It’s a heady time for publishers of subscription-supported news. The New York Times added more than half a million paying online readers in 2016, and its digital subscription revenue was up 17 percent from the year before. The Washington Post says it doubled its digital subscription revenue in 2016, and The Wall Street Journal also reports healthy subscriber growth.
It turns out that people are willing to pay for news. But the Times, Post, and Journal are some of the world’s biggest news organizations. What happens when a solitary journalist tries a business model dependent on paying subscribers?
For Jeff Gluck and Derek Bodner, two self-employed sportswriters who recently started crowdfunding their independent journalism, what happened was better than either had hoped. Gluck covers NASCAR and makes around $6,500 a month from 800 subscribers through the subscription payments site Patreon. Bodner, a basketball reporter and analyst who focuses on the Philadelphia 76ers, has Patreon revenue of around $4,500 per month from 1,600 subscribers. Both give away most of their work on their own websites, with supplemental goodies like email newsletters for paying supporters.
Gluck and Bodner are among the most successful independent journalists on Patreon, which was founded as a way for all sorts of artists and content creators to get paid by their fans. Its primary market these days is podcasts. The idea that sportswriters could make a good living entirely through Patreon surprises even Jack Conte, Patreon’s CEO and co-founder.
“Yes, that was the number one primary intended use: NASCAR writers,” he jokes.
Gluck, 36, has been covering NASCAR for 11 years, the past four for USA Today. While writing for USA Today, he was based in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is home to most NASCAR teams. In January, he told USA Today he was moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his wife has an internship (she’s changing careers to become a child life specialist, someone who supports sick children as they get chemotherapy or other treatment).
His editors told him the NASCAR job needed to stay in Charlotte, so Gluck decided to work for himself and ask his readers to pay for his travel from Albuquerque to NASCAR races.
“It was kind of a crazy, scary thing, but I just felt it would be better for my family,” he says.
He thought about starting a subscriber-only site with a paywall, but he didn’t want to limit his audience. “I thought it might be hard getting interviews with certain people or getting credentials if you only have, say, 800 readers,” he says.
I couldn’t find too many successful examples, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Honestly, I figured if it didn’t work, maybe it’s time to move on from journalism.”
But then Gluck had an idea. As a big fan of Survivor, the reality show, he regularly listens to a podcast about the show by a former contestant named Rob Cesternino. “He says at the end of every show, Hey, if you want to support the podcast and become a patron of the site, here’s how you to do it on Patreon. So about a year ago I started giving the guy five bucks a month,” Gluck says. “When I left USA Today I thought, Well, I wonder if this Patreon model would work. I couldn’t find too many successful examples, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Honestly, I figured if it didn’t work, maybe it’s time to move on from journalism.”
Gluck launched his site on January 23 and started promoting it on Twitter. He says he hoped to make enough to cover his expenses to travel to a few NASCAR races, and figured he’d have to get a part-time job or drive for Uber to make ends meet.
Two months later, he’s on pace to make about $77,000 per year in revenue. That’s not all salary; he spends about $1,000 to travel to each NASCAR race.
“It took off right away, to the point that I’m going to be able to do this full-time and it’s just a matter of how many races I can get to, based on the budget of the site,” Gluck says. “If it keeps going like this, I’ll probably try to bring on some other contributors.”
He made it to the first four races of the 2017 season. On March 12 in Las Vegas, he scored a viral scoop for his site: video of a fistfight between NASCAR drivers Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. The video starts with a tracking shot, as Gluck follows Busch toward Logano’s car.
“I’ve been around NASCAR long enough to know that when you see Kyle Busch…walking angrily, something’s going to happen,” Gluck says. “I didn’t know where he was going, but I thought, I should probably film this, just in case.”
A week after Gluck left USA Today in Charlotte, basketball writer Derek Bodner found himself underemployed in Philadelphia. Bodner, 35, is a database engineer by day and a basketball blogger who’s written for the Philadelphia 76ers blog Liberty Ballers and the NBA draft site DraftExpress. In 2015, he started covering the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. The magazine eliminated its sports coverage in January and ended its contract with Bodner, leaving him without an outlet for his 76ers work.
Bodner’s coverage is more sophisticated than what the typical newspaper beat writer provides. He’s fluent in advanced statistics and basketball Xs and Os, and familiar with just about every college or international NBA prospect. Since what he does appeals to a relatively small but passionate group of diehard fans, he thought he might have some success with a subscription-based site.
