Three Years Of Defector
10:31 AM EDT on September 8, 2023
Can you believe it? Defector turns three years old this week, which means I'm back to once again answer any questions you might have about how things are going around here. Please don’t be rude like last year.
OK, fine. How are things going around here?
I am once again happy to report that things are going great. Here are the numbers:
- As of today, Defector has published 7,818 blogs, which our subscribers have continued to pay us real money in order to read. (As a fun birthday treat, our head of subscription strategy and in-house smart guy Sean Kuhn built a cool gizmo that allows you to remember some Defector blogs at random. You can play around with it here.)
- We brought in $4.4 million in revenue in Year 3, which was up from $3.8 million in Year 2. We used that money to pay salary and benefits for our 25 full-time employees, as well as fees for the 86 writers, producers, artists, and designers that we worked with over the last 12 months. About 85 percent of the revenue we generated this year came from paid subscriptions to the website.
Whoa, hold on there, buddy.
I see that you made more money this year than you did last year, and I also see that the percentage of revenue that came from subscriptions went down from 95 percent in Year 1 and Year 2 to 85 percent in Year 3.
That is correct.
So what gives? Where’s all that extra money coming from? Are you selling my data to advertisers now? Are you a goddamn dirty data-scraper??
No! Your data has not been scraped. The increase in revenue can be explained by two developments. In Year 3 we reached an all-time subscription high-water mark, when we hit 42,102 paying subscribers on Aug. 10. Also, one of our podcasts, Normal Gossip, went totally banko bonkers.
What exactly does “went totally banko bonkers” mean?
Shortly after the premiere of Season 3 in 2022, the Normal Gossip team began to meet with various podcast companies interested in adding the show to their network. Imagine LeBron James’s 2010 free agency tour, except instead of meeting with a slouched James Dolan and neck-braced Donnie Walsh, Kelsey and Alex spent a few weeks chatting with all sorts of podcast bigwigs.
Did Barack Obama personally attend their meeting with Higher Ground to try and lure them onto the platform?
I can neither confirm or deny that. As I was saying, that process ended with Normal Gossip joining the Radiotopia network, which now handles all of the ad sales for the podcast. Since partnering with Radiotopia, Normal Gossip’s listenership has continued to grow: Each episode of Season 4 has been downloaded between 400,000 and 500,000 times, and since the end of Season 4, the show has received between 30,000 and 50,000 downloads per day across the back catalog. People really seem to enjoy this podcast.
Sticking with the “totally banko bonkers” thing, Normal Gossip also completed its first U.S. tour in 2023. Kelsey and Alex hit the road this summer and put on 10 live shows in eight cities (read their tour diary here), selling out multiple large venues along the way. Most importantly, the shows were good. The Defector staff got to attend the tour opener in New York in June, and it was wild to see Kelsey and Alex (and special guest Sabrina!) sit on a stage and have a sold-out Broadway theater belly-laughing for an hour, despite having no previous experience as professional performers. Life sure can take you in some surprising directions.
Well, that’s nice!
It is nice.
So what did you do with all that extra revenue? Are you doing financial engineering? Arbitrage? A pump-and-dump?
I don’t know what any of that means. What we’ve done with the money so far is spend it on stuff that makes the website better. Last year, our expenses totaled $3.7 million, but in Year 3 that number rose to $4.3 million.
Explain to me the things you’ve spent money on.
Our biggest annual expense is always employee compensation and benefits, and that number went up this year for a few reasons. At our annual retreat last October, we decided that we wanted to try and narrow the gap in target salaries between various positions on the masthead. So we bumped up the target salaries for staff writers, bringing them closer to the top end of the target salary scale.
We also made a few more permanent hires this year. In January, we hired Israel Daramola as a staff writer, and he’s since been busy blogging about sports, movies, music, and TV. We brought on Alex Sujong Laughlin, who has been the producer of Normal Gossip from the show’s inception, as a full-time supervising producer. She’s still driving the Normal Gossip train with Kelsey, while also helping to guide other podcast projects (Season 2 of Namedropping is coming soon!) and occasionally writing blogs for the site. Also, we hired Kathryn Xu as an associate staff writer in June. Kathryn was our first-ever editorial intern, and after she graduated from college, we somehow convinced her to pursue a career as a full-time blogger. Wow, look at us, turning a former intern into a full-time employee. That’s a thing that real companies do. It was also nice to have Kathryn around to help out our second-ever editorial intern, Abigail Segel, this summer. Abigail was here for three months, during which she contributed to our wall-to-wall coverage of the Women’s World Cup, did some reporting, and wrote a great essay about Taylor Swift and fandom. And for six months we had Alex Pareene on staff as an editor, covering for some staffers who were out on family leave.
