TPM is a small company and at small companies, people have various responsibilities that at larger companies would each be handled by different people, or even entirely different departments. Some larger media outlets might have whole fundraising teams. We do not. And so, over the last three weeks, TPM’s staff has been talking about our TPM Journalism Fund drive and explaining how it fits into what we do.
Yet, the fact remains I am TPM’s publisher and so my ultimate responsibility is to make sure TPM brings in more money than it spends. So answering the question, “Why do you ask people to give you contributions?” falls, ultimately, to me. Why have memberships if you are just going to ask for money? Why don’t you sell more ads? Why don’t you have an events business? Why don’t you sell merch? Are you simply bad at being a publisher?
All fair questions, especially the last one! So here I want to explain why we have the TPM Journalism Fund. There’s a short and a long explanation. I think through other posts and through various pitches on the site, you’ve seen the short explanations: We face a particularly challenging financial year in a particularly challenging industry and rather than shrink in size, we want to keep our momentum going. In the past, we’ve said we’ll use the contributions from the TPM Journalism Fund to expand our investigative capacity and provide free memberships to readers who need them. These are good and true reasons. If this is all you need to hear, then by all means go right here and contribute. But if you are looking for a deeper explanation, stick around.
It’s impossible for me to explain all this in impersonal terms. TPM and journalism more broadly are personal. I fell in love with journalism a long time ago. I grew up in Cleveland reading The Plain Dealer and The News-Herald. I poured over the sports pages and memorized box scores. When I got to Ohio University, I wanted to be a sports writer. By the time I finished my run as the editor of the school’s student newspaper, The Post, I started wondering if maybe my path wasn’t quite what I thought it was. As editor, I got my first dose of the industry struggles. The school paper was running out of money, our website was terrible, our business manager literally died and there wasn’t enough money to replace him. (This led to an absurd interaction with Google, which would not send us a check unless I could prove I knew the business manager by obtaining his death certificate.) I spent a lot of my time just trying to ensure survival. I carry that DNA with me still.
When I graduated, I was a financial reporter for a bit and hated it. It wasn’t my thing. I ended up spending most of my time thinking about how to make journalism work in those heady transition-to-web days where newspapers were dying and the primary concern was how the media ecosystem would adapt to the internet. But even then the numbers were pretty obvious. You couldn’t expect all the journalists losing jobs in print to find new ones online. It wasn’t a 1-to-1 thing, and it definitely benefited younger people like myself more than news veterans. Why? Because young people are cheap and the venture capital-funded journalism boom that accompanied the birth of digital news media was in large part enabled by cheap labor that allowed founders and their backers to grow exponentially and seek a profitable exit — even if they never built a real, profitable business.
Anyway, I wanted to learn more about the news business. Fortuitously, I learned of an opening at TPM as assistant to the publisher, who was of course Josh Marshall. I was nervous to leave reporting behind (even though I hated it) because, well, change is scary and I didn’t really know if this would pan out. But I did know one thing: I was going somewhere that was making it work, and I needed to know more. Financial journalism was working of course. It always will. That’s because people with money will always be willing to pay for information that helps them make more money. But that is not the kind of journalism most people think of as essential to a functioning democracy — reporting on betrayals of public trust and extremists trying to bend society in their favor? I wanted to be a part of that.
But when I looked around the journalism landscape, what I saw was an industry of skilled tradespeople — which is really what journalists are — being destroyed by bad management and bad owners. This includes basically all of Silicon Valley and the private equity firms buying up newspapers, but also traditional media companies like Condé Nast’s Advance Media, being run by MBAs who don’t really care about journalism beyond what profit they can wring out of it.
The problem is: Journalism is a bad business. You should not be in journalism to make massive returns. It’s a thing that people want, deservedly so, as inexpensively as possible. Information is important and necessary. My guiding philosophy then and now is that journalism organizations should be owned and operated by journalists themselves. Period.
My first primary responsibility at TPM was to maximize programmatic revenue — which is a term that encompasses most of the advertising you have seen on the site over the years, and all of the advertising you see currently. I was good at this. We doubled the revenue we made per page in a few months. Don’t get me wrong though — I really hate programmatic advertising. Without getting into the nitty gritty, it’s just junky stuff. Back then there were all kinds of issues with bad ads that would do malicious things like take over an entire screen or use so much CPU that a user’s browser would crash. I really hated this shit. But I justified it to myself because those ads were what paid the bills and paying the bills — enabling journalists to do their job — was immensely rewarding to me.
I started at TPM in January of 2013. In the last decade, we’ve managed (or avoided) many of the fads like pivoting to video or relying entirely on social media distribution because we understood one thing very clearly that only the journalists seem to understand: What matters is the relationship an organization forms with its readers. That relationship is developed through good work — good journalism, good product design, good customer service. Many of you know the names of our journalists. But many of you also know Jackie Wilhelm, our associate publisher, who fields emails when you have issues. Many of you know Derick and Jacob and Woz who have built everything on our site, and Christine who designs everything. We all care about making the experiences for readers as good as we can possibly make it.
So back to the journalism fund. Why do we have it? Because we need it to keep doing good work for our readers. I’m extremely proud of TPM’s mission statement and three goals which are simply to
1. Do good work
2. Be a good place to work
3. Make enough money to do both.
Part of being a good place to work, in our view, is that laying people off is the absolute last option. We don’t reduce staff size to maintain a certain level of profitability or margin. If we have a bad year, then our margins simply shrink or we have to figure out where to get more cash. So, when you ask “Why don’t other places do this?” or if you suspect it’s kind of “low rent” to be asking for money, just consider that the reason it’s not very common is two-fold: First, other outlets don’t have the relationships with readers we have and therefore lack the imagination to simply ask and, second, they are ok laying people off. We do have the relationships and we are willing to do whatever it takes to keep moving forward. Because we love this stuff, and we think you, our readers, love the stuff we make.
I said I was good at programmatic advertising. Well, it was like shooting fish in a barrel because there was so much VC money getting pumped into those ad companies they were just irresponsibly shelling out cash. This has changed, and programmatic advertising is no longer a reliable, primary source of income for TPM. First, the VC money that buoyed those companies has dried up. Second and more broadly, politics is the least desirable type of content to advertise near with a couple of exceptions: If your entire publication exists for lobbyists to launder their messages or if you are very advocacy based. TPM is neither.
We both pride ourselves that most of our revenue comes from readers and members and identify it as potential risk. We want to diversify our revenue streams in the future. But we have to take it step-by-step. We made a decision several years ago to invest heavily in memberships and it was the right move, as evidenced by any number of outlets dependent on advertising that have gone out of business in recent months & years. But believe us, we want to drive revenue in other ways, and we’ll figure it out. But right now, we need help (from those who can afford it) getting there.
So this is the long version of why we have the TPM Journalism Fund. It has to do with our mission to do the best journalism we can and be a great place to work. In the face of industry-wide headwinds and company-specific challenges, we do what we can to keep going. Keeping with our values, if you have more questions, you can always email me directly and I’ll answer them the best I can. And I hope you’ll consider a contribution, if you can swing it.