More Thoughts About the Future of TPM

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I got an email from a TPM Reader and Prime member on Friday evening who said we shouldn’t put our longform articles behind a paywall. This is a minority opinion among subscribers, at least as far as I can tell. But TPM Reader JG isn’t the only one. And it’s an issue we’ve given a lot of thought to ourselves. So I wanted to answer the question for everyone because I want readers and subscribers to understand our goals, thought process, reasons, etc.

First, TPM Reader JG

I want to be a pain in the ass, but not too much of a pain in the ass. So I’ll email you every time I’m reminded you’re doing this, but I won’t bore you with a long email.

Please, please, please stop gating journalistic content behind the Prime paywall. As a Primate from the beginning, I am supporting your journalism with my dollars; I want that journalism to reach as large an audience as possible (otherwise what’s the point!).

I pay for Prime, and I believe Casey Michel’s “Disappointed By Trump, The Alt-Right Seeks A NATO For Nativists” should be accessible by anyone who visits TPM. Same goes for the rest of the longforms, the podcast, etc. Keep the Hive private if you want, but all of your journalistic content serves TPM’s public mission. Use that content to prove to the public that TPM is worth supporting, rather than using it to trade for subscriptions.

Okay, there you go. Until next time! 🙂

As I explained on Friday, we are shifting our business model to drive a substantial amount of our revenue from subscriptions – hopefully, eventually around 50% of the total. Now, one way to push that into overdrive would be to but up a paywall and say half the stories on TPM are going to be subscriber only, or maybe you can only read ten articles a month, or something like that. This is something that we will not and in real ways cannot do.

Let me start by explaining why that is.

First and foremost, I started this site and at the end of the day run it because it has influence far beyond its size. We want as many people to read TPM as possible. We believe we do something unique in the political journalism world and we want that unique enterprise to reach and influence as many people as possible.  That’s not just a business and publishing imperative. It’s the root reason why the site exists, the ultimate goal that the business model and publishing strategies are meant to serve. I think it’s at least possible that the site would be more profitable and maybe larger as an organization if it were 100% paywalled. But again, that would defeat the reason why the site exists.

And it’s not just me. Obviously I have a deeper connection to the site than most people who work for TPM, just in the nature of things. But journalists want to be read. There are many reasons people come to work at TPM. But two of the big ones are the training and experience and the fact that people read us. TPM is not a huge publication. But it punches well above its weight in terms of spreading ideas, launching stories and being a venue where ambitious people can get seen and build reputations. If we paywalled the site, a lot of that value would disappear. In the political journalism world there’s fierce competition for talent. Probably any publisher will tell you that great journalists will often leave aggressively paywalled publications (as opposed to porous paywall sites like NYT, WaPo, etc) because no one sees what they’re writing.

Finally, there’s a business reason, though it’s fairly notional since the first two reasons are determinative. The other major revenue stream for TPM is advertising which is directly correlated to page views. Erecting a hard paywall would dramatically reduce the number of page views. So we’d take a hit on the ad side. That’s not necessarily prohibitive. But we’d need to be sure we were gaining significantly more from the subscription bucket than we were losing in the (largely) programmatic ad bucket.

Again, let me be clear: this is not something we’ve considered and opted against. I’ve never considered it. And it won’t happen. But I wanted to give you a sense of specifically why that is.

So where does that leave us in terms of giving people an incentive to sign up? That’s a challenge. At present, Prime gives you fewer ads – which is an aesthetic plus and also creates a faster site. (This isn’t an intentional slowing. But the amount of ads we need to run inevitably causes some slowness. The additional revenue allows us to dramatically reduce the number of ads.) We also have no ads on the mobile site. We have The Hive, longforms, my podcast, online chats with experts, special RSS feeds, and a bunch of features. But those are largely things that give you a better version of the same site and the same ‘content’ you get without a subscription. Happily that has been enough for thousands, actually tens of thousands of readers to sign up. But I don’t think it’s quite enough to get us to our eventual goal or to retain those numbers of over time.

So that leaves us wanting to add a bit more to the layer of things you can get only with a subscription. So how to go about that? Our major venture on the article side has been our longforms. But something close to JG’s point has actually become an issue for us. Namely, if an article is really good, as many of them have been, man, we really want everyone to read it. Not for narrowly publishing or financial reasons – just because when TPM publishes something awesome we want everyone to know and we want everyone to read it. There’s also an analog to what I described with recruiting and staff retention. TPM pays pretty solid freelance rates for our longform pieces. But writers want to be read. So there are limitations all around. (Along these lines, we’ve actually been brainstorming ways to preserve exclusivity for subscribers while also making it possible for non-subscribers to read. Perhaps it will be a short embargo, perhaps you have to watch an ad to read a longform if you’re not a subscriber. We’re still at the drawing board on that one.)

