WTF Just Happened Today is a newsletter, blog, and community chronicling the "daily shock and awe in national politics"
When Matt Kiser launched WTF Just Happened Today (WTFJHT) in January 2017, it started as a side project to report on the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. Early on in the site’s founding, Kiser was spending ~$500 per month (mostly on Mailchimp) to publish the newsletter and run the blog.
About a month into running the site, Kiser decided to ask his audience for money to help offset out-of-pocket expenses. He knew he needed to raise about $4,000 per month to cover the first 100 days of his work, so he reached out over his email newsletter list to ask for donations. In just a few days, 415 people signed on to support the site. By mid-February, 540 people had signed on and Kiser was up to $3,100 per month in recurring reader support.
That’s about when he decided to funnel that support into a membership program and quit his day-job to run WTFJHT full-time. That’s also when he realized he needed an actual budget.
Why this is important
When it comes down to it, the costs and revenues of running a member-driven news site are what determines the longevity of the site. But figuring that out, especially in the beginning, can feel like guesswork. Kiser was only able to commit to WTFJHT once he raised enough money to feel secure enough to quit his day-job.
Today, he has a more sophisticated sense of what he can expect each month in terms of costs and revenue (and has started to pay for freelancers and other staffing support), but in his early days, Kiser had to make strategic decisions each month based on his revenue projections.
What they did
Three years after launching WTFJHT, Kiser has accrued a few more monthly costs – including his new, full-time salary, a budget for freelancers, and additional software and tools. Kiser is extremely transparent about the monthly costs associated with running this site. His method for managing his budget remains fairly straightforward.
In order to be fully transparent with his readers and members, Kiser lists out all of his monthly costs on his website. See below for those costs, ranked from highest to lowest. In total and including other fluctuating costs month to month, this equals a little over $16,000 per month.
- Kiser’s full-time salary: $7,385
- Kiser’s risk adjustment for being a full-time contractor: $2,089, or 15% of total cost (quarterly taxes, healthcare, other unexpected costs)
- Freelancers: $3,000
- Podcast and Hosting: $2,000 (AWS S3 to host the daily podcast and cache the files with AWS CloudFront; and monthly stipend for podcast producer)
- Other Tools: ~$320 (a GitHub subscription for hosting the code, YellowBrim for email efficiency, Cloudflare for various security and serving issues, Buffer for posting, Canva for quickly creating social images, and Zapier to automate boring tasks, among others):
- Hosting via Amazon S3, and CloudFlare to manage DNS, SSL certificate, and handle caching: $125
- NewsWhip Spike, a tool to source daily news (with a discount applied): $100
- Subscriptions, to the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, The Atlantic, and a few others: ~$100
WTFJHT is 100 percent supported by members – Kiser doesn’t take any advertising or sponsorship dollars, which is why when he lost 150 net supporters over the past year, it was cause for some alarm. Kiser sees this churn as a part of the natural life cycle of his members, but knew it meant that he would be losing about $900 a month in income. It was time to reach out to his members again and ask for their support.
Kiser does not like doing fundraising drives (he feels uncomfortable asking for money). But at the end of the day, this is his full-time job and he knows it needs to be done. So in July 2019, Kiser launched another membership drive with a goal of signing up 200 people to become members. Here’s what he said in the body of an email to readers:
Three days later, after sending only two reminder email to his list, Kiser’s membership drive was about a dozen people away from his goal of 200 new members.
See below for the update he sent over his email list open to the public:
The membership drive brought Kiser back to the financial threshold that enables him to continue publishing without sustainability concerns.
Over the years and after a few membership drives, Kiser has been able to develop a more sophisticated understanding of incoming revenue from his membership base. This clearer method of projecting revenue took time — after years of collecting data and observing member behavior.
Kiser identified the below three metrics as crucial for developing stronger revenue projections:
- Member conversion rate: ~1-2% (a rough percentage of WTF’s audiences — newsletter and website combined — that becomes a member)
- Average monthly contribution per member: $6.17
- Annual Churn Rate: 5.8%
These three numbers help Kiser determine whether he’s on track and what he can afford each month. Here’s how he explains it: “I’ve outlined my costs and what I want to be earning on the blog. As long as the budget balances, that’s all I care about – It’s how I know I’m creating sufficient value.”
What they learned
Always set a goal (with a reason behind it) in your fundraising drives, and communicate this to your readers and members. In the past, Kiser made membership campaigns a week long, with no specific goal. At the end, he felt like his audiences were exhausted (and he was exhausted, too, from running his own membership drive over a week where he was still providing coverage each day). Now he always offers an explanation to his readers about why he’s doing a drive (like in the above case, because WTFJHT lost some members), and he sets a clear target. Once Kiser hits the goal, he ends the drive, and starts focusing on how he can retain his new members.
As a one-person newsroom, don’t get overwhelmed by metrics. Kiser isn’t hyper focused on all of the audience data at his disposal. As he explains: “it’s more important to focus on the basic accounting of income and expenses than any tool or app.” Kiser looks at newsletter and membership conversion rates, average contributions per member, and annual churn rate as his major pieces of “directional evidence” to determine, essentially, is this working or not? At the end of the day, it’s really about making sure revenue exceeds expenses. As long as he can predict when he’s heading for the red and can correct course with member drives, he’s all set.
Here’s some budgeting advice for other one-person newsrooms: Kiser prefers to use the self-employed version Quickbooks to track his expenses. He likes how Quickbooks has an app and website, connects to his business credit card and bank information, and allows him to easily categorize and create “rules” for expenses that come in. Apart from the DIY version of budgeting, Kiser also uses a CPA once a year to help with his taxes. As a “disregarded entity” (a sole creator with an LLC), Kiser’s unique tax status means he prefers professional help every March to make sure he files taxes correctly.
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
Be honest and upfront with your audiences. It helps to share your financial situation with your readers and members, even if it borders on TMI. Kiser finds that being radically honest with his books also helps him alleviate some of his hesitations around asking for money from his readers. As he puts it, “you can see, nobody’s getting rich here!” Being transparent is also one way to build trust when asking people to optionally contribute to your work.
Know when it’s time to pack up. Kiser doesn’t know how long this model will last, and he’s prepared to be able to make a call based on how he sees his member program fluctuate in the months ahead. He’s going to keep tracking the key metrics he uses to forecast incoming revenue and whether or not he needs to ask more folks for financial support, and he knows that he doesn’t know his ceiling. As he puts it: “I’ve long had a compact with the audience that I’ll keep doing this as long as they keep supporting me. It keeps everyone honest and there will be no doubt come a time when WTFJHT ceases to be relevant, and it’s time to pack it up.”
- Membership Puzzle Project, case study: How “members getting members” brought Zetland financial sustainability
- WTFJHT, FAQ: WTFAQ