April 11, 2016

Luke Timmerman was about to place a very big bet on himself.

Slightly more than a year ago, the veteran reporter quit his job at a startup and decided to go into business for himself. The business, as it had been for more than a decade, was journalism. But this time, he was the boss. And there was no one else on staff.

“I did not see a real template for what I was trying to do,” Timmerman said. “I wanted to build something that was designed to play to my strengths.”

That something turned out to be Timmerman Report, an independently owned and operated news organization devoted to covering the ins and outs of biotechnology, Timmerman’s specialty. The plan put his journalism behind a paywall for an annual subscription fee of $100. He figured if he could land 1,000 subscribers by the end of the year, he’d be making a tidy living.

Within the first month, 400 people signed up. By July, his business was “ramen profitable” — startup speak for skin-of-your-teeth financial viability. By October, about nine months after Timmerman Report began, he hit the 1,000 subscriber milestone. If he was ever eating ramen, he’s not anymore.

“I can do quality journalism that I want to do and be independent,” Timmerman said. “And make a decent living. All of it.”

Put that way, Timmerman’s tale reads like a fable among the horror stories that afflict the news business. From nothing to $100,000 in less than a year, with the freedom to make his own hours, pick his own stories and be his own boss. In an industry dominated by corporate chains, riven with layoffs and incessantly disrupted by technology, it’s easy to see how Timmerman Report’s subscriber model could be enticing for potential imitators.

As it turns out, Timmerman wasn’t the first journalist to go into business for himself with a paywalled site, nor was he the last. The so-called “one-person blog” model, pioneered by Daily Dish founder Andrew Sullivan, has since been adopted by several entrepreneurially-minded journalists looking to build followers around reporting focused on niche subject areas. Sullivan’s project folded the same week Timmerman’s got started (not a good omen, he noted), but others have appeared on the scene in recent years: Stratechery, Ben Thompson’s a subscriber-based offering focused on tech and strategy; Hot Pod, Nick Quah’s weekly digest of podcasting news; and World Politics Review, an amateur foreign affairs blog created by Hampton Stephens that eventually matured into a full-fledged news organization.

They all rely on the same basic philosophy, coined by WIRED founder Kevin Kelly in 2008, called the “1,000 true fans theory.” All tidied up, it argues that any producer of creative work, such as journalism, need only reach 1,000 true fans in order to make a living. Although some augment their income in various ways — Thompson very infrequently offers consulting services, for example — the aim is to derive the majority of revenue from individual contributors.

“The hardcore people who will actually pay for what you do no matter what,” Timmerman said. “Sort of like if you’re the aging rock band and you put out a double box set of your greatest hits. Even if there’s nothing new there, the people who will still buy it, those are your true fans.”

This model has its upsides. By focusing on subscribers, these media entrepreneurs are able to draw on a revenue source that’s relatively stable. Because no single major advertiser or sponsor controls their financial welfare, they’re protected from swings in advertising and catastrophic business shifts. They answer only to themselves and their readers, a proviso that helps safeguard their editorial independence. They’re also insulated from shareholders and corporate overseers that might be inclined to prune costs at the expense of high-quality journalism.

And in an age where social media and web publishing allow journalists to make an end-run around the traditional ladder to industry renown, starting up a newsletter can be a powerful tool for personal branding.

But there are also downsides, too. Founders are stuck doing administrative work that would normally be taken care of for them at better-resourced news organizations. Timmerman didn’t realize he’d have to fork over nearly 10 percent in sales tax on behalf of his subscribers, an expense he ended up paying out-of-pocket.

And without any additional staffers to share in the workload, the success and failure of the entire enterprise rests on the skill of the journalist behind it. Their professional careers live or die by their ability to cultivate clout or bring it over from a previous job.

“When can I ever take a day off?” Timmerman said. “That’s one thing, right? When you’re running your own company, at what point is it OK to take a two-week vacation with your family? Everybody needs to recharge their batteries — you don’t want to get burned out.”

The business model being relied upon by Timmerman, Quah and Thompson isn’t entirely new, said Ken Doctor, a media business analyst and founder of the “Newsonomics” blog. In the pre-digital media world, individuals and companies launched print newsletters aimed at audiences interested in niche subjects. Back then, as today, newsletters combined a mix of scoops and analysis to reach an audience of insiders who wanted to know about various topics before anyone else. But the immediacy of the web, combined with out-of-the-box tools that make e-commerce relatively frictionless, have lowered the barriers to entry for journalists seeking to peddle their expertise.

“It’s the same thing with POLITICO,” said Doctor, who is a contributor to POLITICO Media. “Except POLITICO has essentially corporatized it around law and regulation in Washington. … But it’s essentially the same idea — insider knowledge from people who know, who know first, sharing it with you.”

Sometimes, subscribers are also interested in the wider community of readers that gather around a newsletter. Quah, who recently launched a beta version of Hot Pod for members, has found that about half of his customers are enticed by forums he’s set up for his community and half are more interested in his weekly deep-dive essay on podcasting.

Quah, who at the age of 26 has become the industry must-read for podcasters, says he feels more satisfied now than he did when he was working full-time for someone else. He’s gained a lot of experience by doing everything himself, but it’s a taxing job.

“At the same time, I’m learning more than at any other job than I’ve had,” Quah said. “This is exactly what I want to be doing right now — even if it kills me.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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