We also spent about $75,000 more on paying freelancers in Year 3 than we did in Year 2, which is the result of our manager board voting to substantially increase the monthly freelance budget. Even with that increase, I still have trouble staying under budget every month, which is good because it means we are publishing a lot of great stuff from talented freelancers, but bad because it really highlights just how many people in this industry are without full-time gigs. Thankfully, Jasper never yells at me when I go over budget—he just politely reminds me that we are “running a little hot on freelance budget” during our weekly meeting.
Well, hey, there are worse things to spend money on than freelancer fees and hiring more full-time staffers.
I agree. In fact, if you’ll allow me to be a salesman for a second, I’d say that a big part of the value proposition that comes with a Defector subscription is knowing that we’re always going to be inclined to reinvest our revenue into things that will make the site bigger and more fun to read every day.
For example, when we realized that Year 3 revenue was going to be up from Year 2, we convened the first-ever Defector "Shark Tank" session, which consisted of all of us sitting in a conference room together and presenting ideas for how to spend the extra money. Some kick-ass ideas were presented, and it was inspiring to see everyone share the understanding that the best thing we can do for ourselves is also the best thing we can do for our current and future subscribers: Try to make the website a better version of itself every day.
Tell me about some of these kick-ass ideas.
If I did that, we’d be here all day! But I will tell you about a few.
The most exciting idea might be our crossword puzzle, which we plan to publish on a regular basis starting this fall. With a great deal of help and guidance from our partners at AVCX, we published our pilot puzzle on Aug. 8. It was created by Paolo Pasco and edited by Hoang-Kim Vu, and it was a big hit. We are currently in the process of building up a backlog of puzzles (get in touch here if you’re a constructor and would like to submit one), and once we have that, we’ll be ready to start firing them off regularly. The age of Defector Games is upon us; the pathetic game-makers at The New York Times will be ground to dust under our boot heels. Wordle will fall!
We also left our idea session in agreement that we should establish a quarterly reporting budget, for the sake of sending staffers and freelancers to do more on-the-ground reporting at various events. This idea started to pay off almost immediately: Giri went to Wimbledon to tell us about cream, Lauren went to Boston to see a god in the flesh, and Diana went to San Jose to tell us about the scandals and triumphs currently defining USA Gymnastics. Inside sources tell me that future reporting budget expenditures have been tabbed for sending Ray Ratto to Newfoundland (this is not a joke) and Chris Thompson to Florida.
If low-key live events are your thing, that’s also something we’re hoping to do more often. We’re going to have our first live reading in NYC on Sept. 13. It’s free to attend, so you should check out the details here and swing by if you can. We’re also doing a live recording of The Distraction on Oct. 4 in Brooklyn, so buy a ticket to that if you want to see Roth and Drew do their world-famous riffs live and in person. If those go well, expect to see us doing more live readings and recordings in the future, and not just in New York.
And what of your technical innovations? Please tell me you are doing what all smart media companies are doing and investing heavily in Web3 infrastructure and generative AI.
I’m humble enough to admit that all of that stuff is way too complicated for me to understand, but rest assured that we are looking very strongly into all technologies. Devin the Dugong, our Chief Metaverse Officer, is hard at work every day figuring out how things like the blockchain and AI can be leveraged into helping with the production of award-winning and world-changing journalism.
But while Devin has been looking into the complicated stuff, we’ve stayed busy making improvements to our website. In collaboration with our partners Lede, we redesigned the homepage in January, and integrated our paywall more closely into the website’s infrastructure, so there are no more third-party apps or pop-ups involved in account management. We also gave commenters the ability to upload avatars. If you ever run into any technical issues using the new version of the site, our award-winning customer service team (Sean) is always ready to help. Just reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
OK, let’s get this over with.
What do you mean?
Well, this conversation has been going on for a while, which means that it’s almost over, and that means that you still need to ask me for money.
You got me.
At this point, I hope it’s clear to even casual readers of the site what we’re trying to do here. Our collective brainpower is at all times focused on making a subscription to this website worth it, which means that every dollar that comes into our bank account is a dollar that we are looking to reinvest into business. This is why earlier this year we sent out a big honkin’ survey soliciting feedback from all of our readers—we wanted to know what they’ve gotten out of their purchase so far, and what else we might be able to give them. Ideally, we want this website to exist and grow in a state of equilibrium: the more subscribers we get, the more money we can spend on new hires, new projects, new coverage areas, and new features; the more hires, projects, coverage areas, and features we have, the more likely we are to attract new subscribers.
If that kind of business model sounds attractive to you as a current subscriber, then thank you for subscribing and reading. If you’d like to give us more money, consider upgrading your subscription or tossing a few bucks into our tip jar.
If you don’t currently subscribe to the website but are interested enough to have made it to the bottom of this post, please imagine me gently but firmly placing a hand on your shoulder as I say, “Subscribe much?” Use this moment to consider finally giving up those credit card digits. Will a Defector subscription be your wisest purchase of the year? I guess that depends on your spending habits, but I can promise that your money will end up exactly where it’s supposed to be: back on the page, for you to enjoy.