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Sept. 16, 2014, 10 a.m.
Business Models

Jacobin: A Marxist rag run on a lot of petty-bourgeois hustle

For Bhaskar Sunkara, the success of Jacobin as a magazine is an unlikely means to a political end.

Jacobin Magazine was founded by Bhaskar Sunkara in 2010 while he was still a student at George Washington University. Sunkara had self-identified as a socialist since middle school — or, in his own words, “way too young to make those kind of decisions.” Accordingly, his magazine is a journal of democratic socialist thought — one that’s been creeping closer to mainstream over the last four years.

jacobinJacobin, which posts a few essays online everyday and prints a magazine three times a year, has 6,400 active subscribers. Renewal rates are around 70 percent. The website gets between 300,000 and 400,000 visits in an average month, and about 10 to 12,000 visits on an average day. (Sunkara says this is a little less than a third of the audience of The Nation, and greater than the average web traffic of In These Times.)

As publisher and editor, Sunkara draws a small salary for Jacobin-related work, but works another job around 20 hours a week. The magazine’s only full-time staffer is creative director Remeike Forbes. For digital pieces, contributors get 50 dollars; for print pieces, they get $200. The majority of them are graduate students or young professors. Interns at Jacobin get paid 15 dollars an hour, while the people who help with shipping and other “grunt work” get around $16 an hour. Says Sunkara: “There’s not a place on the masthead for that work, and also, that’s the hidden labor, so we try to pay for that first.”

CTUJacobin is involved with projects beyond publishing analytical essays. They coordinate a nonfiction series via Verso Books. They’ve also done a lot of work around the Chicago Teachers Union, including some political organizing and printing a pamphlet. Jacobin has a clearly stated political mission — for Sunkara, the goal has always been to centralize and inject energy into the contemporary socialist movement. To that end, he’s interested in expanding local Jacobin reading groups nationwide, including the hiring of two full-time organizers.

These auxiliary activities were not conceived of with revenue in mind. “For the events and the organizing, the reading and events, those are actually loss-generating,” says Sunkara. “It’s kind of like the magazine is the efficient thing that’s being taxed by the other work.”

Jacobin does pull in some ad revenue, around $10,000 a year in total. Clients include the New Left Review and university presses, including Duke and Stanford. Though online inventory sells well, Sunkara says he’d ideally like to hire a sales person to work on commission. (He also wants to hire a grant writer, but says Jacobin’s political bent tends to exclude it from consideration for popular arts grants.)

Sunkara acknowledges that Jacobin’s reputation is outsized in comparison to its resources. It didn’t hurt that major figures on the left came out early to support the project, or that then-New York Times reporter Natasha Lennard intentionally imploded her career in the mainstream media via a Jacobin panel. Occupy Wall Street also brought more attention to the project.

SDSBut another major facet, according to Sunkara, has been his dedication to “creating a visual identity for the new left.” The idea was to move away from the “Courier New typeface” and “iconography around SDS” or the WPA murals of the 1930s toward something “more fresh and up to date.” It was for this reason that Sunkara made creative director Reimecke Forbes Jacobin’s first full-time employee. In addition, Sunkara says he budgets around $2,000 dollars per issue for freelance art commissions. “Right now, a lot of Jacobin’s success is based on aesthetics and feel,” says Sunkara.

Creating a beautiful object is essential to the magazine’s business model, which centrally relies on a small base of premium subscribers. Sunkara says the days of cheaply printed magazines with slashed subscription prices are over, but there’s enough of an audience to keep expensively-made journals afloat. “I believe that digital content should be free or almost free,” Sunkara says. “But at the higher level, I think there’s certain people who will buy print as a physical object, like a beautiful physical object that they can put on their coffee table or whatever and keep for life.”

jacobin covers

Sunkara has also worked to shore up Jacobin’s business via technology. For one thing, he tries to be savvy about social media, pointing out that while other intellectual magazines eschew the traditional deck headline, Jacobin embraces it. “The point of a deck is partially so that people can get the gist of an article and then just skim it and share it,” he says. He also pays attention to strategy, timing publishing to peak web traffic times (9 a.m. and 1 p.m., according to him).

But he’s also invested real resources into building technology for Jacobin. For example, custom mailing and subscription software that reduces the cost of some of publishing’s most expensive processes. “The subscriber stuff can really just as efficiently manage 40,000 entries and subscribers as it can manage four,” Sunkara says. “Our backend knows to email them five days before an issue’s going to be shipped out to confirm their address. This would be very labor intensive, but we have developed these systems to, sort of, save money.” To build in-house list management took some capital on the front end, but Sunkara says in the long run avoiding fees from third-party managers will save the magazine money.

This kind of business sense — what Sunkara calls “petty-bourgeois hustling” — has always been a part of his management of Jacobin. Back in 2010, when he realized the digital-only publication was drawing only a small audience, he used all the revenue he had from 100 four-issue subscriptions to fund the first print run. Between issues one and two, he gained another one hundred subscribers, the revenue from which he used to finance another issue. Slowly, but not without risk, the magazine grew and approached stability.

“I want to run the magazine productively, as efficiently as a business would run it,” Sunkara says. He’s trying become more comfortable running the company at a small deficit if it means growth in the longterm. Someday in the near future, he might even draw a full-time paycheck.

“Even though we’re the most Marxist publication out of this new wave of publications, I think we’re very much the most in tune with making our business strategies and our development strategies integral with everything else,” he says. “I think a lot of times when people look at young publications, and want to see what they’re doing right, they often talk about enthusiasm and other things that people like to associate with young people, instead of looking at their success and just seeing solid fundamentals.”

Illustration by Jon Han.

POSTED     Sept. 16, 2014, 10 a.m.
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