Image by Katharina Brenner

Jack Self looks both relieved… and daunted.

His Kickstarter campaign for the Real Review membership community has met its funding goal of £26,880… thanks, in part, to a sizable $10,000 lifetime membership from a DJ in Croatia. “It was amazing to think that someone would be prepared to put that type of value on what we’re doing,” Self, the editor-in-chief of Real Review, says. “I was very moved by that.”

Now, the campaign has 48 hours to go. And Self is watching the clock.

“I’ve gone from being moderately depressed about the idea that we were not going to make it to now being moderately stressed about all the work I have to do,” he says.

Real Review is part of a fresh wave of magazines seeking sustainability and a deeper connection with their communities via membership programs. And such models just might be the future of independent media — or at least an ideal vision of one.

*

Real Review has been unapologetic — some might say quixotic, if not chaotic — in its approach from the start. 

The publication is a contemporary culture magazine documenting “what it means to live today,” boasting contributors ranging from Virgil Abloh to Chelsea Manning to Pope Francis. Partly in response to the culture of disingenuous sponsored content in media, in 2016 Self launched it with no advertising, no commercial partnerships or relationships, and a fierce autonomy.

“Whenever I describe the business model, it’s just a miracle to me that something that is so absolutist in its position can exist,” he says.

Up to this point, it has been funded entirely by direct website sales and through magazine shops… and “it’s funded very badly,” Self says with a laugh. Despite its devoted reader base, he has never made a single dollar from the publication, which has occupied two days of his time every week for the past six years. While the magazine has never been more popular, it breaks even — so the membership model is intended to offer the brand stability. In return, members get advance copies of the biannual print magazine, access to a new members-only section of the website featuring special content and archival material, and perhaps most intriguingly, an invite to Real Review’s Discord server (for the uninitiated, think Slack but for niche interests instead of work). There, the community can weigh in on the direction and future of Real Review, and directly interact with the editorial team and each other.

Real Review Kickstarter campaign graphic

Self once tested the waters for a membership model in 2017 — but it failed to gain traction. So why now? 

He points back to the early 2000s, when the longstanding magazine advertising/subscription model began to crack. Ad revenue suddenly shifted from the print to the digital space. While the efficacy of print advertising was always a bit like reading tea leaves, online ads offered instant feedback and real-time results — not to mention a host of demographics about consumers. Capitalism had previously provided no alternative to the traditional print media model, but now it offered a powerful one. The result, Self says, especially with social media, has been an algorithmic feedback loop that only gives people what it assumes they want. And in turn, media consumers aren’t finding themselves stimulated. They’re not feeling connection. And Covid-19 has only exacerbated everything, in the process prompting a reevaluation of the systems that fuel culture.

Self says the world has reached a point of saturation where there is so much content that it’s impossible to parse through it and isolate the good from the bad, the truth from the lie. So people are moving away from social media and realizing the true value in outlets that offer curation, quality, and authenticity — and that is leading people to independent media. Moreover, he believes the public deserves more governance and oversight over who the world’s gatekeepers are — “we don’t want them to just be recreating inequality and injustice.”

When it comes to Real Review’s membership model, “I’ve been waiting for the right moment to do it. And I believe that the moment is now.”

*

As Poynter has reported, before the pandemic, 73% of independent media company gal-dem’s revenue came from events and partnerships. At that point, the brand — focused on platforming the narratives of underrepresented people of color, especially those from marginalized genders — had already been gearing up to launch a membership model, having transitioned from a volunteer organization to a business in 2019. Covid then threw the initiative into high gear. 

“A membership model was a natural development for us at gal-dem — a way for our communities to connect with what we do and to directly empower us to do it,” editor-in-chief Suyin Haynes writes via email. “We felt it was important, coming from radical, community collective roots, that we retain that spirit as we transitioned to become a business. A paywall has always been contrary to one of our key values here, which is accessibility.”

gal-dem membership graphics

Facing canceled events and ad revenue losses, gal-dem launched its membership model in March 2020, keeping its core content free while focusing on added value. Memberships are offered in three tiers: For £4.99 a month, subscribers get a weekly newsletter, discounts from gal-dem’s partners, early access to gal-dem event tickets, access to a private Facebook group, and more. £9.99 nets all that plus free tickets to gal-dem events, an advance copy of gal-dem’s printed annual, and a piece of limited merchandise. The £14.99 tier offers the bonus of two pieces of merchandise, free access to additional events, and a copy of the brand’s book I Will Not Be Erased.

With an initial goal of 900 members, gal-dem netted around £3,000 by the end of 2020. To date, Haynes details, the program has accounted for more than £350,000 in revenue.

“The membership has absolutely enabled us to do so much of our work over the last two years,” she writes. “The number of staff we’ve been able to employ on secure contracts with benefits, the number of freelance writers and creatives that we’ve worked with and been able to commission, the number of projects that money has helped fund — these have all been vital to who gal-dem is.”

Moreover, gal-dem details that the membership initiative has “put over £1 million directly into the hands of people of color from marginalized genders,” while facilitating the launch of a podcast series and earning the brand a spot on the Innovation of the Year shortlist at the British Journalism Awards.

In the wake of the worldwide movement following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, gal-dem saw a surge in membership. However, “Every June since then, we’ve seen a drop-off rate of people choosing not to renew their memberships with us. Figuring out how to retain those members, as well as balance that with attracting new members and growing the community, has been the biggest challenge.”

With a new CEO in place, gal-dem is currently working on initiatives to do just that, which Haynes says they will launch in the third or fourth quarter of the year. 

