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Talking Points Memo launches membership-only program, wades into longform

Encouraging mass readership within a niche coverage area is at the heart of Talking Points Memo’s ad-supported business model.

So when founding publisher/editor Josh Marshall began to assess the best ways to diversify the site’s revenue stream, he had to think about the subgroups within that already refined audience.

First things first: Not everyone is going to pay for a subscription. And Marshall didn’t want to put TPM behind a paywall anyway. What he wanted was to find people who would be willing to spend money on TPM so that it could expand in ways tailored to serve those paying customers.

Enter TPM Prime, a membership/subscription service that launches on Oct. 15. For $50 per year — or an as-yet-unannounced month-to-month rate that would wind up being more expensive per year — subscribers will pay for “backstage pass” access to TPM staffers, newsmakers, and one another.

The membership is more about the community of people involved than exclusive content. So whereas Politico Pro produces super-insidery coverage that you won’t see on the core site, TPM is keeping its coverage paywall-free and instead building a premium service around the people who read it.

“We want to be totally upfront: We’re trying to build as big a revenue base as we can.”

TPM Prime perks include invites to live chats with reporters and political figures, a members-only commenting forum, and downloading rights to about half a dozen ad-free mini-ebooks called TPM Singles. TPM Singles will clock in around 10,000 words apiece, and represent the site’s first foray into longform journalism. (Those who aren’t Prime subscribers will be able to pay to download individual singles.)

“For ages, I have felt most books about politics and news are basically a couple of chapters long, but we’ve got this thing called ‘the book’ where it has to be 150 pages or there’s no business model to sell it,” Marshall told me. “Over many years, we’ve made a speciality out of tracking the whole issue of voter fraud and voter suppression. We can now, if we choose to, do a definitive mini-book on what happened in the 2012 cycle. If we put those 20,000 words on the front page of TPM, maybe it would get 5,000 views. It’s way too much of an investment of time in revenue terms, because it has to live or die on the pageview model.”

(Marshall wouldn’t reveal which topics TPM Singles would explore, calling the voter fraud example “hypothetical.” The two ebooks now in the works “will become relevant immediately after the election,” he said.)

The editorial shift that can come with getting past pageviews — that is, a 100-percent-ad-supported model — is as important as what it does for the bottom line. In other words, diversifying revenue isn’t just key to survival; it also affects day-to-day operations: how to cover something, the extent to which you can focus on boosting the quality of commenting, improving user experience, and so on.

“Our money comes from advertising, so that is inevitably an overwhelming priority for us, because that’s how we pay the bills,” Marshall said. “You create a set of incentives internally to cater to advertising. I’m proud to say we have really been as pure as the driven snow on the important things. We don’t fiddle with things to suit advertisers. But internally you do put a lot of resources into selling ads. It’s simple as that. What I noticed is that we didn’t have really strong internal financial incentives focused on our core readers.”

And TPM’s core readers — Marshall estimates tens or hundreds of thousands have a regular TPM habit — are a huge part of what shapes the site’s identity. “I didn’t like that we were growing in a way where we didn’t have really clear parts of the bottom line that were tied to servicing that community,” Marshall said. (He tweeted that in the first 10 hours after TPM Prime opened membership, more than 1,000 had signed up.)

Marshall says he’s been thinking for a couple of years about the right way to embark on TPM Prime. One of the things that kept nagging at him was how much to charge.

TPM’s readership is “very affluent” relative to the general population, and friends in the publishing industry told Marshall that $50 per year was too low. Some said he should charge $100, even $200. On the flip side, Marshall didn’t want to alienate those core readers who might struggle to pay $50. The solution he came up with, perhaps taking a cue from Radiohead: Sell memberships for $50, but suggest members can pay as much as they want (in increments of $50) to sponsor readers who don’t have the cash. The win-win is that more readers get access and — more importantly — TPM gets more money.

“We’re not presenting this as ‘You need to give more money for the starving TPM readers in Africa,’” Marshall said. “We want to be totally upfront: We’re trying to build as big a revenue base as we can. This seemed to be a way that fit with those needs for us.”