In any case, one thing we’ve realized is that in some ways having our longform pieces paywalled is out of joint with our initial vision for Prime which was to keep the vast majority of what we do public but also create a layer of the site that would only be of real interest to our most committed audience members and would also be restricted to members.

To that end, my own thinking on this of late has crystallized around other changes we’re making or new things we’re creating at TPM, especially our new Investigations Desk. One of things that has been central to TPM, through all its various permutations going on twenty years online has been breaking down the fourth wall of political journalism. We do this in various ways, many of them tied to what we now call the Editors’ Blog. The traditional political reporting newspaper story presents the news in an opaque, impersonal and omniscient voice. To use that metaphor from the stage and screen (the fourth wall), I’ve always tried to break that wall down. I do it by often writing in a highly informal style and in the first person. More substantively I do it by narrating the news as much as reporting it, making the reporting process part of the story, explaining how an article in one publication helps us understand unstated connections in an article in a different publication. In key ways I’m trying to be as transparent as possible in explaining how I’m connecting the pieces, what seems clear to me, what I’m still trying to figure out.

A decade ago this approach made us almost unique in the space. That is much less the case now. But how we do it is still quite distinct and different in many ways. What I have been mulling is finding ways to add more of that, more of that explanation of mechanics of what’s happening and ability to see over the horizon and have that be where we focus on creating that extra layer of Prime only content. Let me give you just one example. I don’t know if we’re going to do this or not. It’s just the kind of thing I’ve been considering.

I have my hands in many different parts of this operation on the edit side and business side. So not infrequently I’ll come back from a meeting or finish up working on one thing and I’ll want to know the status of a specific story. And here I’m not talking about a discrete article or post but the story itself – James Comey’s firing, the new Supreme Court decisions, did KT McFarland ever really get fired or not, what goes into McConnell strong arming a Trumpcare bill before the July 4th recess. I need a quick operational take to get my bearings. So I’ll ask whichever one of our editors is working that story for a quick run-down. Usually what I’ll get is a handful of entirely unadorned sentences, with none of the lede and story framing of an article or a post. It’s just telling me here’s the latest, here’s what we think is about to happen and here’s what we’re most focused on finding out. That’s what I need to know to base decisions on, get my bearings, know what to expect over the next 72 hours.

I’d like to be able to share those updates with readers. Some of the information couldn’t be made public of course. There might be confidential or unverified information. But broadly speaking, most of those details are ones we could share with readers but don’t for a handful of logistical reasons, time constraint reasons, format reasons and simple habit. But I would like to – mostly because it’s a general guide star for me that things that help me understand the news in real time would be helpful to other avid political news consumers too.

The other way this fits into our plans goes back to what I said before about not putting stuff we want everyone to see behind a paywall. These updates would be ephemeral in their nature, not things that would be blockbuster stories and mainly of interest to people who are core TPM audience members. So it fits with our goal of providing a deeper layer of what TPM now offers, more insight, depth, more narration and explication of the great stories of the day.

Now, to be clear, this is just an idea I’ve considered. I’m not saying we’re definitely going to do it. I put this forward just an example of the kinds of additions we are considering for an expanded Prime.

To conclude let me circle back to the original point, why we think it is important to create a small but significant layer of what we do that is for members only. I fully get the argument to the contrary. I agree with it in key respects. But not everyone does. A significant proportion of readers will require the inducement of key things they would not otherwise have access to to subscribe. Totally understandable. Makes perfect sense. I would add this additional factor. A mix of research and anecdotal info tells me that there are a substantial number of readers who would like to subscribe but don’t as long as there are not specific things they would like to get but do not as long as they are not members. Another way to put it is that there are a non-trivial number of people who want to subscribe and are looking for a reason but haven’t found it yet. Call it the psychology of commerce: you don’t pay money unless you are getting something concrete in return. Makes perfect sense.

In any case, this is my somewhat meandering explanation. We think the kind of very limited paywall I’ve described here is an important part of creating the kind of TPM I think our readers want to see. If you object to it on principle, I respect that but would ask you to understand it in that context. Also, please remember that we have subscription credits available for anyone who cannot afford to be a member. We don’t want anyone excluded because the cost is beyond their means.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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