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March 25, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Business Models

How a hobby foreign affairs blog became a paywalled news destination — and a business

World Politics Review has grown from one man’s side project to a small news operation supported by a niche paywall.

world-press-reviewLike many journalism startups to emerge in recent years, the World Politics Review got its start because the kind of reporting its founder was interested in didn’t really exist at most traditional media outlets. “I was trying to publish op-eds in various newspapers,” Hampton Stephens told me in a phone interview. “And I was struck that there weren’t many outlets for the kind of analytical writing about international affairs I wanted to do.”

He launched the site in 2006 when he was earning a graduate degree in international affairs, and though he had no initial business model, he also wasn’t a newcomer to professional journalism; Stephens took a job out of college in the marketing department at National Journal and, after getting the reporting bug, went on to write for several publications, including a newsletter for the defense industry.

In those early days, Stephens populated the World Politics Review with his own writing and contributions from people he knew from his reporting days and grad school. By 2007, however, he had decided he wanted to turn the fledgling site into a mature business, and so began commissioning pieces for about $100 a column. “We had great success early on attracting a lot of contributors, which kind of validated my idea that there was a dearth of outlets for these people who wanted to do this kind of analytical writing.” But he was also “incredibly naive,” as he put it, because he initially thought he could achieve profitability simply by simply selling ads. This was before the Great Recession had eviscerated newspapers across the country. It was back when many news executives assumed they could eventually sell online display ads at the same rates as they had in print.

But the limitless supply of content on the Internet drove down ad rates to such an extent that only websites with massive scale were able to sustain themselves. Though the World Politics Review audience was growing, it quickly became clear that Stephens would never see the level of traffic needed to break even, much less turn a profit. He realized he would need to erect some kind of paywall — but he also knew that such a measure would inhibit his ability to market the site’s content.

So, several years before The New York Times introduced its “leaky paywall” — one since widely emulated by other news companies — Stephens began to roll out his own porous subscription service. “A lot of our traffic is coming from search engines, and we want people to get a taste of the first article,” said Stephens. “So for that first click [from Google] they get the whole article, and if they click to another article then they hit the paywall.” The same goes for any inbound referrals from Twitter or Facebook.

“We do know people who abuse that. We know there are people who are following us on Twitter on a daily basis and probably clicking through to every article we publish and reading it for free,” he said. “But basically we decided that’s the tradeoff you have to make.”

In 2009, armed with an investment from family members, Stephens hired an editor-in-chief and then stepped back to begin focusing solely on the business side of the company. Because World Politics Review was more niche in focus than, say, The New York Times, he understood that his core customer base would consist mainly of people who worked in some realm of international affairs — academics or NGOs, for example — and so there was enormous potential in selling subscriptions to large institutions that employed these kinds of professionals.

Though WPR does offer individual subscriptions, at about $60 a year, more than 60 percent of the site’s subscription revenue comes from these institutions. In late 2010, Stephens signed a partnership deal with EBSCO, an information services company that sells bundled digital subscriptions for scholarly journals and other publications to universities, companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. “They have a sales force that’s calling on [these organizations], so our partnership allows us to focus on the content while they have the sales force, and we have a joint venture where we share the revenue.”

This partnership has allowed WPR to vastly expand its subscription base (the State Department, one of its largest customers, has made the site’s content accessible to 45,000 employees), but recently Stephens has begun to focus more on diversifying the company’s subscriptions so it’s not so reliant on a single partnership for distribution. He hired a part-time salesperson to begin targeting smaller institutions that aren’t on EBSCO’s radar. “If I sent [EBSCO] a hot lead, they’ll go out and call them, but for the most part they’re pitching World Politics Review to their existing customers and they’re not going out of their way to make sales calls to sell us specifically,” he said. “That’s the nature of the agreement with them. We realized there’s this whole universe of smaller institutions that they’re not currently hitting.” WPR recently signed up several small NGOs and nonprofits (most of them with fewer than 50 employees) in both the U.S. and the U.K.

