When we launched our new membership program almost three weeks ago, we promised you another update on how Pando is evolving.
Three weeks later, this seems like the time to make good on that promise -- not least because people keep asking how the membership model is working so far, and the answer is... really, really well.
Much of what follows will likely only be of interest to die-hard Pando readers and media insiders, but if you’re curious about the adventures and challenges of running an independent journalism outfit in 2015, here are the headlines…
As we explained when we launched, our dream is to have 5,000 active members (that is, not counting anyone who signed up but later cancelled) by the end of the year. That number will allow us to cover the costs of our newsroom entirely through reader payments, not advertisers or investors.
Less than three weeks after launch, our active subscriber count stands just a fraction under 1500 -- and is on track to zip past that milestone over the weekend. That number is roughly equally split between $10 monthly members, $100 annual members and “other” -- which includes group sales like the packs of 10-100 bulk memberships bought by several companies, VC firms and incubators for their staff and portfolio companies.
(If you’d like to buy a bulk membership, we offer them in sets of 10, 50, 100 at a standard 10% discount, or in higher amounts at an even bigger discount. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you’ve explored the new Pando, you’ll notice that we haven’t installed a hard paywall: Members can unlock articles for 48 hours to share on social media or directly with colleagues and friends.
At NSFWCORP, where Paul first implemented subscriber unlocks, they proved to be a very effective way to allow articles to spread widely without cannibalizing subscriptions. Happily the same has held true at Pando -- in the week after we started locking articles our traffic was actually up 24% on the previous week, likely due to the media attention around the new model.
After two more weeks, average daily pageviews have settled down to around 6% below our pre-membership levels. That said, for boring technical reasons, during the relaunch we had to temporarily switch off the “read this next” block at the bottom of every article. Previously that block had been responsible for around 10% of our total monthly pageviews. We’ll see what happens when we switch it back on next week, but hopefully that 6% drop should recover. We. Shall. See.
What we know for sure is that unlocks really work. Plenty of people are still finding a way to read our journalism for free, but members are willing to pay $10 a month to get all of it delivered to their inbox or anywhere else they want it everyday. (If you’re not already a member, you can sign up here.)
Here’s what we said about our editorial focus, post-relaunch:
With more readers paying for our journalism directly, we’re even less dependent on pageviews than we were before. We’ve long understood that there were two types of article on Pando: The ones you absolutely couldn’t find anywhere else, and the ones you possibly could. It’s the first kind that, for good or ill, have built Pando’s reputation. These are the articles in which, to quote John Gruber, we “Pando the hell out of a story.” Uber, Secret, the Techtopus -- regular readers know the hall of fame. Likewise our long-form profiles of inspiring entrepreneurs, PandoMonthly event series, and curve-ball regulars like The War Nerd and Brad Jonas’ brilliant illustrations.
The relaunch has provided us hard numbers to support what our gut had long told us: The most valuable articles on Pando are those where we call out bad actors in the tech industry, or celebrate the underdogs taking on those goliaths. Our analytics data has shown beyond all doubt that those same articles are the ones that drive the most unlocks and trigger the most new subscribers after the unlocks expire. It’s almost uncanny.
By contrast, although we always try to avoid publishing linkbait and pure opinion, some of the posts which on the previous model might have been great for search traffic or guilty clicks have fallen off a cliff under the new model. Further proof that the high-traffic snackable content that’s good for advertisers isn’t necessarily valued by readers.
In no particular order, here are our ten best performing (by pageviews) stories published since the relaunch:
- Mark Ames’ brief history of American gun nuts, and the people who shilled for big tobacco
- Dan Raile’s look at how Uber is charging riders for damage done by third parties
- David Holmes’ examination of how major tech companies have funded anti-gay politicians.
