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The True Value of Digital Media Is Building a Community Among Readers

In this article, Patreon creator and journalist Cherie Hu is sharing her advice for fellow journalists so they can run successful memberships and rethink the value of digital media with their communities at the center

The digital media industry has faced major reckonings over the last four months. With the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of publications have laid off a significant portion of their staff. Then, as the Black Lives Matter movement resurged in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, current and former media workers have spoken out — and top editors have resigned — over racist and sexist work culture at companies such as the New York Times, Bon Appétit, Complex, Okayplayer, and Condé Nast.

There are two themes connecting these events. One, many individual writers and editors feel undervalued for the work they are producing relative to their peers. Two, traditional business models for digital media — driven by advertising, and therefore by clicks and “eyeballs” — are proving to be outdated and woefully inadequate not just for sustaining most media companies, but also for making sure talented writers are paid their worth and that readers’ needs to be informed are actually met.

In this tumultuous landscape, many individual writers are understandably turning to entrepreneurship as a potential solution — using a platform such as Patreon to start their own publications where they can call the shots on their own more sustainable and more equitable terms.

As someone who recently transitioned from making a full-time living from freelance writing to running my own, 100% membership-funded media business on Patreon, I understand the implications of these tectonic shifts in media on a visceral level.

Some brief background: From late 2015 to early 2019, I worked primarily as a traditional freelance writer, writing hundreds of articles about the intersection of music and technology for publications such as Billboard, Forbes, and Pitchfork. I also ran my own music-tech newsletter under the name Water & Music but didn’t make any money from it. Rather, it was a free way for me to get direct access to my loyal readers and to keep them updated on my writing, travel plans, and thoughts on music-industry trends.

It wasn’t until February 2019 that I took the leap to establish a Patreon membership to monetize Water & Music, and to shape that channel into a standalone resource for original reporting and analysis on tech and innovation trends in the music industry. Seeing the systemic challenges that I and many of my peers had faced in the freelance writing world, I decided that I wanted a different kind of career for myself — one that was funded by primarily direct reader payments, rather than by third-party commissions; that gave me complete creative control and ownership over the creation, branding and pricing of my work; that offered me more predictable cash flow; and that allowed me to experiment with different modes of recurring income.

1.5 years later, Water & Music is now a fully membership-funded, independent media operation, and I am making the equivalent of a full-time income thanks to the support of over 700 paying members from around the world. Not only is my month-to-month revenue much more predictable than before, but I’m able to write and commission original reporting on pieces that would otherwise never see the light of day, for a more niche, targeted audience. Most importantly, my readers, not advertisers or third-party publications, are now my primary customers and financiers. This is a rare kind of relationship in the world of entertainment trade publications, and one that I think leads to the best kinds of aligned incentives in terms of making sure my work is serving readers first and foremost.

To be clear, this kind of work is not easy. In order to reach the milestone of 700 paying members, let alone sustain it, I have to be comfortable acting as the main writer, editor, publisher, and community manager all at once (at least until I can start building my own team). This kind of all-hats-on entrepreneurship is not for everyone. But a major benefit of being 100% membership-funded means I'm able to grow my publication at my own pace, instead of being externally pressured by traffic benchmarks or 10x growth expectations from venture-capital funding.

While I certainly don’t have the solution to the future of media, there are two guiding principles that have helped me grow my own publication to where it is today, that I think could help other aspiring media entrepreneurs and editorial brands looking either to rebuild in this climate or to start from scratch.

The first principle is the concept of value as a conversation, not a top-down decision.

If you look at how value is communicated on the payment pages for many major publications, the focus tends to be solely on exclusive content, and or unlimited access to content, as the primary benefit. “Member-only emails.” “Exclusive, deeply researched guides.” “Unlimited access to all the journalism we offer on any device.”

The underlying assumption here is that the value of a media company comes solely from the information it provides. But especially for newer publications, this quickly becomes a losing game, for two reasons. One, the harsh reality is that people can get information from anywhere, and if it is valuable enough, it will spread quickly beyond a paywall (sorry, but people do regularly forward “member-only” emails to their non-member friends). Two, seven out of ten U.S. adults recently said in a Gallup survey that their trust in the media has decreased over the last decade. Misinformation is rampant in all circles of the news today — political, scientific, commercial and cultural — so just publishing an article with text is not enough to assert your credibility; you need other, complementary mechanisms for building trust.

