By the time I spoke on Friday with Nick Purdy, publisher of the music magazine Paste, the publication had received over $175,000 in donations from its devoted readers; less than 10 days had passed since the cash-strapped magazine had launched a campaign called “Save Paste,” in which it laid out in a letter to Paste readers the financial troubles that have plagued the company in recent months. “As the global recession has continued, many of you have written us (especially as ad pages shrunk) to say, ‘If you ever need help, let us know,’” the letter states. “That day has come.”
The magazine, launched in 2002, currently has about 200,000 subscribers (according to Purdy) and the publisher hopes that a significant portion of them, many of whom already pay $25 for an annual subscription, will cough up approximately $300,000 in donations, the amount Purdy says is needed to get the magazine through this rough patch.
“We needed some cash,” Purdy told me. “So we had always known that if we ever had to, we could go to our readers. A lot of them tell us — especially in the last few months, because they’re not dumb, they know what’s going on in the economy — they’ve written us and said, ‘hey, if things ever get rough on Paste, make sure you ask us for help,’ and so we took them seriously. We have a special relationship with out readers. We have a brand they know is built off authentic passion. We’re not corporate owned, so for our readers we have a high level of trust and value to them. So we took this campaign to them, with obvious hesitation; you don’t know if this is going to work. It’s highly unusual for a for-profit company to do. Obviously if you tell the world your problems it’s fraught with risk. But for us the upside was that as soon as we went to our readers, the response was loud, and strong, and fast.”
But the donations to the magazine were twofold; not only did it receive an outpouring of donations from its readers, but dozens of artists and music labels gave the publication not-yet-released music tracks to include as thank-you gifts to donors.
“What we wanted to do here was to give donors a thank you so they weren’t just giving us money for nothing, and what better way than to make this campaign about the music?” Purdy said. “So we went to the music industry, the labels we’ve worked with over the years, the ones that we’ve championed, and we said, ‘hey, here’s what we’re doing, we really love your art, and if you have a way to support us by donating a song that hasn’t been released before, be it a live track or something that’s coming out in the next few months, whatever it is, we’d like to just offer it to our donors as a thank you for being a part of the campaign.’ We’d give them away to make it clear that the industry supports us too; we’re supported from two directions: the industry we’re in and the readers who enjoy it. And the response was overwhelming, and songs continue to come in up until the last few minutes … Yoko Ono decided to premier some music that’s coming out later this year but is being premiered through our campaign. Yoko Ono, that’s great. Like, who are we?”
This campaign occurs while the newspaper industry as a whole has been contemplating the so-called “PBS approach” to bringing in money — that is, to solicit donations from publications’ most devoted news consumers. This strategy has worked for a few non-profit media entities — Wikipedia, PBS, public radio — but it’s unclear whether for-profit companies could succeed at such a tactic. Given that Paste is one of the few for-profit news outlets to try the donation route, can its success be duplicated across the industry?
“There are a few things here,” Purdy said when I raised this issue. “Our research has shown that we do have an unusual level of loyalty from our subscribers, so that certainly has to be playing in. I can’t assume what brand loyalty other magazines have because I haven’t seen their research. So is it something other brands can do? I suppose it’s possible. I think it’s going to be exceptional when someone can successfully do this. But I will say this: we view this as something we will only do once. We don’t see this as a model that’s sustainable, we don’t see it as how a for-profit business should operate. For us it’s an extraordianry one-time circumstance where we can say to our readers with confidence that if they rise up and help us through this patch we see a bright future. In spite of everything with the economy, we know our way forward.”
In other words, Purdy views this as a way for Paste to deal with a cyclical downturn as a result of the current recession, not a long-term business model. Given that the downward spiral of newspapers is only exacerbated — not caused — by the recession, such a strategy would have to hold up year after year, which means that a newspaper’s brand will have to be particularly strong if it wants to come back to its readers, time and time again, with its hands outstretched, perpetually hungry, waiting for them to cough up their life-sustaining dollars so that future issues can be published.