Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Is Facebook too big to know? The Markup has a plan (and a browser) to wrap its arms around it
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
March 17, 2020, 2:17 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The Dispatch surpassed $1 million in revenue by being newsletters-and-podcasts first and taking it slow

The conservative politics site has nearly 10,000 paying subscribers a month after putting up its paywall. “We don’t want the outrage clicks. We’ve said from the beginning we’d like to slow the news cycle down.”

If there’s any good news to share these days, let this be one: Publishing on Substack can generate some significant money for news outlets, not just individual writers.

The primary test of that thesis thus far has been The Dispatch, the conservative politics and news site that launched last fall as the first real news organization to launch on Substack’s email-first platform. (As opposed to the many journalists and others who have used Substack for a one-person outfit or side project.)

Today, they’re announcing something of a milestone: The Dispatch has generated more than $1 million in revenue in the six months since its launch — only the last month of which put some content behind a paywall. It’s approaching $1.4 million, in fact. That direct reliance on readers — The Dispatch doesn’t have ads or rent out its mailing lists to scam PACs or snake-oil salesmen — makes it stand out among political media.

“We’ve just said to people we want to provide you with content, really good content with reporting, and we otherwise want to leave you alone,” said Stephen Hayes, The Dispatch’s CEO, editor, and co-founder.

Hayes and co-founder Jonah Goldberg both come from long careers in conservative media, most prominently at The Weekly Standard and National Review. The rise of Donald Trump created fissures both between and within conservative outlets. (National Review went from devoting an entire issue to being “Against Trump” to significantly warmer feelings.) After The Weekly Standard was shut down (Hayes was at the time its editor-in-chief), some began looking for new approaches.

“The more Jonah and I talked about the problems of journalism, the problems in politics, particularly in the center right, the more we thought there was a pretty huge opportunity for a fact-driven publication, a digital media company on the center right, that put reporting really at the core of what we’re doing,” Hayes said.

Building something the size of a publication on a platform initially built for individuals — a more professional TinyLetter — brings some infrastructure challenges. Hayes said The Dispatch was originally intended to be larger — “25 to 30 people, and to have a full website like most places do.”

But discussions with others in the media industry led them to reorder their priorities. “We decided that we’d launch a little smaller, and we would really make the website the third most important of the editorial products, with the first two being newsletters and podcasts sort of tied for No. 1,” he said. “In retrospect, we’re very glad that we had that flexibility and that we didn’t just stick to our original plan and learned along the way.”

Today The Dispatch serves, in effect, as an umbrella brand for six different email newsletters, plus three podcasts published on Substack’s platform. (The company added that feature last year.) All Dispatch content was free until about a month ago; today, individual newsletters have a mix of free and subscriber-only material. That’s meant a slight shift in tone from more traditional conservative sites.

“For me, it’s been more of a transition, having edited what was a primarily print publication,” Hayes said. “I would say the biggest difference is probably the way that we communicate — particularly because we put such a heavy emphasis on push content, both in audio form and in newsletters. We’re having these kind of intimate discussions with our readers. [Dispatch newsletters are] mixed in with the email that they’re getting from Katie and Uncle Ron and their friends. And we found that a more conversational approach and a more personal approach really works.”

The different mode of distribution has also encouraged a different editorial approach, compared to political sites on both left and right whose primary currency is outrage. Relying on social media for traffic can lead sites toward the clickbait anger that can make people retweet or share. A subscription to a regular email newsletter offers different incentives.

“It’d cost us a lot less if we had a group of 20 writers who we could call on on a moment’s notice and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got an hour, give us 700 words that will piss people off,'” Hayes said. “We don’t want the outrage clicks. We’ve said from the beginning we’d like to slow the news cycle down. We want people to come and visit us and read the newsletters when they come in to their inbox — maybe stop by our website once a day. They don’t need to come back once they’ve done it. And they can have the sense that they’ve kind of finished the news.”

(Substack’s default white-space-heavy design also helps in the calming department.)

