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Oct. 31, 2017, 9:56 a.m.
Business Models

Stung by Medium’s pivot, The Establishment powers up for a membership-driven future

“It’s obviously a crowded media sphere right now. A lot of people at the outset were dubious that we need another website.”

The Establishment isn’t the first media organization to put a feminist lens on current events and issues, and it won’t be the last. But it did bring on 900 paid members within nine months, has reached over a million monthly pageviews, and is on track to grow “fivefold” in the next 18 months, its cofounders say. Not bad for an outlet that just experienced a remarkable stroke of bad luck: moving all its content to Medium on the very same day Medium announced layoffs of a third of its staff.

An alum of Matter’s recent accelerator class, The Establishment came to life as the rage-child of Kelley Calkins, Katie Tandy, and Nikki Gloudeman. Their experience working at a different feminist-focused news outlet with frustrating finances and leadership inspired them to create a brand from scratch that pledges to be a platform for marginalized voices, transparent finances, and fact-checked content — driven by paying members, with only a small slice of support from advertising sponsors.

“There are a lot of companies and a lot of advertisers looking at the wrong metrics,” Calkins said. “We’re being really conscious about growing our membership community in tandem with our audience growth. It’s not as if someone comes to the site, clicks on another site’s clickbait, and leaves. That’s not what we’re after…Every person that’s coming in is adding value.”

The trio launched The Establishment (tagline: “The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women”) just over two years ago after spending six months surveying writers and editors to determine “what niche we could fill,” building up content, and preparing the site for launch on WordPress. They then decided to put the site on Medium, drawn by the appeal of a larger reader network, continued editorial autonomy, and the chance to monetize content. As Calkins explained in a Medium post that was supposed to announce the migration:

Things, however, shook out a little differently than planned. In surreal, truly otherworldly timing akin to a Twilight Zone episode plot twist, just as we were switching URLs to activate our new Medium site, aforementioned Medium founder Ev Williams made a little (read: epically giant) announcement: The company was laying off a third of its staff and shuttering its sales force. In short: Our plans to monetize through the site, which had comprised the most attractive aspect of making the Medium move, were eliminated the very day — after months of careful preparation — we moved to the publisher.

I shan’t lie to you, gentle reader — it was a dark and shocking day for The Establishment. Beer was consumed, expletives hurled into the atmosphere, tears shed. But after our (understandable and if anything, rather low-key) cathartic endeavors, we did what every marginalized population does in the face of continued hardship: We got to work.

Stung by the platform, the co-founders vowed to establish independent and reliable revenue streams, which led them to building a community where members pay an average of $7.50 per person ($5 is the minimum). Tandy, Calkins, and Gloudeman examined seven potential revenue streams during their four months in Matter’s accelerator program, which concluded on October 20.

“It’s obviously a crowded media sphere right now. A lot of people at the outset [of The Establishment’s creation] were dubious that we need another website,” said Tandy. She said that The Establishment strives to support “all these people who have never been given the opportunity to write in the way that others have…to bolster it in support for all these people who are just as talented if not more so but shut out in so many ways.” She emphasized that the organization fact-checks its articles to add to a substantive conversation rather than doing “fluff” or listicles. “We’re representing both the writer and the reader.”

The Establishment rallies around being a “conduit and platform for voices and creators who have been marginalized by mainstream media,” according to its Matter profile, and targets an audience of women between age 18 and 34, people of color, people with disabilities, LBGTQ people, and “anyone who’s ever been silenced.” Its stories range from “Where should boundaries lie between yoga teachers and students?” to “When you’re disabled, emergencies post an even greater risk” to “This is my one-minute rape story”; it cites an average view time of nearly 3 minutes per story per reader. But until deciding to trust the membership option, it still struggled with funding digital media. “We had spent two years dialing into our editorial process. We had built a super-engaged audience,” Tandy added. “We’d been around for so long but we needed to crack the code and try a bunch of different business models.”

Membership at The Establishment provides access to an online forum moderated by Establishment staff, an exclusive advice column from editor-at-large Ijeoma Oluo, a biweekly sex column by Tandy, product giveaways and discounts, updates on events, webinars, and Establishment swag. (They also offer sponsorships to directly fund writers, though the money is assigned at random, and newsletter takeovers or sponsored content from Lioness and Squarespace.) Tandy and Calkins said it’s led to mostly organic growth — they’ve only spent $6,000 on marketing in The Establishment’s existence, and they point to their content and cause as the driving factor.

“There’s no algorithm that’s going to select for what we’re doing and there never will be,” Calkins said. “We’re proving that there’s a missing element because of all this noise surrounding the tech — the fundamentals of journalism is where our value is.”

“An old white dude writing really tone-deaf things about an increasingly diversifying world — it’s not going to cut the mustard going forward,” Tandy added.

Image courtesy of The Establishment.

POSTED     Oct. 31, 2017, 9:56 a.m.
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