A reader from Kazakhstan emailed recently to say that he is starting a small leftist publication there, and has been inspired by Current Affairs. I am always excited at these kinds of projects, because independent left media is critically important to having a functional society. And it’s incredible to realize that our magazine could have an impact on the other side of the globe. Many times, readers interested in starting podcasts, magazines, or websites are interested to know how Current Affairs has managed to sustain itself, and what tips I have for how to make an independent publication survive. Giving advice feels strange to me, but I do want to be as helpful as I can, so here’s a bit about what we’ve managed to do and a few of the lessons I’ve learned. I hope anyone interested in building their own left media outlets (especially on limited budgets) will benefit from it.
Just to give you a sense of our trajectory: In November of 2015, my roommate Oren Nimni and I launched a Kickstarter campaign out of our living room, raising money to start a print magazine. We did not have any financial resources beyond the crowdfunding campaign, which pulled in $16,000 (beating our $10,000 goal). That money went to build our website and print our first issue. Four-and-a-half years later, the magazine has put out 24 gorgeous print issues and has a small full-time staff. Our revenue comes entirely from magazine subscriptions, Patreon podcast patrons, and occasional donations. We have never had any advertisers or investors. Our print circulation is very small (about 1/10 that of Jacobin!), but we’ve been able to sustain ourselves financially in a time when print media generally is struggling. Even though we operate out of a two-room office in New Orleans, our publication has had many popular articles and attracted a devoted readership.
Some things I’ve learned are:
Conventional Wisdom About Whether You’ll Succeed Is Wrong
First, do not listen to people who say that “print is dead” or “people just want video now” or tell you that there are no careers in writing or journalism. It’s true that publishing is a very difficult industry, but it’s also the case that some independent outlets have thrived by using their small available resources very carefully and slowly building up an audience who will support the outlet. The crowdfunding model or “subscriber model” can work very well: Chapo Trap House now earns $157,000 per month. That’s at the extreme upper end of course, but I found that it was not difficult to keep Current Affairs going on subscriber revenue alone, so long as we put out regular content and made sure it was good. You need to make sure there is an audience for what you are doing, and that they will find it, but it’s not like the economics are impossible.
Watch Spending And Revenue Carefully
The main thing we’ve done to make Current Affairs viable is to try to do as much as possible with as little money as possible. For the first few years of the magazine, I wrote most of the articles myself, because we couldn’t afford to pay freelancers. We did not rent an office for the first two years, because rent is expensive. We still only have three full-time staff working on the magazine, plus a podmaster for the podcast and a part-time administrator. When you hear about the financial difficulties of the magazine industry, remember that the legacy publications have vast staffs compared to the indie outlets. The New York Times Sunday Magazine, for instance, has the following staff on its masthead: an Editor in chief, two deputy editors, a managing editor, a design director, a director of photography, a deputy director of photography, a senior photo editor, two photo editors, a photo assistant, art director, features editor, politics editor, culture editor, digital director, seven story editors, “at war” editor, assistant managing editor, two associate editors, poetry editor, 16 staff writers, “at war” reporter, an NYT “fellow,” 12 writers at large, digital art director (separate from the art director and the digital director), two designers, copy chief, 4 copy editors, head of research, 10 research editors, production chief, two production editors, editorial administrator, editorial assistant, “Labs” editorial director, “Labs” art director, “Labs” senior editor, NYT for kids editor, “Labs” staff editor, “Labs” associate editor, “Labs” designer, “Labs” project manager, one contributing artist, and about 80 contributing writers.
I tend to think that many magazines do not produce a very high quality product considering the amount of people they have working on them. Our print magazine is very beautiful; it is a newsstand-quality product filled with thoughtful essays, dazzling art, comics, games, and endless surprises—and I do all the page layouts single-handedly on my desktop computer. It is easier than ever to print a high-quality magazine that matches the quality of Newsweek or the Atlantic for a fraction of their budgets.
Now, you have to be careful here, because the desire to keep your costs low will instantly give rise to thorny ethical dilemmas. It will generally be very easy to find people willing to work for free, but it’s important not to exploit anyone. The principle should be that everyone gets paid for their work, though when you do not have much money, it is not always easy to make sure this happens.
I am not sure we have navigated this perfectly at Current Affairs though we have done our best, and we pay rates comparable to many much larger publications, though they’re still not high enough. (The more people subscribe, the better we can do on this.) It is best for you to pay something than nothing at all, so the first thing you should do is establish the principle that contributors are always offered some money, even if it is nominal. And then you should strive to offer as much as you can afford, and constantly be trying to bump it up in accordance with your available funds. You should also make sure to pay punctually; many prominent publications do not pay on time, and you can make writers and artists feel appreciated by not dithering on their payments. When you are under-resourced, you will fail sometimes, and things will slip through the cracks—I have disappointed more than one writer before. But it’s important to always be working on this and care about prioritizing fair compensation. Do not take advantage of the fact that industry rates are very low. If you can’t pay more, you can’t pay more, but when you can pay more there’s no excuse not to. (By the way, In These Times is an example of a leftist publication that has been committed to paying its writers adequate sums, and they are a model in this department.)
Other labor will also raise these questions. You may get people offering to be interns. I have always turned down requests for internships, on the grounds that if we can’t afford to pay interns, we shouldn’t have them. But this can be painful, because you will find yourself in situations where someone is offering to work for free, you could really use their labor, but you have to turn them down.
