The Athletic and the importance of quality

How to fund journalism that matters

In the annals of the death of clickbait, one of the most important entries will be reserved for 2017. The Athletic, a forerunner in a new era of subscription publishing, is a big reason for that.

On July 25, The Athletic announced that it has raised $5.4 million in funding—on top of a previously announced $2.6 million—and hired some top writers from ESPN and Sports Illustrated to staff their city- and niche-focused sports publications. The company so far has publications in five cities, with the San Francisco Bay Area being its latest addition. Its Toronto publication, launched in December last year, has more than ten thousand subscribers and is already profitable.

The Athletic’s credo was summed up by Stewart Mandel, the former Fox Sports reporter who has signed on as editor-of-chief of an upcoming Athletic publication that will focus on college football:

“The Athletic’s subscriber model allows us to focus entirely on high-quality written content. NO ads, NO auto-play videos, NO clickbait.”

We at Substack share Mandel’s enthusiasm for quality, ad-free journalism. They’re key reasons we are such big believers in subscription publishing.

In a recent interview with Ben Thompson, The Athletic’s CEO Alex Mather said that the early success the company has found in attracting subscribers could be explained not so much by technology, but by the quality of its writers. “I obsess over the product perhaps too much,” Mather, an engineer and designer by trade, said. “I have come to realize that in this opportunity with sports that talent is absolutely what we lead with.”

Mather’s comments suggest that the big opportunity in media today is in figuring out how to fund the great talent that already exists. Even in sports journalism, advertising doesn’t cut it anymore, as recent layoffs at ESPN, Yahoo Sports, Vice Sports, and Fox Sports attest. But the appetite for great sports writing hasn’t gone away. Like Substack, Mather and his co-founder, Adam Hansmann, believe that readers are willing to pay for sufficiently distinctive content, and that there are plenty of writers who can make money from producing it.

“[O]ur pitch to writers is, ‘Come do the best work of your life’ by not worrying about deadlines, not focusing on the games themselves,” Mather said. “[W]e don’t need another game recap, we need deeper analysis, we need minutiae, we need you to take us inside and tell stories that no one else is telling and we know that takes time.” Under this model, volume doesn’t matter as much. “If we can get three stories that you can’t get anywhere else in a city, we see unbelievable subscriber yield.”

This point about distinctive content has also been made by other subscription publishing success stories. “We’re asking reporters to spend their days writing stories no one else is writing,” Jessica Lessin, founder of the tech industry news publication The Information, said in a recent interview. “That’s very different from how other reporters spend their days, which is reacting to news.” (Last week, The Information announced an accelerator program to promote the development of subscription publications for other industries.)

Luke Timmerman, who publishes The Timmerman Report, a subscription news site about the biotech industry, shares Lessin’s view. “[T]here are other industries where [the subscriber model] can work, where you have readers who have a lot disposable income and clearly see a value in your distinctive content,” Timmerman said in an interview earlier this year.

What The Athletic, Jessica Lessin, Luke Timmerman, and Ben Thompson have all discovered is that there’s one really effective solution to the revenue problem that currently ails the media business: produce high-quality, distinctive content for an audience that cares about your niche, treat your readers with respect, and then ask them to pay.

That’s a business idea that you can have for free.