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July 6, 2015, 10:55 a.m.
Business Models

Scratch Magazine was profitable, but it’s still shutting down — here’s what its founder learned

Scratch Magazine toed the line between “servicey and intellectual,” cofounder Manjula Martin says. That was one reason the paywalled site didn’t make much money.

Scratch Magazine, an online publication about the relationship between writers and money, isn’t shutting down because it failed to do what its founder, Manjula Martin, wanted it to do.

Scratch turned a small profit in 2014. About 1,000 people paid to read its stories. But that wasn’t enough, Martin wrote in her editor’s note in the final issue (which, full disclosure, I also wrote an article for), “to pay its editors, fund reported journalism, explore new platforms and services, or hire more help.” She went on:

So the answer to the question of whether a small, independent, ad-free online publication can make enough money from subscriptions to grow and stay good and allow its editors to get enough sleep and keep making their own work is…well, maybe, I guess, but…not really? Put another way:

¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

I asked her to elaborate on the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited.

Laura Hazard Owen: What made you decide to start Scratch in 2013? What had you been doing before that? And what were your goals going into the project?

Manjula Martin: Scratch came out of the work I was doing on Who Pays Writers?, a crowdsourced list of freelance rates. People loved the transparency, but kept telling me that they wanted more context for the information that Who Pays was putting out there. The goal was to provide writers with information and context about how their industries work, and what it’s like to be a writer and make a living. And to do that in a way that was separate from the occasional Twitter outrage every time an op-ed about payment for writers made the rounds in media circles.

At the time, I was a full-time freelance writer doing a mix of consulting and journalism. Before I was a freelancer, I worked in nonprofit communications. Before that, I worked at a magazine. Before that, bookstores and record stores!

Owen: What was your business model? Did that change at all over the two years?

Martin: Scratch made money from subscriptions. During the past year, I began to have issue sponsors as well. We started lean — basically our costs were content, platform, and our own labor. We partnered with 29th Street Publishing for our digital platform. They received a cut of each sale but required no upfront fees.

Owen: How big was your staff, or was it just you?

Martin: At the start it was Jane Friedman, my cofounder, and I; Jane did most of the backend and business/subscription management aspects, and I ran the editorial side of things. We also both wrote for the magazine. I hire a freelance copy editor for each issue, and freelance graphic designers as needed. Since Jane exited in late 2014 to focus on her day job, it’s been just me.

Owen: How did you find writers?

Martin: It was largely proactive on my part — I would reach out to writers and suggest they pitch me. Scratch was a quarterly, so that means we published on average about 40 stories a year — not that many! So space was valuable, and it often made more sense when to look at the story budget for an issue and go out and find what I needed, instead of passively accepting cold pitches.

So it was mostly me developing previous relationships I had with writers, or me reading a lot and paying attention to issues and then emailing people and saying “Hey, I like your work and I know you have recently been dealing with X in your career; would you like to write something about it for Scratch?”

It’s very time consuming but very rewarding to work in this way; I think commissioning pieces helped me develop and maintain the quality and continuity of the magazine in a very intentional and directed way, which is especially important when a publication is first establishing its vision and voice.

Owen: What was weird/surprising/cool about being a writer-turned-publisher? Did it affect the way you thought about how writers should be paid, for instance?

Martin: Well, it certainly affected the way I thought about how editors should be paid! In that I think this is something most writers tend to forget when we feel like our work is not being valued appropriately: At small publications and literary journals, editors are often just as underpaid and overworked as writers. (And at larger publications, most editors are not in control of how much money they’re budgeted for freelance work.) I don’t think that’s an excuse not to pay writers more — I just think it’s important for everyone to really look at and understand the range of financial ecosystems within our industry.

And running my own magazine has helped me become better at pitching. I still hate it, but I’m better at it.

Owen: If you could go back and do this again, what would you do differently? Or overall do you think that this worked pretty well, and you are just done (the sense I got from your post)? Which sort of external circumstances do you wish had been different, or were there any preconceived notions you had that turned out to be true or untrue?

Martin: I don’t know that I would undo anything I’ve done, but if Scratch had continued there’s a lot I would start doing differently. Obvious choices are expanding revenue sources, re-examining the paywall model and looking at “community” website models, and changing the publishing frequency or format. Doing print could have been an option.

But you know, lately I have also been thinking a lot about the relationship between a publication’s editorial mission and its revenue model. There’s this perception that in order to be considered successful, a publication that’s on the Internet must “monetize” or “scale.” But not everything fits into a capitalist profit model; I’d count both journalism and creative writing as forms of media-making that mostly don’t. Obviously for writers, that becomes a problem when it becomes hard to make a living or difficult for people without economic privilege to access the profession — Scratch existed because writers (and publishers) are trying to solve that problem.

As a publisher, in order to continue and grow, I could have gone one of two ways: Scratch could become Guernica or Jacobin, or it could become Writer’s Digest or The Billfold. Those are great publications in their own ways, with revenue models that generally fit their editorial missions.

But I think Scratch’s strength and effectiveness was that it had aspects of both those types of publications — big ideas and practical information. Rabblerousing and pragmatism. And that was the magazine I wanted to publish. And it was a success. It started a discussion and distributed information and formalized ongoing conversations about compensation and creative work. But in part because it toed that line between servicey and intellectual, it just didn’t make very much money.

Not everything can or should monetize. Not everything will scale. And that’s okay. With the huge caveat that it’s only okay if you’re not exploiting the people working on the project, including yourself!

To answer your question a bit less philosophically, though…I will never again have a website that requires users to sign in before they read free content. There are paywall functionality reasons Scratch had to do that, but honestly it’s just annoying.

Owen: It’s tough that your archives are disappearing too. What would you need to keep those up? Would you consider putting them on some free site? Or does it seem too weird to make content that had been paid free now?

Martin: Yes, I have considered opening up the archives, and I am still considering it, honestly. There could be a few different ways to do that — partnering with another site to republish the most evergreen pieces from the archive, unleashing a batch of PDFs into the wild, putting up a free site, etc. So I’m not opposed to it in principle. I know that there is really great, evergreen information in a lot of those articles, and I recognize that writers want access to that information, and I think the contributors would likely be cool with it.

On the one hand, I want people to read and remember and utilize the info in Scratch forever; on the other hand, closing is closing. People talk a lot about the Internet being forever, but great things disappear from the Internet all the time. And when a print mag stops publishing, it doesn’t distribute free back issues, either.

What is certain at this point is that the existing platform and subscriber sign-in system will cease when Scratch closes. That’s a platform built by 29th Street Publishing that Scratch pays for, and if I’m not publishing issues, it doesn’t make sense to maintain it. Who Pays Writers, which is hosted on Scratch’s site right now, will continue to exist for the time being. That’s a free service that will remain free as long as I have the resources to keep doing it. It’ll live at whopayswriters.com now.

Owen: Going forward, you’ve decided to do a monthly newsletter about writers, money, and love. Why a newsletter?

Martin: I love letters. Letters are probably my favorite form of communication. So it’s exciting to try and develop a direct readership in that tradition and to be a bit more personal and creative in my approach to the topic of writing and money. The newsletter will consist of some links and recommendations, and some original writing. Whatever I want, basically!

Photo by William Murphy used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 6, 2015, 10:55 a.m.
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