- John Dolan’s adventures in Greece
- Yasha Levine’s investigation into Google’s war with the homeless in LA
- David Figler’s expose of Uber’s giant lobbying machine in Nevada
- Sarah's deep-dive into how Peter Thiel stacks up against the rest of the Paypal mafia and her Pandoland interview with Jose Vargas
- Paul’s in depth account of Tony Hsieh’s failed Vegas-based Downtown Project
Buoyed by that affirmation, we’re going to continue investing heavily in long-form investigative work, both from our staff writers and our small network of regular contract writers. We occasionally publish freelace contributions too: If you've got a great story pitch, send it to email@example.com.
We’ll also keep working to protect Pando writers against outside threats against their work. Late last year, we were put on notice that Uber had plotted a million-dollar smear campaign to silence Pando’s reporting on the company. Although things have calmed down recently, we’re not naive enough to believe that plan has been abandoned, nor can we assume that other billion-dollar “unicorns” whose bad business behavior we’ve exposed won’t pull the same crap.
On Twitter shortly after the relaunch, reader Robbie Coleman asked: “What enables @PandoDaily to publish things that ABC/CBS cower from?”
He was referring to Mark Ames’ reporting on the tobacco industry, but the answer holds true for all of our reporting: We work very hard to get the story right, and we spend a lot of money on lawyers to ward off any malicious legal threats to our reporting. We’d rather go out of business defending our reporting than ever back down on something that’s true.
Still, memberships help us do more there too: The better we do our job the more extremely wealthy and powerful people who want to shut us up -- the membership model helps us to continue offering bulletproof (sadly sometimes literally) protection to our journalists. That legal protection covers all the work they do for Pando, even if they subsequently leave the company.
Speaking of departures (and arrivals)...
There’s no sense sugar-coating one other aspect of the relaunch: We’ve written before about how, as Pando continues to evolve from an ad-centric model to a membership model, there will inevitably be changes to our masthead. In the coming weeks and months you’ll likely notice new names popping up on Pando, and some others appearing less regularly. The new names don’t mean we’re suddenly flush with cash, nor do any departures mean we’re circling the drain -- what they mean is we’re learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t on the new Pando.
We are also trying to build a profitable independent media company without raising more venture capital, and having assured readers we won’t ever sell Pando. That isn’t easy. Frankly, given the recent shake-out in the tech press that saw seemingly everyone going bust or selling to a giant corporate parent, we’re just delighted to be still here and still independent.
Which brings us to one last act of transparency. We’ve always published a full list of our investors on Pando, but some readers have asked for more insight into exactly what that investment means. After all, an investor could mean someone who has invested ten dollars for a miniscule sliver of a percentage of a company, or it could mean that a single investor completely owns and controls the business.
We’ve said before: We have no VCs on our board, nor do any of our investors have any involvement in the editorial side of Pando. Our chairman, Andrew Anker, is the only board member who is also an investor in the company, having invested $50k right at the start of Pando’s life as a show of support. He too has no involvement in the newsroom.
But we wanted to go further. As of today, for any investor whose investment “bought” them 1% or more of Pando, we’ll show the actual % on our investor disclosure page. Given that different investors invested different amounts at different times and at different valuations, we think that’s the fairest way to show the size of their stake. The first thing you’ll notice is that even if you combine all the stakes they don’t add up to 50% of the company. In fact Sarah personally owns a >50% controlling stake in Pando, with the remaining balance shared between key staff, advisors and members of the editorial team (past and present).
Ok, that’s a pretty decent update for three weeks in. We’re planning to publish updates like this every couple of months as Pando continues towards profitability and next time we’d love to answer any specific questions you might have about how we’re building Pando. We have a lot of readers who are either founding or working at media startups and if any of our experiences can act as a guide, or a warning, so much the better. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions and we’ll do our best to answer them next time.
Until then, thank you for your continuing support of Pando. And thank you in particular to everyone who has become a Pando member: It’s thanks to you that we’re able to continue “speaking truth to the new power” at a time when that’s more vital than ever before.