Some Dispatch newsletters are tied to individual writers or to specific issues like national security. There’s a Saturday email summarizing the best of the week (free to all) and a Morning Dispatch (behind the paywall).

“It’s evolved as a product to be something that’s very different than sort of the typical morning news update or news brief,” Hayes said. “A lot of the ones in Washington are very insidery and aimed at an inside-the-beltway audience, with lots of acronyms and inside jokes and whatnot. And ours is the opposite. Ours is aimed at normal people, busy people who don’t probably have the time to jump from website to website to website all day, but want somewhere to go where they can get something a little bit more substantive.” (Here’s an example.)

The Dispatch is not afraid to go long; individual emails can stretch to 2,000 words or beyond, which can feel more reasonable in a browser tab than in your inbox, a place you’re more likely to turn for quick updates or communication. Take The Morning Dispatch, with its mix of quick hits and longer analysis: “You can dive into the deep-dive stuff and spend — if you read the newsletter, click on all the links, and read that stuff — you can spend two hours on that one product,” Hayes said.

He also pointed to a regular Sunday newsletter (not behind the paywall) by David French “on religion, politics and culture, and it has just blown up…I think he’s found a way to have a substantive, engaging, and respectful discussion around issues of faith and politics. That just almost doesn’t exist anywhere else, or if it exists, if it doesn’t exist the way that he does it. That’s been something that’s been very, very popular.”

At Substack’s suggestion, The Dispatch launched as a free product to draw in a following; it had more than 30,000 subscribers before going paid. In December, The Dispatch introduced a “lifetime membership” option priced at $1,500. In January, readers were given the option of subscribing for $10/month or $100/year. They then started putting some stories behind a paywall in mid-February. They’re now close to 10,000 paying subscribers.

That’s a pretty remarkable initial number, given that paid subscriptions to this sort of political outlet have always been relatively niche, on both left and right. National Review has 70,000 paid subscribers in print, plus about 20,000 paying digital subscribers, according to Alliance for Audited Media data. The Weekly Standard had about 72,000 subscribers shortly before it closed. (The New Republic was around 40,000 a few years back.)

“My theory is that there is a real appetite out there for something different and something trustworthy,” said Hamish McKenzie, a Substack co-founder, said. “[Dispatch writers] are open with their perspectives. There’s a hunger for sharing thoughts and ideas around interest areas.”

Substack has itself hit a big number recently: It has now passed 100,000 paying subscribers across all the newsletters on its platform. We wrote about it passing 11,000 in July 2018 and 50,000 in July 2019 — so its growth is accelerating.

(Substack is free to publish on until a newsletter introduces paid subscriptions; Substack then takes 10 percent.)

The Dispatch now has a staff of 12. They’re working with Substack to build out their analytics and better understand their audience, including doing more audience surveys. But for now, they’re planning to stick with the editorial approach that seems to be connecting with readers.

“I’ve said that to several of our writers: Sit down and think about what you would say if you were writing an email to a friend of yours who is in the Peace Corps and hasn’t had the time to pay attention,” Hayes said. “Every twist and turn of the story. What would you say? How would you summarize the news to that person on a day? And that seems to have really worked.”

Photo of the U.S. Capitol building by Andy Feliciotti.

POSTED     March 17, 2020, 2:17 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
SHARE THIS STORY
   
 
Join the 50,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Is Facebook too big to know? The Markup has a plan (and a browser) to wrap its arms around it
The Citizen Browser Project will pay 1,200 Americans to let The Markup monitor the choices that tech company algorithms are making for them. “What are they choosing to amplify? And what are they choosing not to amplify?”
Facebook and YouTube’s moves against QAnon are only a first step in the battle against dangerous conspiracy theories
Get ready for “lighter propaganda.”
Here’s how entrepreneurial local journalists are fighting back against Alden Global Capital
“I just determined that I would rather do anything else in life than to dismantle a proud newsroom and lay off my friends and colleagues and eventually be laid off myself.”