Bodner says he talked first to an editor at The Athletic, a subscription-based site covering sports in Chicago, Cleveland, and Toronto. The Athletic wasn’t ready to expand to Philadelphia, so Bodner decided to strike out on his own with Patreon funding.
I spend all day thinking about basketball anyway, so I might as well make it a job,” he says. “I’m probably a better basketball writer than I am an internet engineer.”
“Because I had my engineering job to fall back on, I was willing to take this risk,” he says. “If I would have had 500 people signed up, I would have been shocked. It’s far exceeding any expectations I had,” with more than 1,600 subscribers in less than two months.
As long as basketball writing remains a part-time job, Bodner says he will donate half of all revenue above $1,000 per month to Philabundance, a food bank and community kitchen. He will stop donating if he’s still making enough in six or eight months to quit his day job.
“I spend all day thinking about basketball anyway, so I might as well make it a job,” he says. “I’m probably a better basketball writer than I am an internet engineer.”
Like Gluck, Bodner rejected the idea of a subscriber-only site because he didn’t want to limit his readership, and because he didn’t want to deal with the technical hassle of a paywall. And also like Gluck, he turned to Patreon because he heard about it from a creator whose work he admires: Tim Urban, who has an illustrated blog called Wait But Why?
Bodner said he, too, had no trouble getting credentials to cover his sport for his own website. “That was all fine, because there was a relationship there with the team,” he says. “I wasn’t some random guy in his mother’s basement.”
Independent writers asking their readers for money is nothing new. In the early 2000s, when just about everyone seemed to have their own blog, the “tip jar” was a common feature, as were affiliate ads that gave bloggers a few cents when their readers used the links to buy stuff on Amazon. The difference between that model and Patreon is that almost nobody was able to make a living from those sources of income.
“You had to be world-famous to drive the number of hits to your website that you’d need to make any real money,” Conte, Patreon’s CEO, says. “A blogger who’s got 20,000 unique monthly readers is barely scraping by on ad sales.”
By creating a model that revolves around monthly payments, Patreon turned one-time tips and tiny ad buys into recurring, reliable revenue. The average patron pays a content creator about $10 per month, Conte says. Patreon takes a 5 percent cut and also passes along the fees charged by payment processing companies, which is usually another 5 percent.
The main reward for patrons is the feeling that they’re helping people do good work, but most content creators also offer some perks. Gluck has a variety of sponsorship levels, from $2 per month all the way up to the “Boss Mode” level of $100 per month, which is sold out with 10 subscribers. The perks start at subscribers-only posts for $2 a month and include a private Facebook group for racing fans at $5 a month. For $25 a month, Gluck will write a Q&A with the subscriber. For $100 a month, “Boss Mode” subscribers can basically act as assignment editors; Gluck consults them on story ideas and lets them know what’s coming next.
Bodner doesn’t offer those types of tiers, though he says he’s considering setting them up if he can make his site a full-time job. All of his subscribers who pay more than $3 a month get a daily email newsletter, a mailbag with a reader question answered every morning, a weekly subscriber-only column, and access to a monthly “ask me anything” feature.
Bodner and Gluck are outliers; most Patreon members make a little extra to help them cover expenses or supplement another job. But their success could a model for a certain type of journalist with a deep connection to readers.
Both writers say sports coverage is a much better bet for crowdfunding than, say, city hall reporting. “It requires a connection to your audience, and it think that’s easier to build in sports, and because I’m more of a columnist than a straight beat reporter, that helps too,” Bodner says.
Sports is a natural fit because fans have demonstrated they’ll pay for it, as evidenced by their cable bills. Business reporting might also work, if it offers sophisticated, insider information. Look at the tech news site The Information, which charges $399 a year for subscriptions on the promise that it will deliver scoops that move financial markets. An individual journalist who owns a particular business beat might find readers willing to pay.
“I think it would work anywhere where people feel there’s a community,” Gluck says. “Let’s say it’s environmental news, and there are a few really good reporters out there and readers who are really passionate about the environment; that could work.”
Bodner and Gluck agreed that owning a specific coverage niche has been important to their success. Compared to football, baseball, or basketball, NASCAR is a regional sport with a small number of full-time journalists covering it. Fans who want good coverage don’t have that many options.
From that point of view, NASCAR has more in common with the Philadelphia 76ers than it does with the NBA.
“We’re in a basketball town, and because the Sixers have been really bad for the last three or four years, the local media hasn’t really paid it that much attention,” Bodner says. “That has allowed me to grow as a voice in the small Sixers community. I’m the only one around the team willing to write in this way, and who has the freedom to write in this way.…It’s easy to corner a market of one.”