Publishing Capital

By: Emire Dervishi


No one knows exactly when print died.

In Ghostbusters (1984), Egnon Spengler, PhD says, “Print is dead,” as a response to, “I bet you like to read a lot too.” This was my first encounter with the old adage. Apparently, the line was influenced by Marshall McLuhan’s prolific 1960s interviews, in which he says, among other things, “The monarchy of print has ended and an oligarchy of new media has usurped most of the power of that 500-year-old monarchy.” But according to some commentators, he was already late. In Post-Digital Print, Alessandro Ludovico dates the death of print to 1894. This date refers to an illustrated book by Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida, in which they claim the future of publishing to be “voice,” versus the “static” printed page. Again and again, for at least 125 years, print has died.

And yet, here we are.

In the United States alone, there are at least 1 million new books and 7 thousand new magazines printed annually. Most new publications, however, don’t make it past the first two years.

“No matter how you try to hedge your bet, this is still a chancy business,” said Frank Gibney, founder of the now-defunct Show magazine. “But it’s worth sticking your neck out. The magazine business could make no bigger mistake than to stop innovating and simply rely on what has worked in the past.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Gibney, you might think this quote was recent. It isn’t. It is from a 1964 New York Times article, which goes to show that publishers have always felt the pressure to make it new – and make a profit. In a capitalist society, the value of an idea is inextricably tied to its ability to be monetized. Simply following the money behind a publication tells a story that is rarely covered within the publication itself.

Media outlets have been forced to become especially creative in recent years, as the conventional funding model of subscribers and print advertising has become unworkable for many magazines due to falling prices for print ads. Having spent weeks surveying the current New York media landscape, I’ve chosen five funding models that illustrate some of the ways print publications today continue to remain among the undead.

The Publisher as Philanthropist

Publishing consultant David Rose, who’s worked with Lapham’s Quarterly and the London Review of Books, said, “There’s a certain kind of wealthy person who likes to buy a sports team, and another kind of wealthy person who likes to buy an intellectual property.”

“There’s a certain kind of wealthy person who likes to buy a sports team, and another kind of wealthy person who likes to buy an intellectual property.”

The latter is our kind of wealthy person. This person has the means, if not the utmost desire, to fund a media company with negative returns (by Rose’s estimates, the cost is at least one million dollars per year). Many publications funded by an individual philanthropist maintain editorial freedoms, although this is not always the case. All of these publications, however, will need to fit some wealthy person’s definition of a “cultural good.” This might mean they should kick up dust or wield influence. And most should increase their circulation, too.

One of the oldest examples of the publisher as philanthropist is The Guardian, first published in 1821 under the name Manchester-Guardian. The original owner, John Scott, established a trust in 1936, now The Scott Trust Limited, to ensure the continued publication of the daily newspaper. However, even The Guardian, which has what seems to be the money tree of my dreams, had to ask the public to bail them out in mid-2016 following many financial mishaps and losses. Harpers, which calls itself the “oldest general-interest monthly in America,” is funded by the MacArthur Harper’s Magazine Fund. Real Life, an online tech publication is funded by Snapchat.

The Intercept, funded by First Look Media, the media company owned by eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar, is another, even more daring, example. Omidyar contributed $250 million to initially fund The Intercept.  Its first article, in 2014, was a detailed account of the NSA’s use of surveillance to find targets for lethal drone strikes. This, and stories like it, drew massive attention.

Still, The Intercept struggled to break even. In March 2019, The Intercept laid off their entire research staff. Through leaked emails, published on Medium, the public learned that The Intercept was also closing the Snowden Archives. The explanations for doing so have varied.

In a tweet, Glenn Greenwald, one of three co-founders of The Intercept, cites budgetary reasons. Laura Poitras, another co-founder, claims this is untrue —“the cost to maintain access and the research staff is roughly $400,000, or 1.5% of FLMW’s 2019 budget.” The “historical value” of the archives is Poitras’ rallying cry, which might fall on deaf ears if the real reason for closing the archives has to do with Omidyar’s worries about the dramatic change in political climate under Trump.

On its website, The Intercept boasts that its owner’s deep pockets “give its journalists the editorial freedom and legal support they need.” The same is not true for Harper’s, whose president and philanthropist-publisher, John “Rick” M. MacArthur, a scion of the same family behind the annual MacArthur “genius” grants, exercises sovereign control over the magazine’s editorial decisions.

In a New York Times article from April, 2018, James Marcus, former deputy editor at Harper’s, claims he was de facto fired because he disagreed with MacArthur’s decision to publish Katie Rophie’s essay, “The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter feminism is bad for woman,” which Marcus described as “exceedingly mediocre.”

Knowing what you now know about the pros and cons of having an independently wealthy publisher underwrite your publication, here’s a thought experiment:

If Omidyar decides to stop funding The Intercept entirely, like billionaire Win McCormack did with Tin House Magazine earlier this year, will you, i.e., the pubic step in and save it? Working from precedent, I’m inclined to say no. Tin House is dead, after all.

Still, the question stands — do we as readers bear a responsibility for the state of publishing today?

The Paid Content Publisher

If deep pockets seem like a mixed blessing, a publication can always try to rely on the more conventional model of advertising and subscriptions, as do The Economist, first published in 1843, and The New York Times, first published in 1851. In figures from 2018, The Economist boasted a combined circulation of 1,657,795 per issue (this includes 867,733 print and 790,062 digital). According to a Times article by Jaclyn Peiser, in the same year, the Times reached “more than four million total [subscribers], of which more than three million [are] paid digital-only subscribers.” With numbers like this, these two are able to support large editorial staffs and newsrooms, even with the challenges posed by shrinking ad revenue (an existential threat to print publications for a generation).

But taking any advertising at all can involve compromises, and in recent years some new magazines,  particularly on the left, are trying to do away with advertising dollars altogether. Cue Commune, a “popular magazine for a new era of revolution,” funded by donations received through a Kickstarter campaign. According to the editor Shyam P. Khanna, Commune hopes to become economically viable with increasing subscriptions.

The journal launched in Fall 2018, and at the time of my conversation with Khanna in February 2019, they had acquired 2,000 subscribers — 500 more than their initial goal.  Once they reach 5,000, they will be able to maintain a sustainable revenue model and, according to Khanna, consider themselves “successful.” Going forward, Commune is considering a paywall for its online content, to encourage readers to purchase the print edition for unlimited online access.

As Rose tells me, “the cost of selling an issue is very often higher than the price you get back for it. It very rarely makes any kind of financial sense to make a magazine, and this has always been the case.”

“It very rarely makes any kind of financial sense to make a magazine, and this has always been the case.”

This is especially true if publications offer incentives by way of lower prices for more lengthy subscription times (such as The Wall Street Journal) or a combined, low-cost price for digital and print access (such as Wired, $10 for digital + print, or $10 for just digital). This has become more and more common as it has become increasingly difficult to attract and sustain a paying readership.

The proven method of increasing circulation is direct mail to potential subscribers. But these paper shots in the dark are costly. According to the New York Times back in 1964, circulation mailings cost as much as “$100 to $150 for a thousand potential subscribers.” Rose estimates that to secure 2,000 new subscribers you will have to mail out at least 500,000 promotions, which is, well, expensive.

For this and other reasons, many media companies try to attract new subscribers via email. In order to do this, however, you need to pay for an email list, or have an active web site with visitors willing to leave their email addresses. People give away their email addresses all the time. But if anyone is like me, once they’ve subscribed to a site, and received marketing emails for a few months, they will scroll down to the miniscule unsubscribe button, stating whatever reason they feel less guilty about — mine is often, “I don’t have enough time.”

The Ad-dependent Publisher

Despite the ongoing drop in advertising revenue that poses a challenge to most publications, there are some exceptions. For example, art magazines still can count on revenue from art gallery advertisers who hope to reach affluent art collectors.

Hyperallergic, an art blogazine based in Brooklyn, NY has an in-house ad network, Nectar Ads, which is “the first online advertising network devoted exclusively to the visual arts.” Companies pitch their product or service and the team at Nectar accepts, designs, and publishes an ad on Hyperallergic, which gets emailed digitally to 115,00 subscribers daily as part of the site’s newsletter. These ads include relevant art-related content only — art and design education, museums, publishers, auction houses, galleries, and art fairs. All of their sponsored content is grouped in a section titled “sponsored,” located on the far right corner of their home page, and thus delineated from their editorial content, which I consider an ethical move. Despite how similar in nature the editorial content might be to the ads, it is important to me, at least, to know when I am being told something for the sake of being told something or for the sake of being sold a product. And this is where Hyperallergic gets it right.

Fundraising

We’ve already spoken about billionaires, subscriptions, and advertising, the most common wellsprings of money for publications. That leaves us with the extras, or what Rose calls the “treats and goodies.”

Commune launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their first issue. Their goal was $20,000 and instead, they hit almost $66,000. There’s a quite literal value in finding your audience, and Commune spoke directly to educated, young city-dwellers who preach socialist values. Over 1,000 donors responded to the magazine’s introductory video, which features the 20- and 30-something founders debating the values of radicalism over beers in someone’s over-appointed kitchen.

Even when magazine fundraisers don’t go viral on Leftist Twitter, Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns are still a popular way for outlets to raise cash. The Point, a literary journal, used Kickstarter to fund an early issue. 153 donors pledged $18,167 and it was through this fundraiser, as Jon Baskin says, that The Point secured their main funder. Alongside these Kickstarters or other fundraising events, publications also sell merchandise. Even the New York Times recently partnered with Everlane to sell millennial-friendly sweatshirts emblazoned with one of paper’s mottos: “Truth. It affects us all.”

Events

If you’re a left-leaning New Yorker who’s somehow paging through this magazine, you’ve probably been to Verso’s loft in Brooklyn. As the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world, the house publishes 100 books per year. Aside from just selling books, the house brings in cash — and builds its profile among intellectuals — with ideologically-relevant events. Often times, these events are co-sponsored by institutions or private donors. Verso also rents their loft, something to keep in mind in case you want to throw a surprise birthday party for a Democratic Socialist.

The capitalists also hold events. Lifestyle website Refinery29 recently hosted its fourth installation of “29 Rooms,” an event so massive and varied that it’s hard to describe. In an Instagram video, helpfully titled  “WTF is 29Rooms?” Refinery29 defines the event as a “funhouse of style, culture, and technology,” where each room is artist-designed, immersive, and interactive. Some would say this is a lot more fun than Verso’s loft, but we can all agree that it’s a lot more expensive. General admission tickets for their LA exhibition for 2018 cost $39.99 and VIP tickets cost $69.99. Tickets across all their locations sold out quickly.

Events can raise money and awareness, but treats and goodies alone aren’t enough to fund a magazine. The pitfalls of both are that you are at the mercy of a fickle public. The same is true of all of the funding models mentioned here — except for the first one, in which you’re at the mercy of a fickle billionaire.

The Future

Popula, a very self-aware digital publication, lets readers idle on their site for a few seconds before a pop-up asks you to “forgive the intrusion please” and subscribe to their paid content. But this is not your everyday, semi-aggressive subscription request. Instead, you are given the option to “tip” your author or leave a crypto-tip in Popula’s crypto-tip jar. Readers can know that their digital cash is going straight to the magazine: Popula is 100% ad free and reader-supported, which means it’s accountable only to the reader. Obviously, we can’t expect Harpers to pivot to funding with a crypto tip jar. But even in the universe of print, paid subscribers seems to be the only sustainable model that is free from the whims of a wealthy owner.

As an aspiring journalist, I champion the notion of reader-supported publications. But in truth, I have long settled for the content that I can find free online. I want ass-kicking journalism, and even for me, it’s difficult to accept that I may need to pay for it. It’s in part because of freeloaders like me that publications are dying even as they ask readers to step up and subscribe.

Do we as readers bear a responsibility for the state of print publishing today? My answer, despite what my credit card statement says, is yes. We should be willing to pay (if we don’t already), or pay more (if we do) for the content we consume.  

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