You need to make sure you’re not being a profiteer. People will forgive low pay by an organization that simply does not have much money, but if some people are being paid far more than others, the “cash-strapped” excuse becomes flimsy. (Also, be continually re-evaluating to make sure you do not have gender and racial pay gaps. These can arise without anyone consciously intending them to exist; for example, because white men are more likely to ask you to bump up your standard rate. This need to be corrected for.)
The smartest thing we did at the outset, which helped make sure we could pay contributors, was to make subscriptions relatively expensive. They’re not actually that expensive; $60 a year comes out to $5 a month. But you can get a subscription to the New Republic for $40, and they come out twice as often. The New Yorker is about $60 and it’s weekly. But those magazines also depend on advertising revenue.
The old model of magazines was: you keep the subscription price low, and the advertising is where the real money comes from. That’s why you sometimes see magazines offering deals like “$1 for six months.” $1, of course, is impossible to print six months of magazines for. But the reader isn’t the customer; the reader is the product. Advertisers are buying eyeballs and by selling cheap subscriptions you can sell them more eyeballs. (This is how Facebook makes money too, of course.)
This was not the model we used. Instead, we kept subscription prices high but tried to produce a really high-quality product that people would want to have. My theory is that one reason people stopped reading print magazines is that the advertising was intrusive and made it feel like they were just getting a book of ads in the mail rather than something they could treasure. Plus, if you sell ads, someone has to do all the selling of the ads, and that person needs to be paid, so you end up having to sell ads to pay to sell ads. Better, in my opinion, to just ask your readers to pay a bit more, but in exchange you give them a high-quality, ad-free experience.
So: keep costs down, keep per-subscriber revenue high. That seems obvious, but many publications squander resources or do not charge enough to cover paying everyone. Of course, it can seem a little unfair to charge people more; many people cannot afford an expensive magazine subscription. When you put content behind paywalls you will receive criticism for not giving away your content free to all. Personally, I think criticism of paywalls is misplaced: if someone is getting rich off them, that’s not defensible, but if they’re being used to make sure the people who make the content get paid for it, that’s justifiable. At Current Affairs, we do not have a paywall for the online articles, though there are things exclusive to the print edition that only subscribers see.
Make Sure You Do Very Good Work
One thing I have tried to do with Current Affairs is spend as much energy as possible just making sure the magazine itself is very, very good, so that people will want it. This should seem obvious, but I think the way to succeed is to make something that “sells itself,” in that it’s just really enjoyable to consume. Be improving it constantly, so that attracting paying subscribers will be a cinch. Constantly be thinking about your audience. If they are paying a decent amount of money, make sure you are giving them more than their money’s worth. Have respect for your readers/listeners and make sure they come away feeling appreciated. I believe that Current Affairs’ survival in a difficult media market has been almost entirely due to the fact that our magazine is worth reading. Open it up and you’ll find good writing, good art, and funny jokes. Many magazines suck. Ours does not. That makes a difference. If you put a hell of a lot of effort into something, you can beat the “competition.” (The competition, in this case, being the awful magazines, not our fellow leftist outlets, whom we love and support.)
A few other tips:
- Both we and Jacobin have also found that having good graphic design increases our credibility. Make sure it looks good. Or, if it’s audio/video, make sure it sounds good. Have it be as well-produced and “professional” as the mainstream press.
- I try to make sure our publication can speak to an audience that does not necessarily share a left perspective, even though we are clearly all socialists here. If you produce things that anyone can enjoy regardless of their politics, you have a much larger potential audience.
- Make sure your audience likes and trusts you. Be reputable. Care about the facts.
- Find someone who knows about business. I do not know anything about business and find it grubby and detestable. Unfortunately, to produce anything in a capitalist economy, you will need to have revenue and expenses, and someone has to make sure all of that adds up.
- However, also put content first: Some people think that the first job is figuring out how to “market” a thing. No, the first job is figuring out how to make it really, really good. We have done almost no marketing of Current Affairs over its four-year history. We’ve just built an audience organically through putting out articles people have liked. We don’t advertise the magazine, people find their way to it.
- Be nice to everyone. Treat everyone who works with you with respect, and everyone at every other publication well. (Unless they are from the capitalist press, in which case fuck ‘em.) You need your organization to run smoothly and not be riven with internal drama. You want friends at other publications who will help promote things you do, and who you will promote in turn. Make sure you have procedures in place to deal with internal problems so that you do not end up hurting someone and causing an unnecessary public relations disaster.
- Embody leftist values always. Make the organization as democratic as possible. (We are currently trying to figure out how to structure Current Affairs in a maximally democratic way, so that it is owned and operated collectively.) Do not union-bust. Do not stiff people. If you spike a piece, pay a kill fee. Try to be responsive to emails. (I am absolutely terrible at this so do what I say, not what I do.) Always be supportive of people who come to you for assistance, to the extent that you can be. Make sure that if you can help leftist causes and organizations out with coverage, you try to do that.
These are a few of the tips I have from growing this magazine over the last few years. It’s not much, but since we’ve survived, clearly we’re not making any completely catastrophic mistakes. I wish anyone attempting to build a left media institution the very best of luck, and I have confidence that you can succeed. It takes long hours and it is not well-paid, but there is still the possibility of creating extraordinary new things even in very dark times. Godspeed.