As for how TPM will determine eligibility for freebie membership: No tax returns necessary, Marshall says. TPM is still working out the infrastructure for these kinds of memberships but the site will probably just ask for proof of student or senior status, for example, in cases where readers claim they have a low fixed-income or could otherwise use a Prime handout.

Marshall’s goal is to get about 10,000 subscribers in the first year-plus. In the immediate future, he is hoping to get enough early members to be able to hire one full-time staffer devoted to Prime.

Depending on how many subscribers the premium service gets in the longer term, there are other deep-dive forms of journalism Marshall wants to explore. (Data journalism is one example.) Come 2013, TPM is expanding its core site with new verticals — he’s thinking about business, technology, and telecommunications — and plans to hire in its Washington, D.C., newsroom.

“I like being involved in innovative journalism and innovative publishing,” Marshall said. “There are things that we have not been able to do in our current model that we will be able to do now. I’m excited.”

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  • Arne Kaufmann @

    The problem with the paywall and the members-only content? Articles get often shared on social networks, but not this time. The only time you really read about these articles elsewhere, is on other newspapers, blogs and magazine, who recap by themselves what the article said, because they cannot send their readers over them. Most could not read it. 

  • marianne doczi

    At last, someone who gets to the heart of new media business models.  Build a community: give them access to unique things: treat them as intelligent and willing to pay for what they value. And they will subscribe. 

    And I especially like that he gets that the length of a “book” is a historic combination of limited technology, distribution and business models, not an inalienable form and number of pages! 
    “For ages, I have felt most books about politics and news are basically a couple of chapters long, but we’ve got this thing called ‘the book’ where it has to be 150 pages or there’s no business model to sell it,”

  • Steve Staloch


    With the value
    of mastheads that are not on the national radar screen rapidly diminishing, I’m
    convinced it’s time we allowed the marketplace of readers to decide if and when
    the individual pieces of content we produce should be monetized. Not sure how a
    story achieves maximum viral interest if it’s parked behind a paywall, and
    keeping score of how many stories I’ve read during a publisher-defined period
    of time is an instinctively negative experience for consumers. And just how
    many sites will a consumer subscribe to in order to read what they want to
    read? At some point that Darwinian factor will become a reality and we will be
    back to basically the same failed subscription model we have today.

    That’s why Toll
    Trigger is a real game-changer. It’s the only system that measures—and
    monetizes—the kind of online viral buzz that individual stories generate with
    today’s readers and viewers. Toll Trigger bridges the “free to fee” online
    content gap in an entirely new way.

    What Is Toll Trigger?

    Toll Trigger
    (patent pending) is a site-integrated system concept with a unique set of
    algorithms that monitor the reading patterns associated with individual news
    stories and other e-content. Based on specific publisher-defined criteria, Toll
    Trigger enables publishers to charge a “toll” for high-interest stories.

    How Toll Trigger Works

    the Toll Trigger model, initial access to any story or other e-content is free,
    allowing viral interest to build.

    toll is only invoked when the combined traffic generated from referring sites,
    whether local or national, exceeds certain publisher-defined parameters.

    readers or viewers then have to pay to access the story, unless they are a
    subscriber to the publication, choose to make a one-time micro payment (ala
    iTunes) or have a Toll Pass, which allows free access to all sites
    affiliated with the Toll Trigger Network of publishing companies.

    Trigger also serves up local, national or regional advertising on the
    originating publisher’s site based on the reader’s geographic point of origin.

    Trigger will also include a syndication feature granting nationally licensed
    media (such as Fox, CNN, etc.) exclusive rights to content that has passed
    local trigger filtering.


    As mainstream publishers looking for solutions beyond
    stopgap measures that merely reduce reducing print subscriptions, we can’t
    afford to wait any longer.


    And the bought and paid Corporate Media’s(can’t call them the Press or Journalists) race for  total bull@#%&  and irrelevance continuuuues!