more. So basically we were just writing a small-business blog, and our authors are almost all freelancers, and so for them it was just like another freelance gig. But it gave value to us as well, where we could say to the writers, “Hey, we know you’re not making a lot of money with The Faster Times, but by working with us, you’re also available to be included in these other freelance opportunities that come up.”

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner