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$17.99 buck chuck
Hearst’s Esquire has built a “micro-membership” around politics writer Charles Pierce, which gives subscribers access to all of his stories, an exclusive weekly newsletter, and a tote bag. Launched in November 2018, it has 10,000 subscribers paying $17.99/year, according to Digiday. 
Esquire does not have a paywall across its site, so by unbundling its site into different offerings, it is trying to capitalize on user loyalty for a subset of content and experiment with consumer revenue while minimizing the risk to ad revenue. 

The level of traffic to Pierce’s stories — around 60,000 visitors per day pre-launch — inspired Esquire to build the micro-membership. Pierce’s high output (on average, three to five posts every day) and long history with the publication and readers (he has written for the magazine since 1997) were essential to increasing Esquire's confidence in going with this vertical first.

At the very least, the micro-membership likely brings in incremental revenue — $180,000 in annualized revenue today. In order for a paywall membership to be a net-revenue gain, however, it cannot cause too much lost ad revenue. A too-large drop in traffic could have offset any gains from subscriptions, but that has not been the case so far, as Pierce’s stories have seen a 60% year-over-year increase in views despite little dedicated marketing. (Non-subscribers can read three of Pierce’s stories each month). As the 2020 elections near, Esquire expects a further increase in interest and subscriptions. 

Esquire is still experimenting with the benefits associated with the micro-membership, such as access to conference calls between Pierce and his editor as they talk through debates and answer subscriber questions. The two calls so far have yielded over 800 sign-ups (8% of Pierce’s current subscriber base). This experimentation can lead to two possible, non-mutually exclusive scenarios:
  1. More micro-memberships across the site, a path espoused by the site’s editor-in-chief, Michael Sebastian. This would likely require that other writers and sections have similarly loyal audiences as Pierce’s. With sufficient audience overlap and demand, an offering that bundles these multiple memberships together could also be in the cards, according to Sebastian. 
  2. A fully paywalled Sebastian currently thinks the risk to ad revenue is too great for this to be a likely outcome. That could change, however, and micro-memberships will build muscles in the organization that would help with running a larger consumer revenue operation should the need arise. 
Informed by the work at Esquire, Hearst is experimenting with them across some of its other brands. It has already launched Runner’s World+ and a Bazaar Bride membership linked to Harper’s Bazaar; it plans to launch Popular Mechanics PRO this winter.  
How other publishers experiment with vertical subscription products. The Miami Herald created a lower-priced sports-only subscription in August 2018 called Sports Pass, based on demand from out-of-market readers who wanted to subscribe but were not interested in local news. Building on its success, McClatchy, the Herald’s parent company, rolled out Sports Pass to other newspapers. In some markets, Sports Pass has helped to double subscription conversions in a week and has shown no evidence of cannibalizing the full-price offering. Off these results, McClatchy announced the launch of another subscription vertical this week on politics and the upcoming U.S. elections. Called Impact 2020, access will cost $50 for the first year and $129 afterwards. 
Also, look for how publications retain their star writers as companies like Substack (which raised $15.3 million earlier this year) make it more feasible for writers to branch out on their own. Substack rolled out a fellowship program to support writers last week, and in April, BuzzFeed reported that the platform’s 12 top earners earn $160,000 per year on average.  
NYT’s Q3 earnings report came out this week. Some key statistics:
  • Digital advertising revenue dropped by 5.4% this quarter, and the company expects it to be down 15% year-over-year next quarter. 
  • 273,000 new digital subscribers, for a high of 4 million digital subscribers; 500,000 are international. Each subscriber brings in less revenue, though renewal rates for $1/week subscriptions have been “fairly positive.” 
  • Registration — which limits anonymous readers to one article — was cited as a key conversion tool. 
  • Television also provided a revenue boost of $9.8 million, and so will the multi-year licensing agreement with Facebook in Q4. 
Also, a new study finds that consumers who subscribe to video and/or music streaming services are more likely to subscribe to digital news. It also finds that consumers have, on average, four digital media subscriptions and 1.3 digital news subscriptions. 
NONPROFITS // The Salt Lake Tribune successfully petitioned the IRS for nonprofit status, which gives it tax-deductible status and access to philanthropic funding. This opens a possible alternative from selling or shutting down for other newspapers. Another example is that of Quebec local paper The Gleaner, which was rebuilt as a community nonprofit.

SLOW NEWS // Tortoise, a UK-based slow news publisher that launched six months ago, has 20,000 subscribers and has launched its first weekly podcast. Membership for the ad-free site costs £5/month or £50/year for those under 30, who comprise just under 40% of total members, and £24/month and £250/month for everyone else. “ThinkIns,” live events in the London newsroom where members and journalists can converse, are a central offering of the membership.
M&A PT. I // The Vice-Refinery29 acquisition and Vox Media-New York Media merger have officially closed. The new Vox Media now employs over 1,250 people and has a new logo. 
M&A PT. II // Minute Media, a global publishing platform that recently acquired Mental Floss, is in talks to buy The Players’ Tribune, a sports site founded by baseball star Derek Jeter.
PODS // Brazil ranks second in podcast consumption, after the U.S., according to a local survey. 40% of Brazilian internet users have listened to a podcast, and monthly podcast consumption on Spotify has been growing by 21% on average since January 2018.

LAYOFFS // At least 10 staffers and contributors for Bustle were let go in advance of the site’s relaunch early next year.

PAY EQUITY // The Washington Post Newspaper Guild conducted its most comprehensive pay study to-date. In the newsroom, women on average are paid less than men, and employees of color on average are paid less than white men. In the commercial division, employees of color are paid 5% less than their white counterparts on average.

EARNINGS // iHeartMedia’s Q3 total revenue was up 3% YoY to $948.3 million; digital revenue, which includes podcasts, grew 33.4% YoY to $96.7 million. iHeartMedia has been pushing into podcasts with the acquisition of Stuff Media last year and the announcement of high-profile partnerships, such as one with Shonda Rhimes.

STREAMING // The NBA, in partnership with Turner Sports, has launched its own subscription-based streaming service, NBA TV, available on and on the NBA app. It is priced at $6.99/month or $59.99/year.
ADS // Texas Tribune has shut down TribTalk, its sponsored content site, due to low traffic and social shares. Its content — paid corporate posts and opinion pieces from contributors — will be re-incorporated it into Texas Tribune’s main site.

Jake Bronstein 
Head of Partner Innovation, BuzzFeed
Tell me about yourself and your role at BuzzFeed.
I am a serial entrepreneur who has started businesses in a number of different categories. I came to BuzzFeed a little over a year ago to lead the Partner Innovation team and help BuzzFeed innovate in different spaces. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of clear direction for what that could and should mean. 

But, we eventually found an opportunity to apply my entrepreneurial background and BuzzFeed’s internal innovation work towards helping clients. Some of our functions include helping clients with creating campaign touchpoints that are beyond just content and media, launching products in new and innovative ways, and figuring out better marketing strategies.

Could you tell me a bit more about the work your team does?
Our goal is to bring BuzzFeed expertise to partner brands in whatever way and help them bring ideas to life. We do this in a couple of different ways. One is in the form of product design processes called “Sprints.” This is when we pull experts from across BuzzFeed, find people with different insights and skills specific to the challenges that a brand might be facing, and partner with stakeholders from that brand. We lock ourselves in a room for about a week, and eventually what starts off as a clearly worded sentence of the challenge at hand results in working prototypes, online and offline marketing campaigns, and a game plan by the end of the week. 

We also create advertising campaigns that span touchpoints. Both the experiential and connected retail disciplines are part of my team. Sometimes, we’ll pull RFPs that come through BuzzFeed if we think we have a solution that goes beyond content. For instance, the solution may include shopper marketing, some sort of experiential, a sampling moment, demo, etc. 

What’s a recent project that you’ve been working on?
We do a lot of consultancy work with Chase Bank. In conversation, they recently brought up that as the sponsor of the Knicks they saw some opportunity to rally around the new team. We invited them to pop into BuzzFeed along with other stakeholders like the Knicks, MSG, Spotify, Twitter, etc. for a meeting that was similar to a sprint, but done mostly over lunch. 

It started with a conversation of how to bring together New York’s legacy, history, culture, and sports. And so the question came up, what would it look like if Run DMC opened a pizza joint to celebrate their own history and the Knicks. Everybody rallied behind this and in a month’s time, we managed to partner with a restaurant, take out all of the signage, set-dress it from head to toe, and curate a list of events featuring Run DMC, the Knicks, and Chase for more than two weeks.

What are the guiding principles for the work your team does?
When we’re doing sprints and consulting, we want to make sure that we’re solving the right problem. Often the project begins with somebody throwing out an idea. But, we want to make sure both the challenge and idea are properly defined.

I also think that you have to approach anything innovative with the understanding that expertise is historic. It’s important then to shake off that historic knowledge, apply a different lens, and distinguish what happened yesterday from what you want to happen tomorrow.

As part of that, then the third thing is that the first idea, the most obvious one, might not be the best. If anything else, you should talk about a hundred other ideas, just to be sure that that first one is the one that’s worth pursuing one. We also find that anytime we work with cross-discipline teams, a lot of times, the break-through comes from the person with a different set of expertise. 

What is the most interesting thing you've seen from a media organization other than your own?
There’s a podcast about Dolly Parton, called Dolly Parton’s America. It’s a nine-part series brought to you by the creative force that is Radiolab. I think what I love about it is that it creates this sort of cultural aha moment when you don’t expect it. I’m not necessarily a Dolly Parton fan, but as soon as I heard about this podcast I suddenly remembered how awesome she is. The podcast hosts bring a lot of depth to the story that really taps into a truth and joy that BuzzFeed is constantly pushing. It especially feels great in a landscape where media can sometimes feel divisive and like an echo-chamber. 
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Check out the rest of the Q&A on Medium.

Last week, we asked how you felt about HBO Max. 19% said they were already subscribed to HBO Now, 8% said they would subscribe, 27% said HBO was enough, and 46% said they did not plan to subscribe. 

This week: We’re wondering if you’ve ever wished you could only subscribe to a single vertical of a publication, and if so, which one:

Yes, sports
Yes, entertainment
Yes, games
Yes, something else
Not really


The Idea is written by Atlantic Media's strategy research team. Send thoughts, tips, and your wildest ideas for vertical subscriptions to 

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