Pando

The State of Pando 2017: Dropping the paywall on stories from the Silicon Valley Swamp

By Sarah Lacy and Paul Bradley Carr , written on June 30, 2017

From The Inside Baseball Desk

Almost exactly two years ago, we announced that Pando was switching to a paid subscription model.

As we explained at the time, the move was in response to the changing realities of Silicon Valley, and our response to those realities:

Our frequently antagonistic relationship with past and present investors and advertisers, mixed with our absolute determination to never sell Pando means we’ll need our readers’ support if we’re to continue doing the kind of combative, independent journalism for which we’ve become known.

Fortunately (and thankfully), Pando readers flocked to become Pando subscribers. A year later we were able to post an update explaining exactly how well our subscription switch had worked. We were profitable, readership was still growing, and - as Silicon Valley continued to give a pass to companies like Uber (and CEOs like Travis Kalanick) our reporting was more important than ever.

Since then another year has passed and, well, what a difference that year has made. On the one hand, the tech industry seems swampier than ever -- near daily allegations of discrimination, harassment and assault; continued veneration of the “move fast and break people” cult of disruption and, of course, the (Pando investor) Peter Thiel led efforts by some in the industry to enable or normalize the worst policies of the Trump administration.

On the other hand, we also see near-daily consequences for that behavior: The departure of Travis Kalanick and his bro-conspirator Emil Michael, the collapse of Binary Capital, targeted boycotts of tech companies who cozy up to Trump and, just today, national legislation (not in America, obviously) to fine tech companies for their role in spreading (actual) fake news.

And here we are, stuck in the middle with you.

For all the challenges facing the journalism business, Pando is still here and still profitable. Moreover, in the past year, we’ve seen a dramatic, and sometimes comical, shift in how Pando is seen inside Valley boardrooms. Whereas for years our relentless coverage of companies like Uber was met with resistance (and occasionally anger and smears) by investors and insiders, suddenly we find ourselves being praised by those same people for our “bravery” in “calling out” bad behavior that was occurring in plain sight, on their watch. Thanks, we guess.   

The bitter irony: The swampier the tech industry gets, the more credit we get for doing our jobs and the more subscribers sign up to read our reporting and analysis. In naked commercial terms, more subscribers is a good thing. Almost all of our subscription revenue is spent directly on paying our writers and reporters. What’s left after hosting and other utility costs is spent paying our lawyers to respond to attempts by rich and powerful people to silence those same writers and reporters. Bluntly put, without the thousands of subscribers who pay to read Pando, we’d have been out of business more than a year ago.

And yet.

Now more than ever, our subscription model has a clear disadvantage. Stories about bad behavior at Uber or Binary Capital (or wherever awful behavior turns up tomorrow) need to be read and read widely if we’re to see real change in Silicon Valley.

Putting a paywall in front of those stories, regardless of the business or journalistic case for doing so, too often gives perpetrators cover (“it’s behind a paywall, nobody will see it!”). It also forces victims to choose between talking to a publication (us!) who will tell the whole story without fear or favor albeit to a deliberately limited audience, or to talk to a mainstream publication with no paywall but who (experience has shown) will often water down the story in fear of being sued by -- let’s say -- Pando investor and Trump enabler Peter Thiel.

If 2015’s big decision for us was whether to switch to a paywall, and 2016’s was how to keep reporting on Uber and other bad actors in the face of threats when (seemingly) nobody cared, then 2017’s big question is how to balance our need for subscription revenues with the urgent need to give unrestricted voice to people being victimized in Silicon Valley.

Here’s the best answer we can come up with:

As of today, we’re dropping our paywall on all stories that involve harassment, discrimination and any of the other swampy behavior plaguing Silicon Valley. Those stories will be available to anyone visiting Pando, without needing to pay a dime.

This is a horrible business decision. Those stories drive the bulk of our traffic, and the bulk of our new subscriptions. In spreadsheet terms, it’s business suicide. But in moral and journalistic terms it’s also, plainly, the right thing to do.

So we’re doing it.

BUT Pando is still funded entirely by paid subscribers and the very occasional advertiser. We have no venture capital left in the bank and no plan (or desire or, frankly, ability) to raise more more outside money. Without subscribers, we’re done.

For that reason, we’re keeping the rest of the site behind the subscriber wall (with unlocks etc). If you’re not already a subscriber, here’s the link to sign up right now. And if you're an existing subscriber who can afford to pay a little more to support independent journalism here’s how to do that.

We hope that the vast majority of current subscribers will continue to pay their $10 per month/$100 per year to keep Pando alive. We also hope all those CEOs and VCs who say they’re thrilled we’re holding them to account actually mean it -- and don’t, say, suddenly cancel their subscriptions en mass to silence us once and for all.

(If they do, we’ll find a way to keep writing publishing, of course. But we’d really really like to keep doing it under the Pando banner.)

Another change, starting today, is with our publishing schedule. Until now we’ve been publishing 1-3 stories a day, every day, between 9am and noon pacific. New breaking stories have been held until the next publishing cycle. Increasingly that schedule doesn’t make sense -- the Uber executive resignations story, for example, produced a flurry of important updates in one 24 period. Then it went quiet for a couple of days. Then another flurry. Same with the latest round of harrassment allegations against VCs, same with most Silicon Valley scandals (expect another flurry of Valley sexual discrimination and harassment stories any day now).

To reflect that, we’re returning to our pre-paywall schedule of publishing whenever and however the story is best served. Some days that might mean just one story or update, other days there could be two or three or ten.

Many of those stories and updates will be on Pando.com but the most urgent breaking ones will be pushed out through our subscriber newsletter (only available to paid subscribers - set your email preferences here). Were also planning to break more news (and also have more fun) on our Twitter account which had previously grown neglected. We’re also going to produce more podcasts (including a new series we’re announcing next month) and will also experiment with our delivery platforms to better serve our readers. Even t-shirts.

Again, ALL OF THIS is paid for by Pando subscribers. If you haven’t already signed up to support our independent journalism (and to help pay our legal bills) please consider doing so now.

Pando is profitable, and we're confident this decision won't change that. However it’s a near certainty that by dropping the paywall on our most important stories, we’re going to see a dip in subscription revenues. To reduce the impact of that, we (that is, Sarah and Paul) have decided to reduce our salaries to $0, at least until we see how the new policy affects Pando’s bottom line. That means that 100% of our editorial budget can be spent paying new and existing writers, both on staff and freelance.

(It’s never easy to decide not to get paid, but we’re both extremely lucky that - thanks to books and other projects - we can make that decision if we need to. This seems like a good place to thank everyone who has bought our books -- readers and publishers alike -- and users/investors of our various other things.)

Ok. That’s enough navel gazing for another year. The TL;DR version:

  • We’re dropping the paywall on stories about the dark side of Silicon Valley
  • We’re going to be publishing across more platforms with less rigid frequency
  • Our subscriber-only newsletter will be the best place to get breaking/urgent stories
  • We’re still, and will alway be, ~100% subscriber funded
  • Please subscribe
  • If you can afford to pay a little more for your subscription, please consider doing that too

Thank you for your support of Pando. Without you, literally none of this would be possible.