But I’ve spent recent weeks thinking through what we at TPM want to do next year, specifically how we can use our resources, our talented staff and our time most effectively in this news, business and technological environment. So I wanted to share a few thoughts with you on that front.
One thing about TPM is that we are, happily and by design, a very defined thing. We’re not terribly large. There are many topics we do not cover. We have a cluster of broad issues which have been focuses of our reporting and commentary for many years: public corruption and scandal, voting rights and democracy, the policy and politics of social insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, campaigns and elections. Through all this we’ve always a penchant for the bizarre and unseemly and awful side of politics which has in the last two years moved from the upside down to the center of our political world. It’s what we sometimes call ‘The Crazy.’ We have, at least metaphorically, been covering Trump and his lackeys and the extremists and crazies who orbit around him for years. We just focused on them or their analogues before they started running the country.
My list above isn’t meant to be restrictive. We cover myriad other topics. But we have the luxury of knowing who we are. We’re not ‘pivoting to video’, changing what it is we do or going in for any of the other digital publishing nostrums which are the currency of the moment. TPM isn’t in business to be a business. It’s in business to be TPM. This is not intended as a riddle or quizzical turn of phrase. TPM is very much a business. We want to be, indeed need to be, profitable. But we do those things because being a viable business is what is necessary for TPM to exist, to be what it is.
Even with all this though, like with people, a publication not busy being born is busy dying. We always want to do more and do better and that almost always means finding ways to do things a bit differently. That is all in the interest of things we’ve always been trying to accomplish but perhaps coming at them in different ways. The news environment is different. The technological and certainly the business environment is different. I’ve written several times recently about the evolution and challenges of the digital publishing industry. Over the last three years TPM has gone from just shy of 95% of our revenue coming from advertising to now coming up on 50% of our revenue coming from subscriptions. That difference – the difference you have made possible – is the difference between our sharing the fate of so many other publications that are laying off staff or going under and where we are now.
In the first years we ran Prime there was very little original writing that came with your Prime membership. You got fewer ads, access to the Hive, occasional long form pieces, features, the podcast. But very little ‘content’ that was exclusive to Prime. That will change in a major way in 2018. You’ve likely seen the ‘Prime Beta’ pieces we’ve been publishing in recent months. As the name suggests, we’ve used these as a way to experiment with different formats and concepts. We will remain in a highly experimental mode. But I wanted to give you a sense of what we are trying to accomplish with this new version of Prime.
We have three different, overlapping goals.
The first is simple in concept if complicated in execution. TPM employs 16 people whose full time job it is to be immersed in the the specific kind of news we cover. We hope to add more in 2018. That’s a lot of collective knowledge. Inevitably, only a small percentage of that knowledge finds its way into the articles we publish. That is to a significant extent by design. An undifferentiated mass of facts isn’t terribly edifying. You rely on us to separate wheat from chaff and organize the key information into some narrative, explanatory coherence. But I’ve never found this an entirely complete or satisfying state of affairs. The modes of writing we’re accustomed to are ones that evolved from print. They are also mainly designed for casual news consumers. Neither apply to us or our core audience. So a core goal of the new Prime will be to give you access to as much as possible of the collective knowledge that doesn’t end up in the articles as possible. One example you’ve likely seen so far are our experiments with editor’s backgrounders on evolving stories.
The second goal is guidance. We have a profusion of information in news. Even when you filter out the bad stuff, there’s tons of quality news. But most news is made up of individual stories – a scoop here, a development there, a narrative after that. It’s like they are each islands of information. If you’re following a story you can keep the forward motion of the larger story in your head. But I do this for a living and I frequently find myself losing the thread of key stories. By guidance I mean stitching together the important developments, providing context, pointing to probable upcoming events and more. In a way this is a lot of what I’ve done in the Editor’s Blog for years. But I’m just one person. And I need help myself keeping up with a lot of the key stories. So part of what we are trying to accomplish is to provide this service more systematically across the site across the site.
Think about if on each big important story you had an advisor who could help you keep up, help you distinguish the significant from the merely interesting and make sure you didn’t miss any key thing. We can’t provide that level of concierge service perhaps. But it’s that kind of assistance and guidance that I want Prime to provide. And I think we can get close.
The third is simply more. A quick deeper dive into some policy point, a quick interview with an expert in response to a developing news story. Our move toward a subscription model is driven by many factors. But one benefit of it – one that was by design – is that it gives us an immediate financial interest in the satisfaction not of hundreds of thousands or millions of sometime readers but in a relatively small numbers of devoted readers, our subscribers. We are fully committed to the keeping the great bulk of our reporting, certainly our big scoops, available to the public. But some additional detail in some cases, the rest of that interview that didn’t make it into the article. These make sense as what I’m calling more.
As I noted above, you’ve seen some examples of what we are planning in the editor’s backgrounders we’ve been publishing. But that’s just the start. Two new members of the staff will be joining us in early January: one a new Senior Editor for our New York City office who replaces Catherine Thompson and also our first Prime Editor who will play a key role in making everything I described above happen.
Thank you for being our readers. If you haven’t joined Prime yet, there’s no better time. Just click right here.