Hence, to run a successful editorial membership experience that really stands out in 2020, I think there needs to be more consideration of what kind of value the membership can provide to its readers aside from just a catalog of articles. And in the age of social networking and record levels of mistrust in the media, including readers in a conversation about what that value looks like can be especially impactful.

In my mind, the conversation around value starts with pricing. Usually, media companies don’t make the pricing of their work a conversation at all. Instead, they rope all paying users into a single tier, with little opportunity for them to pay less or more depending on their financial circumstances.

In contrast, I'm inspired by music platforms like Bandcamp that implement a pay-what-you-want model for music — i.e. giving fans the option to pay as little as $0 if they can't afford anything more, or above the minimum price if they want to give additional support to an artist they particularly love. I bake this structure into my own membership for Water & Music, with five different tiers ranging from $3 to $200, each offering a distinct combination of knowledge- and community-based benefits. This way, those without much financial wiggle room can still contribute to Water & Music in a meaningful way, while those who are willing to pay a premium have the opportunity to do so.

I understand the simplicity tradeoff: Fewer tiers means fewer calculations that potential supporters have to make in their heads before deciding to pay, which means lower friction overall. But I strongly believe that my patron retention has been above average and my growth has been consistent to this point because I offer multiple price tiers, which implicitly turns value into a more inclusive and illuminating conversation with potential members about what they are willing to pay.

Another aspect of value as a conversation is the literal conversation element — i.e. facilitating the conversation around your work, not just publishing it, as a major source of value. In a world of social media, conversation arguably drives engagement and conversion to a paid media product just as much as, if not more than, the product itself.

This brings me to my second guiding principle: Building a deeper community among readers, not just with them.

One of the primary benefits of my Water & Music membership is access to a closed Discord server, where members can network with each other, discuss the latest music and tech trends and give each other feedback on specific projects in a focused, off-the-record environment. Unlike competitors such as Slack, Discord can host both audio- and text-based conversations natively within the app, which has enabled me to experiment with new formats for community engagement such as weekly audio hangouts.

This is a vastly different setup from how the majority of editorial brands think about "community" today.

Researchers will often refer to two different kinds of "community" interactions: Horizontal (more decentralized, informal communication among members who treat each other as peers) and vertical (more hierarchical, top-down communication between an organization, institution or brand and its audience as a whole).

Usually, media publications will only think about vertical interactions with their audiences. This is because, as discussed above, they tend to see their primary value as delivering or receiving information to and from readers, in a vertical manner. In the process, the reader-to-reader relationship largely goes ignored. But building a community intentionally around a given brand also means thinking about the horizontal angle, too — i.e. about what community members will get from each other as much as what they will get from you. How can you empower readers with the tools to lead their own conversations about the topics you uncover? Accomplishing this means being comfortable with the brand itself not being at the center of the conversation 100% of the time.

For example, I strongly believe that because my readership outnumbers me 700 to 1, my readers’ collective expertise on music and tech is several orders of magnitude higher than what I will ever achieve. Hence, I constantly ask myself: How can I highlight the expertise of my readers and make it a core part of everyone’s membership experience, rather than keeping the spotlight just on me? The former is especially crucial in the context of an industry like music, where genuine relationship-building and knowledge-sharing are important assets for anyone’s career growth and advancement. This is where the multifaceted conversations happening in the Discord server have been especially valuable for members, who are often exchanging actionable perspectives and advice on the latest industry news independent of my direct involvement.

The major principles I outlined above — treating readers as your primary customers and financiers, treating value as a conversation with these readers rather than forcing them into a box and making horizontal community-building a core pillar of the brand — has helped me build trust and accountability into the heart of my business.

On a higher level, cultivating trust should be a primary goal of any brand-new media publication today. In a healthy media ecosystem, there will be no one-size-fits-all solution for how that trust is cultivated across different communities of readers, but the most effective solutions will be baked directly into a publication’s business model, and expand far beyond just content for clicks as the primary generation of value.

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