“This will be the core focus of our company over the coming months as we have a lot of ambitious plans as a business, and want people to join the journey with us. I can’t say too much more at this stage other than to keep an eye out on what we’re doing for the rest of 2022. Big changes on the horizon!”

Like gal-dem, independent women’s magazine Riposte was hit hard by the pandemic, and its revenue from events and partnerships was entirely wiped out. 

After an enforced pause and conducting an audience survey, Riposte returned in 2021 with a three-tiered membership: £5 per month for a new monthly digital magazine, a newsletter, access to archival content, and the ability to purchase discounted event tickets before the public. £10 per month adds free access to monthly online and physical events, and a biannual limited-edition print. £15, meanwhile, earns members an invite to additional member events, advance copies of Riposte’s print issues, and mentoring sessions with the editorial team.

Riposte membership graphics

As founder and editor Danielle Pender told magCulture around the time of the relaunch, “I’m really looking forward to publishing pieces that are a bit weird and niche that aren’t driven by Google Analytics and buzzwords. That’s where it feels like a lot of digital publishing is going, and it feels really dangerous — if we only publish things that get a lot of eyeballs and clicks, aka make money, what is happening to the stories and people that don’t drive traffic? Does that mean their stories aren’t as valid or worthwhile?

“That’s why independent media is more important than ever. We need different voices and different stories and a wider perspective on all sorts of issues — even if we don’t totally agree.”

*

To look forward, perhaps there’s merit in looking back.

In October 2012, with Kickstarter not yet available in the Netherlands, type designer Peter Biľak created his own crowdfunding platform to launch Works That Work. A human interest magazine that showcased the power of design to a general readership, the campaign attracted more than 1,000 supporters, who pledged over €30,000 to bring it to life. 

From the outset, Biľak wanted to rethink the traditional format. He has described Works That Work as a “dependent” magazine rather than an “independent” one. Instead of serving advertisers, Biľak sought to deeply connect with readers, who he regarded as partners, not commodities. Whereas most consumer magazines carry around 50% advertising, Biľak restricted it to 3% per issue in Works That Work. The magazine was also printed locally to cut down on its environmental impact, which raised production costs. 

Biľak’s ultimate goal was to create a periodical supported entirely by readers — and he says that within the first three issues, he was able to achieve it, even offering contributors and writers above-market rates. 

The biggest success of Works That Work?

“We were able to prove that there were alternatives to the traditional model,” he says. 

One key element of the magazine’s sustainability: its social distribution program. Initially, Works That Work offered readers the opportunity to order multiple copies to sell to bookstores near them, a guerilla model that not only bypassed distributors, but also provided a financial reward for the reader (with the added bonus of getting the magazine into markets typically ignored by the distributors). 

Things didn’t go as planned. They went better. “Readers began to ask me, do I need to bring the magazine to bookstores? Or can I just distribute it to my friends?”

Biľak realized that in his quest to make the most direct connection between reader and publisher, bookstores stood in the way, as well. So he amended the program and offered the magazine at half price when seven or more copies were ordered — giving readers, and their friends and colleagues, an affordable publication they might not otherwise have had access to. Taking things a DIY step further, Biľak offered readers traveling a free copy of the latest issue for delivering a bundle of magazines to their destination, cutting down on shipping expenses and lowering the price for everyone. 

Works That Work

Diehard fans of the magazine held readings around the world. For the most ardent, Biľak established a patron model where readers could contribute any extra sum they desired, and have their name printed in the magazine, in addition to receiving a small token, such as a limited edition print or T-shirt, and a personal thank-you note. 

Ultimately, the outside-the-box model offered Biľak total control to produce the publication he and his readers wanted. And with total control comes the freedom to decide when it ends, too.

“Typically people associate endings with failures, right?” Biľak says. “It’s hard for people to understand that choosing an end is actually a luxury.” Biľak didn’t think the publication would get better as time went on — he thought it would become routine. So after 10 issues and five years, he called it a day.

“My idea was not to create a job, but to create a project that has high energy. And any high energy project has to kind of come to a conclusion.”

*

Back in London, Jack Self is preparing to start.

Real Review ended its Kickstarter campaign with £34,549 — nearly £8,000 over its goal. Hyperfocused on transparency, Self has broken down exactly how every pound will be used and published it on the campaign. Moreover, going forward, he plans to share all working finances with his community, something he hopes could establish precedent for other media.

Overall, he knows there will likely be challenges. 

Beyond the key factors of growth, ongoing revenue, and content production, “Because the community doesn’t exist, the members who have joined it may have very different ideas about what this community will be and how it will function,” he says. “There is a great risk of disappointment, of people feeling that what it has become is not what they signed up for.”

That challenge may extend inward, as well. “I don’t think we should ever have advertising in the magazine. Maybe the members will feel differently, in which case, we should put that to a public forum and discuss it.” That also extends to brand partnerships and beyond. 

The next step in the process: bringing people together and giving them a clear sense of what the new Real Review will be — something that’s making Self nervous, because he’s not entirely sure yet.

Regardless, “What our members have given us is the breathing space and financial slack to create something that doesn’t exist. And whether it’s a success or failure will depend on us, on them, on our systems of governance, on our communication. And that’s an experiment. It could be that it’s a failure. I hope that it will be a success.”

Just as Real Review, gal-dem, Riposte, and others set what could become a new standard for independent media —

Time will tell.

The relationship between publisher and reader has always been a symbiosis. It’s wholly refreshing to finally see publishers embracing it.



Source link

By Peter