Advice for journalism startups: Take the money. Take it all. Ask for more
A few hours ago I sat down to write my usual somewhat-weekly newsletter to NSFWCORP subscribers. Normally I include links to the great journalism the team has produced in the previous week along with my standard blurb about how great NSFWCORP is going and how you should subscribe to be part of our success. Blah blah blah.
But this week, writing a message like that seemed more bullshitty than normal. I mean, yes, entrepreneurs are always supposed to be selling. Everything is always great, until it's not. We're always committed to the course until we pivot. We're always fiercely independent until we sell to AOL.
And certainly, in the past month or so, the story of how NSFWCORP has cracked the nut of getting people to pay for journalism has started to catch on, and not least because it's at least half true. The New York Times has written a variation of that story, so has Reuters and the Daily Beast. And I know of at least three other reporters who are working on in-depth profiles of what we're doing out here in Vegas.
But the fact that thousands of people have signed up to read what we write, while absolutely true, is only half the story. And that's why I felt uncomfortable when I sat down to write today's newsletter. You see, while NSFWCORP has raised a decent chunk of cash from investors (around $900,000, last count) and we're a little under halfway towards breaking even through subscriber revenue, the truth is we're also rarely ever more than a couple of months away from completely running out of money.
The reasons for this aren't hard to fathom. Journalism, particularly serious investigative journalism, is really fucking expensive. Insanely so, at times, which is why today's killer scoop about the NSA's ability to decrypt your communications and mine wasn't published by an independent magazine like NSFWCORP, or even by a publicly traded super-indie like Salon.com (where Glenn Greenwald used to write, until recently) and certainly not on Edward Snowden's personal blog. Instead it was published through a collaboration of two giant newspapers (the Times and the Guardian) with additional support from Pro Publica. Because great journalism takes both talent and time, two of the most expensive things in the world, especially when multiplied together.
Which brings me to the newsletter, the text of which I've republished here, if you're interested in reading it. Rather than focusing on the positive of how we're doing, I decided to share some of the actual numbers behind our business. For example, how it takes 100 subscribers just to cover the reporting expenses of a single story about abortion rights in North Carolina (a relatively inexpensive story by our standards, and just one of maybe a dozen we published that week).
With around 5,000 subscribers paying $7 for our web and print editions (or $3 for Web only), it's little wonder that we continue to launch additional revenue drivers like our Conflict Tower: a way for our most dedicated subscribers to buy a 10-year subscription to NSFWCORP for a one-off payment of "just" $200.
So far we've brought in a little over $70,000 through the Conflict Tower -- enough to cover the additional reporting costs (not including salaries and healthcare) of 50 to 100 online stories, or the investigative reporting in four or five print editions. Our two 24-hour marathon radio fundraisers brought in around $20,000 more.
The purpose of sharing those numbers, apart from to balance out some of the hype about us -- because, as I've written before, hype isn't particularly helpful -- was as a precursor for asking subscribers if they'd tell 2 to 3 friends about NSFWCORP and encourage them to subscribe too. That's more important than any one-off radio telethons: When we reach 12,000 subscribers, we'll be entirely self-sustaining as a business, and I can stop writing emails begging for money.
What I didn't get into, though, was a more basic issue with the economics of journalism startups. That's too inside baseball even for our subscribers, but I figured it might be interesting to share with PandoDaily readers.
Imagine if I told you that there was -- I dunno -- an email app which had been featured prominently by the New York Times, Reuters, and The Daily Beast. Imagine the latter publication had described this app as the most interesting example of its type. Imagine the company behind it had hired a dream team of developers with decades of experience building that kind of app -- developers so well regarded that they've won awards and are frequently invited to speak on television about the things they've built. Imagine people were paying for the app in larger numbers than they're paying for comparable apps from far larger organizations. How hard would it be for the makers of that app to raise money, do you suppose? Almost impossible, right?
Nah, I'm fucking with you. They'd be swimming in venture money. Drowning in it, maybe.
And yet look at the editorial startups you've heard of recently. The wise ones (BuzzFeed, The Verge) made sure they had a ton of money in the bank before they launched. That's by far the easiest time to convince investors that you're doing something different enough, or good enough, to give them the return they need. I'm not saying it's impossible to raise money after launch -- we recently raised another couple of hundred thousand dollars from one additional investor, but were unable to get any of our previous backers to join the round. PandoDaily raised another half million too. But, at the risk of appearing uncharitable to my fellow startup founders, the editorial startups who can raise millions of dollars post-launch also tend to be ones who don't share my fears regarding the usefulness of slideshows and kitten videos.
Meantime, those of us who, through accident, design, or lack of opportunity, didn't start out with a big war chest very quickly realize that often the only way to stay the course is to be acquired (Matter), pivot into a platform (Atavist), or constantly be finding new ways to beg existing subscribers for cash until we hit break-even.
(Another thing that few editorial startup founders mention, largely because the law makes it very hard for them to talk about, is how current laws prevent us from appealing directly to subscribers to become equity investors. The laws on General Solicitation are changing but right now if, hypothetically, we were in the process of raising a new round of founding -- even just trying to bring in $100,000 or so -- it would be very legally dicey for me to say so, even to PandoDaily's audience. I certainly couldn't mention it in our subscriber newsletter, even if I knew there were readers who would happily chip in $10,000 or so in return for a tiny slice of NSFWCORP. There are good reasons for this, of course -- not least to protect non-accredited investors from snake oil salesmen -- but it's yet another obstacle for any journalism entrepreneur facing a looming cash-flow crunch.)
The good news for us is that my email seems to have lit at least a small fire today. We've seen more new subscribers this afternoon than during the rest of the week combined, and my Twitter client keeps pinging with another current subscriber encouraging their followers to sign up. I appreciate every single one of them more than would sound sincere if I tried to put it into words. (Update: as I was editing this post I also looked at the number of people who have bought the $200 10-year Conflict Tower subscription -- we're in real danger of running out, which is just plain astonishing and humbling.)
So maybe we'll be okay. Maybe we won't have to pivot into another godforsaken "platform."
All I know is that we're not giving up. Which reminds me of something Naval Ravikant from AngelList said when I saw him recently:
"Startups only die for two reasons: The founder gives up, or they run out of money."
The former is never going to happen at NSFWCORP, but the possibility of the latter is very real and is a constant source of agony, not just for us but for everyone struggling to make a business out of great journalism today.
We're doing everything we can to stay in business and keep doing the kind of work that gets the attention of the folks at the Times, Reuters, and the rest. But if other journalism entrepreneurs can learn anything from our current pain it's this: if someone offers to invest in you before you launch, take it. Take all of it. And ask for more. Because it only gets harder -- much, much harder -- once you start proving that you're more than just a business plan and a neat idea.
[Disclosure: NSFWCORP shares two investors with PandoDaily: Vegas Tech Fund and CrunchFund. Neither invested in NSFWCORP's last round.]