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One Year Of Defector

This week marks one year since the lights here at Defector flickered on and we began publishing blogs. The question that you were probably asking during that first week was a simple one: Can this really work? In fact, you might still be looking for an answer to that one. So go ahead, ask me now. 

What?

Ask me if this is working. 

Oh, uh, OK. Is this working?

Hell yes it is, buddy.

Really? How?

Lucky for us, that’s pretty easy to explain: We posted a lot of blogs (2,650, to be exact) onto the website, and people paid us money for the ability to read them.

How many people?

As of today, we have received subscription payments from more than 40,000 people. 

Wow! That’s a lot of people.

Yeah, I think so!

And how much money?

Through the month of August, Defector had recognized just about $3.2 million in revenue.

What!

Yeah!

That seems like a lot of money. What the hell did you spend all that money on?

As tempting as it was to empty our business bank account, fill an empty swimming pool with $3.2 million, and spend the last year swimming around in our riches, we instead decided to use our revenue to stand up a functioning, sustainable media company. 

We used about half of that $3.2 million to pay salaries and benefits for Defector’s 23 full-time employees. Another big chunk of money, a little over $500,000, was spent on creating and maintaining what a cool guy with a powerful business mindset would probably call our “tech stack,” but which I will simply call “all the shit that makes the website actually work.” That includes the website itself (lovingly crafted by Alley Interactive), the paywall technology (operated by Pico) that we use to make sure people actually pay up in order to read the site, the newsletter platform (Mailchimp) that we use to deliver a daily newsletter to Pal-level subscribers, and the company (Stripe) that processes all of subscriber payments. Taxes, HR, insurance costs, accounting services, and legal fees all added up to another few hundred thousand dollars. Our last big expense was the approximately $100,000 we spent paying freelance writers and other contractors who made art or helped produce video and audio content for us. 

Right on. And how has the experience of trying to build and run a business with a bunch of barely socialized bloggers been?

Honestly, it’s been pretty fucking great. This has, without a doubt, been the most fulfilling year of my professional life, and I get straight up misty-eyed when I think about all we’ve been able to build in a year. Two winters ago, we were all just a bunch of glum, unemployed bloggers commiserating with each other in a Slack channel in an attempt to distract ourselves from the compounding stresses of unemployment. Now we have a functioning website and business, and we designed both ourselves from the ground up. In addition to writing blogs this year, we spent a lot of time creating company bylaws, writing an employee handbook, establishing a restorative justice framework for solving potential conflicts, collaborating with the National Writers Union to create humane freelancer policies, forming and participating on various committees that determine the direction of the business, and more or less creating the exact company for which we always imagined we wanted to work. We really went and manifested the whole shit!

Relax.

Sorry.

And you can just keep doing this forever?

That’s the plan, yes. But how long we can keep doing this at the scale we have been through the first year depends a lot on what happens this week.

What happens this week?

A significant chunk of our subscriber base signed up for an annual subscription during our first week of existence, and by the end of this week we’ll know how many of them decided to re-up for Year 2. (If you want to re-up for the second year and are wondering how to do that, don’t worry. Your account should be set to auto-renew after one year.)

Ah I see. How are you feeling about that?

I’m perfectly calm. 

But aren’t you kind of putting all of your eggs into one basket?

Well, all of the other baskets are full of rotten fruit and spiders. There are probably other ways we could make money, but not only would those ways require us to make compromises we’d rather not make, they’d also make the site much more unpleasant for you to read every day. We don’t want our readers to have to deal with a huge ad for men’s hair loss treatment taking over the screen every time they visit the site. We don’t want to let Shell start running paid advertorials about how, actually, natural gas is the key to reversing the effects of climate change. We don’t want to start putting up posts with headlines like “Big Cool Tom’s Big Cool Gambling Corner: Bang It Here For My NFL Cold Hard Locks For Week 3, Presented By DraftKings (Got A Gambling Problem? Call 1-800-522-4700).” If that’s what you’re into, allow me to recommend literally any other sports website or podcast on the entire damn internet.

