The media consumer’s dilemma

Every day, I face a barrage of requests for money for the media I consume. Podcasters ask me to support their Patreon. News sites want me to subscribe, and insist that I pay if I want to read the rest of the story I’ve clicked on. Journalists tweet, “If you value this, pay for it.” Newsletters invite me to upgrade to a higher tier of membership. New ventures seek contributions to their crowdfunding campaigns.

It’s a lot.

I can’t afford to say yes to everyone, much as I want to. So I understand folks like this who feel torn. Most of us are not in a position to support every media organization we value. And in the olden days, we didn’t have to. Many publications were advertising-supported, and their subscription revenue was a nice (and sizeable, to be sure) add-on that also helped reassure businesses that their ads were seen. As Clay Shirky wrote in 2008, the internet broke that model, and it’s not coming back.

We are now well into the “Nothing will work, but everything might” phase of Shirky’s scenario, and that means a whole bunch of experiments, plus the legacy outlets that are still around — hello, National Newspaper Week! — are trying to survive in an environment that tends to rely a lot more on you, the user, to pay the way. That’s a lot to ask at the best of times, never mind in the middle of a pandemic.

We are an acorn now, but we are aiming to grow into a mighty oak. What will it really take to get there?

We value our paying members highly. Taproot would not even be here without the validation of those early members who believed in us enough to send us money before we even knew what we were going to do with it, and everyone else who has joined since to keep the train moving. Every time someone buys or renews a membership, we get a double dose of happiness — one for the revenue and one for the encouragement, two precious things when you’re a bootstrapped startup.

But for a locally focused outlet like us, the math argues against relying solely on paid memberships. We don’t ever want to find ourselves saying “Pay up or else we’ll die.” As Shirky said of newspapers, “‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model.”

Our first step towards diversification was to open our roundup newsletters to sponsorship. This allowed us to enlist businesses in our effort to inform our community, without getting into the traffic-based ad game that has so many perverse incentives embedded in it. The next was to develop our briefings service to produce roundup-like newsletters for organizations that need them. We’re proud of that innovation, and we think it has tremendous potential to fund the journalism side of our operation in a way that doesn’t compromise it. We’re building a social enterprise with the stability to be here for the long haul.

Maybe it’s not smart to tell you that we never want to rely on your membership fees alone to ensure Taproot’s survival. But I have a bias towards the truth.

That said, we value members’ support a great deal, and we put it to very good use. By joining Taproot, you are investing in a product that we will make better and better, with more convenience and personalization in the future. You are also investing in our commitment to publish more and more high-quality journalism for everyone, freely available and never trapped behind a paywall.

If that sounds like an investment worth making, join us.

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