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July 5, 2016, 1:28 p.m.
Business Models

A Boston journalism nonprofit is among the first publishers to sell subscriptions on Medium

“I really understand how powerful it is to be able to raise sustaining donations, now that I’m in the driver’s seat.”

Most of the publishers using Medium would describe themselves as small, or small-ish. But sites like The Ringer and The Awl are huge compared to the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, which also began monetizing on Medium in June.

BINJ was founded a year ago this week by Chris Faraone, who is also the news and features editor of alt-weekly DigBoston, with a mission to “produce bold reporting on issues related to social justice and innovation” in Massachusetts. The site relies on freelancers to “work on projects that we then distribute to a range of outlets, from grassroots blogs to national news sites.”

Since launch, BINJ has released about 20 feature articles, and is also running four regular columns (Broken Records, for instance, covers public records in Massachusetts.

“We like to cover the big stories that aren’t being covered,” Faraone told me. “That’s the alt-news adage. More than half the features we did were with first-time longform writers, and I’m really proud of that.” (Faraone was previously a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix, which was still running three to five longform features a week when it shut down in 2013.) Earlier this month, BINJ published “Unaccommodated: A BLS Story,” a 5,000-word feature about the trials of a special-needs student at Boston’s top public high school, Boston Latin. The reporting for that story took a year, and was published in a summer when the school is also facing allegations of discrimination against students of color. Another two-part feature investigated Boston’s segregated liquor licensing system, which has favored white liquor store and bar owners.

BINJ has hosted its work on Medium since last year. “Our whole idea was to be a free-floating incubator and support community media, but after a couple of months, people were like, okay, if we want to see where the BINJ stuff is, where can we go?” Faraone said. Medium’s free hosting and publisher features “enabled me to do projects I just wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.” He was never interested in “wasting money on a website.”

“I have seen so much money get pissed away,” he said. “As a journalist who has often had trouble paying rent over the years, it’s just killed me to see programmers and developers come in and milk news organizations for tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes for projects that don’t ever come to fruition. I was never in danger of falling into that pit.”

BINJ is now one of the first news organizations — and the only local one — offering subscriptions through Medium’s beta program, alongside Serious Eats, Electric Literature, and Femsplain. (Since I didn’t cover subscriptions much in the larger roundup I did, I wanted to focus on it here.) It’s asking readers for $3 a month, which includes access to special content and members-only events. Faraone wrote in a post on Thursday:

We picked up 23 subscribers for a total of $143 a month in our first two weeks. (At this time we can’t see who our subscribers are or how much each person is pledging, but the average monthly donation (total haul divided by number of subscribers) is currently $6 per person, which is double the $3 minimum we’re asking.) We anticipate that number to grow substantially over the coming weeks and months, but already it’s enough to get us excited. That’s more than $1,700 a year. For a grassroots incubator that dropped 20 features and 100-plus columns — plus organized several events in the communities we cover — in year one with the first $70,000 we raised, that’s money we can make a real impact with. And if it grows into thousands every month that we can rely on…you do the math.

Faraone stressed that BINJ is raising money in lots of ways. Around half of its funding so far has come from the Logan Foundation and Craig Newmark, with the other half coming from merchandise and events. “But I really understand how powerful it is to be able to raise sustaining donations, now that I’m in the driver’s seat,” he said. “We’re going to be nothing if we can’t build the community, so this is just one way to do it. Medium was perfect, because we wouldn’t have been able to implement some white-label system.” BINJ keeps all of the money it raises through Medium’s subscription feature, other than $0.32 of each transaction that goes toward Stripe payment processing. (Medium starts taking a cut after sites hit 500 or more subscribers.)

Since much of BINJ’s content is hyperlocal or state-based, Faraone said he’d love a way to sort his Medium followers by location, “to know who our local readers are — though, understandably, Medium does not cater to that right now; it’s for reaching a larger audience.” He’s also looking forward to the time when readers will be able to subscribe on mobile.

“There are independent news organizations that will probably send me hate mail over this because we’re giving away the farm to Medium,” he said. “But the whole idea behind BINJ was that we’re kind of nomadic. We never really had a farm.”

POSTED     July 5, 2016, 1:28 p.m.
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