OK, but then how are you going to get rich doing this? Aren’t you all founders now? Don’t you want to, uh, scale exponentially and, uhhh, increase year-over-year revenues by 10x and, like, start traveling around the country to speak on panels?

No, we don’t want to do that. One thing we’ve learned over the last year is that success in digital media depends a lot on how you choose to define that word. We’re a bit unique in that we are one of the few digital media companies that is not at all concerned with ceaselessly scaling its reach so as to achieve a big fat valuation and eventually get sold to some much bigger, dumber company. We decided pretty early on that all we really wanted out of this project was a modest, sustainable business that would allow us to make a livable wage while blogging on the internet. That’s why we have relied so heavily on the subscription model (roughly 95 percent of this year’s revenue came from subscriptions; the rest came from a few minor ad deals, merch sales, revenue from The Distraction podcast, and whatever we earned from fucking around on Twitch a few times a week), because we knew it would give us the best shot at creating a site that could exist on its own terms.

OK, I get it, but does that mean you just want Defector to always be the same site it is today?

Definitely not! We want to grow and do more stuff and reach more people, but we want to accomplish those goals in a way that won’t diminish any part of the company that we’ve already built. 

Can you give me an example of that kind of thinking in action?

When we launched the site, we had Warby Parker as our launch sponsor, which just meant that they got their logo placed in a small space on the homepage, and an advertisement in our reverse-chronological scroll and newsletter. They paid us for one month of advertising, and then after that we didn’t have any ads on the site for a good while. That wasn’t due to lack of interest, as we had (not bragging … totally not bragging) a few bigger companies reach out about sponsoring the site. But they wanted all kinds of bells and whistles and promises that we didn’t feel comfortable giving them. So we put advertising on hold for a few months, and took some time to think about what we were and were not willing to sell. What we decided is that we didn’t want ads on the site to be any more intrusive than those initial Warby Parker ads were, and that we didn’t want to run ads for any sports betting companies. So we started making small deals with direct-to-consumer companies that we felt had products to offer that might actually be of some interest to our readers. None of these deals dramatically altered our revenue picture, but even if they just allowed us to add a few more thousand dollars to the freelance budget, or pay for a reporting trip here and there, they were worth doing.     

Also, at the beginning of 2021, we recorded five pilot podcast episodes and solicited subscriber feedback on each episode. The responses we received were all pretty positive, but instead of going full steam ahead with all five podcast concepts, we took a lot of time to not only examine all of our production and distribution options, but to think about how we could go about creating quality podcasts without deviating resources and attention away from the site. If we were the kind of media company that’s desperate to scale and chase some elusive nine-figure payday, we might have gone ahead and spun up the Defector Podcast Network, unveiled five or more podcasts, turned a big chunk of our writers into podcasters, and started begging Spotify to acquire us. Maybe that sounds crazy to you, but I’ve been in digital media long enough to know that entire companies get restructured over some drip with a business degree writing “Podcast = Money ??? TikTok = Money ???” on a whiteboard. 

But we’re not going to do that! Over the next few weeks, we are going to unveil two new podcasts that will be produced in-house at a manageable pace. We think both of these podcasts will be enjoyable to our current subscribers and potentially bring some new listeners and readers into the fold. We’re doing this because it’s something that we actually want to do and we think our readers will appreciate, not because it’s something we believe we need to do in order to keep the lights on. 

OK. Gotcha.

Sorry, was that boring?

No, no, the podcasts are exciting, but you could have just told me about those without all the other stuff you said.

But you asked me to—never mind. My bad. Uhh, let’s see, hmmm. Would you like to know what the most-read post of Defector’s first year of publishing was?

Yeah!

It was, of course, the 2020 Hater’s Guide To The Williams-Sonoma Catalog.

Nice. Thank you for that top-secret insider info.

Don’t mention it.

What was the least-read post of the year?

Please don’t be rude.

Fine. So what other kind of stuff do you want to accomplish in Year 2?