Stephens has also focused significant effort toward securing more individual subscribers; his goal is that they eventually make up at least 50 percent of his subscription base. To do this, he’s sought to understand who his core subscriber is and what kind of information she would need to do her job. “There are some hardcore news junkies whose job is completely unrelated to foreign affairs who subscribe, but those are definitely the exception,” he told me. “The way we approach producing the content is though we’re producing it for people who have a professional interest in this stuff — access is an asset for doing their jobs. Whether they’re a policy maker, a risk analyst for a multinational corporation, or they’re an academic who’s teaching students or doing original research.”

WPR, Stephens argued, fits somewhere between mainstream publications like The Economist, which are writing for a more general audience, and international affairs journals that are only published quarterly and might not run a longform article until two years after it was originally submitted. “There are mainstream readers who can get something out of what we publish,” he said. “But we’re assuming a certain amount of knowledge on the part of our readers. What we’re trying to do is combine the best aspects of those mainstream publications in terms of writing short-form stuff, but also having the depth and thoughtfulness of an academic journal, but one that’s publishing daily.”

The site has four full-time editorial employees, most of whom are based in New York (the editor-in-chief, Judah Grunstein, lives in Paris) and are responsible for writing one piece per week. The vast majority of their workday is spent commissioning and editing content from a network of contributors with a wide range of subject matter expertise and who live all over the world.

“We pay them per piece — they’re contractors,” said Stephens. “We don’t have long-term contracts with any of them. At any given time, there’s a stable of regular contributors — maybe 100 people who are contributing more than once a year.” Because most of them already have full-time jobs and are mainly focused on gaining access to WPR’s readers, Stephens only needs to pay a small honorarium to receive high-quality contributions. “I’d guess that if you compare our costs to other publications that aren’t just [aggregating content], they would be very favorable. We get a lot of bang for the buck in terms of the money we spend on content.”

Because WPR doesn’t have a “U.S.-centric focus” — meaning international affairs aren’t covered through the lens of how they impact the U.S. — it has strong international appeal, both among contributors and readers. “Our traffic is always a slight majority outside the United States,” said Stephens. “On any given month, it’ll be 52 percent from non-U.S. readers. Our subscribers break down probably about the same way — between 50 and 60 percent non-U.S. and between 40 and 50 percent U.S.-based.” This has, of course, allowed the company to target overseas NGOs and other institutions, vastly expanding its potential revenue base.

Though WPR is not yet profitable, Stephens said he hopes to be in the black by the end of this year. The question he finds himself contemplating now is how to expand once the site becomes self-sustaining. “Do we remain a niche publisher, or do we try to go big and add other services — maybe come out with regional sections and have more newsletters, and have an African service and an Asian service? I don’t know the answer to that. I’d be lying if I said I have a grand vision. Right now, we’re just so focused on getting to profitability, and I think at that point, the options really open up for us.”

I asked him if he’d considered a metered paywall like the one rolled out successfully by The New York Times — or perhaps a Wall Street Journal model where some of the site content is placed in front of the paywall. “We don’t publish enough content to have two separate tiers,” he replied. “We’re publishing basically 70 to 80 new original pieces a month — which is a significant amount, but it’s nowhere near the output of The New York Times or BuzzFeed. “If we did two tiers, would someone be willing to pay for — instead of 80 articles a month, would 40 be enough to justify a subscription?” Stephens didn’t think so.

A few hours after we got off the phone, Stephens emailed me with further thoughts on the future of World Politics Review. One of the benefits of relying on reader subscriptions rather than advertising is that it has allowed the publication to focus 100 percent on delivering value to the reader, and any future expansion must adhere to this core value. “The fact that they pay us for the service ensures that they are our real customers and that everything we do, from the integrity of our content to the usability of our site, is done with them in mind,” he wrote. “We could not build the kind of service we want to build if the majority of our revenue came from advertising. In this case, our real customers would be our advertisers and our readers would just be a product we are selling to advertisers.”

For those who worry about the rise of native advertising and its potential for blurring the lines between independent journalism and sponsored content, this fidelity to readers should provide some welcome optimism. The question now is whether a profitable market exists for such a stance. Stephens’s bet, to which he’s dedicated nearly a decade of his life, is that it does, and this is the year he aims to prove it.

This story originally appeared on SimonOwens.net.

Photo of globes by The Shopping Sherpa used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 25, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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