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Sept. 7, 2021, 2:57 p.m.
Business Models
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   September 7, 2021

Happy first birthday to Defector, the worker-owned sports and culture website started by former Deadspin staffers. On Tuesday, editor-in-chief Tom Ley posted a status update on how things went in the website’s first year. Things went well!

— “As of today, we have received subscription payments from more than 40,000 people,” Ley writes. A subscription to Defector starts at $79/year (“Reader” level); higher subscription tiers include perks like a newsletter and discounts on merchandise.

— Defector has 23 full-time employees.

— Defector had pulled in $3.2 million in revenue as of the end of August. Ley:

We used about half of that $3.2 million to pay salaries and benefits for Defector’s 23 full-time employees. Another big chunk of money, a little over $500,000, was spent on creating and maintaining what a cool guy with a powerful business mindset would probably call our “tech stack,” but which I will simply call “all the shit that makes the website actually work.” That includes the website itself (lovingly crafted by Alley Interactive), the paywall technology (operated by Pico) that we use to make sure people actually pay up in order to read the site, the newsletter platform (Mailchimp) that we use to deliver a daily newsletter to Pal-level subscribers, and the company (Stripe) that processes all of subscriber payments. Taxes, HR, insurance costs, accounting services, and legal fees all added up to another few hundred thousand dollars. Our last big expense was the approximately $100,000 we spent paying freelance writers and other contractors who made art or helped produce video and audio content for us.

— About 95% of that revenue came from subscriptions.

— There’s a very good section on Defector’s value proposition, which I’m quoting a bunch of here:

OK, but how am I supposed to pay you guys and also pay for all my streaming services and also all those new Substacks that I am supposed to be supporting now?

That’s a good question, and one that we take very seriously. Nobody at Defector wants to be even partially responsible for someone losing the ability to pay their damn rent because they ended up spending 45 percent of their paycheck on various Substacks and Patreons and magazines. If you just don’t have the money to pay for a Defector subscription, or if you really think it would be better spent somewhere else, I won’t argue with you. What I will say in our favor is that any money you spend on us will only ever be used to help make the site a bigger, better version of itself. Every new subscriber Andrew Sullivan gets doesn’t make him any more or less of a dumbass, but every subscriber we get makes it more likely that we will be able to hire more people, pay more freelance writers and artists, report more stories, and make improvements to our website.

And it’s good to support a worker-owned co-op, right? Doing so certainly will make me a Good Media Consumer.

I suppose so, yeah, but I must admit that I am increasingly hesitant to frame our value proposition in those terms. While living through this past year of Substack proliferation, I’ve been struck by how much money seems to be getting thrown around for the sake of — and I really do apologize for using this term but it honestly, truly applies here — virtue signaling. How many of the thousands of suburban bullies who are helping Bari Weiss earn $800,000 per year from her newsletter do you think eagerly await her next unverified email from a screeching private-school parent? Do Glenn Greenwald’s subscribers really fork over $5 every month because they can’t wait to read his latest self-victimizing rundown of whatever’s happening on his Twitter feed, or because they like what he represents: a guy who makes all the other guys they don’t like mad online? It seems much more likely to me that people subscribe to these things because doing so is a way of affirming which side they are on.

It is admittedly a little rich for me to be complaining about this dynamic just one year removed from publishing a big honking story about the righteous creation of this website and why it was vitally important for people who hate venture capitalism but love worker solidarity to support it. But since we are friends now I can tell you I wrote that post because I needed to sell you on something, and at that point in time all we had to sell was our story. But now I have a whole website to sell you. I have thoughtful and incisive essays about everything from soccer to politics to Nikola Jokic to drug policy to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to policing to labor to abortion to art to Palestine to tennis to Irish dance, and on and on. I have expertly crafted blogs about wanting to be struck down by a tokamak, what a fraud Elon Musk is, and whatever the hell is going on in Alaska. I have every conceivable variety of the highest quality sports blogs. I have media criticism and scoops and plenty of reported features. I have “Horse Innocent!” I have Why Your Team Sucks and clump dogs. I have Samer recognizing a fart online.

I went back and read Defector’s inaugural post before I wrote this one, and what struck me was how distant it felt, and how little all of it mattered to what the site is now and will be. I think, I hope, that’s because Defector has become bigger than its origin story. How this website was created no longer matters as much as the fact that the website exists and can be judged on its own merits. I want you to subscribe, or continue subscribing, to Defector not just because you believe in our cause or think supporting us is a good thing to do, but because you enjoy the work we produce and want to see us continue producing it. The stakes don’t need to be any higher, or more complicated, than that.

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