A lot! We want to get an internship program off the ground. We want to hire more people and further expand our areas of coverage. We want to enlarge the freelance budget so that we can pay decent and timely rates to a wider range of freelance writers and artists. We want to send staffers on more reporting trips so that they can break news and bring readers more richly detailed stories. We want to continue making improvements to our website and commenting system. We want to start using this tip jar feature in order to give free subscriptions to students and other people without the financial means to subscribe. We want to do live events. We want to—

At some point you are going to say something like, “And we can’t do any of that without your support,” right?

Come on, man, I was building up to it!

Sorry.

It’s fine. Whatever. But yes, you are correct, we really can’t do any of the stuff we are already doing or want to do in the future unless you subscribe. For the reasons that have already been enumerated here, our business is set up to run almost exclusively on your subscription dollars, which means that if you like our website enough that you would like for it to continue existing as it does, you need to pay us.

OK, but how am I supposed to pay you guys and also pay for all my streaming services and also all those new Substacks that I am supposed to be supporting now?

That’s a good question, and one that we take very seriously. Nobody at Defector wants to be even partially responsible for someone losing the ability to pay their damn rent because they ended up spending 45 percent of their paycheck on various Substacks and Patreons and magazines. If you just don’t have the money to pay for a Defector subscription, or if you really think it would be better spent somewhere else, I won’t argue with you. What I will say in our favor is that any money you spend on us will only ever be used to help make the site a bigger, better version of itself. Every new subscriber Andrew Sullivan gets doesn’t make him any more or less of a dumbass, but every subscriber we get makes it more likely that we will be able to hire more people, pay more freelance writers and artists, report more stories, and make improvements to our website.

And it’s good to support a worker-owned co-op, right? Doing so certainly will make me a Good Media Consumer.

I suppose so, yeah, but I must admit that I am increasingly hesitant to frame our value proposition in those terms. While living through this past year of Substack proliferation, I’ve been struck by how much money seems to be getting thrown around for the sake of—and I really do apologize for using this term but it honestly, truly applies here—virtue signaling. How many of the thousands of suburban bullies who are helping Bari Weiss earn $800,000 per year from her newsletter do you think eagerly await her next unverified email from a screeching private-school parent? Do Glenn Greenwald’s subscribers really fork over $5 every month because they can’t wait to read his latest self-victimizing rundown of whatever’s happening on his Twitter feed, or because they like what he represents: a guy who makes all the other guys they don’t like mad online? It seems much more likely to me that people subscribe to these things because doing so is a way of affirming which side they are on.

It is admittedly a little rich for me to be complaining about this dynamic just one year removed from publishing a big honking story about the righteous creation of this website and why it was vitally important for people who hate venture capitalism but love worker solidarity to support it. But since we are friends now I can tell you I wrote that post because I needed to sell you on something, and at that point in time all we had to sell was our story. But now I have a whole website to sell you. I have thoughtful and incisive essays about everything from soccer to politics to Nikola Jokic to drug policy to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to policing to labor to abortion to art to Palestine to tennis to Irish dance, and on and on. I have expertly crafted blogs about wanting to be struck down by a tokamak, what a fraud Elon Musk is, and whatever the hell is going on in Alaska. I have every conceivable variety of the highest quality sports blogs. I have book reviews; I have media criticism and scoops and plenty of reported features. I have “Horse Innocent!” I have Why Your Team Sucks and clump dogs. I have Samer recognizing a fart online.

I went back and read Defector’s inaugural post before I wrote this one, and what struck me was how distant it felt, and how little all of it mattered to what the site is now and will be. I think, I hope, that’s because Defector has become bigger than its origin story. How this website was created no longer matters as much as the fact that the website exists and can be judged on its own merits. I want you to subscribe, or continue subscribing, to Defector not just because you believe in our cause or think supporting us is a good thing to do, but because you enjoy the work we produce and want to see us continue producing it. The stakes don’t need to be any higher, or more complicated, than that. 

OK…

What?

Feels like you kind of went off on a tangent there. 

Sorry, what was your question again?

I was just checking in to see how things are going with the business.

Right, sorry. Things are going well with the business. Please continue to subscribe to Defector.

Or what?

You will join our list of enemies, right behind this dumbass