Last month, I was asked to represent Belt as an example of a rising startup at a Paley Center for the Media series called “The Next New Thing: The Media and Innovation Economy.” I was thrilled to be asked, but also somewhat wary: is Belt is a startup? The label may be true by definition — but not in practice.
When dropped in newspaper articles and magazine features or over drinks amongst venture capitalists (or so I imagine; I have never actually had a beer with a VC), the term “start-up” connotes more than just a new business. It is benighted — or saddled — with a host of assumptions. The most common is that the goal of a start-up is to “scale” — to grow big, as big as possible — as big, maybe, as that Paradigmatic Startup, Facebook! The second assumption is that those who found startups desire to quickly “exit.” Exiting is, I guess, a more polite euphemism for selling, and to the highest bidder. (A third assumption is that startups are run by hoodie-wearing twenty- or thirty-something men.)
If that is what a startup is, then, no, Belt is not one. Because we do not want to become as large as possible, and we are not looking to sell. (And I am definitely not a hoodie-wearing young man.)
So what are Belt’s goals, if not to scale up, then take the money and run? To publish ever-better Rust Belt journalism, and to better compensate our writers and staff.
In our first year, we published long investigative pieces and thoughtful essays (and collected our favorites in our newest book, Dispatches from the Rust Belt: The Best of Belt Year One). We will continue to do just that in year two, and we hope to improve the range and scope of our journalism — to have our reporting become more investigative, our essays more thoughtful and our commentaries more provocative. To do this, we need to increase staff and freelance pay. We have no plans on selling to the highest bidder: we do aim, however, to increase our rates, and to bring in more revenue in order to do so. That is what “scaling” Belt means for us: paying journalists and editors higher wages.
How will Belt make money?
“But how will you make money?” may be the next question on your mind. It is a good one — it is the key question asked of any digital publication, no matter how green. How does an online magazine bring in revenue if not by page views? Because page views are the currency of our moment.
Here is how it works at most of our peer publications: revenue comes in the form of advertisements. Online advertisers seek the most “clicks” on their ads. To garner those clicks, and thus ad dollars, publications publish an increasing number of articles, increasing page views and, hopefully, ad clicks. So publishing more posts per day becomes integral to the publication’s bottom line.
There are many problems with this model, including the obvious: diminished writing quality and staff burnout. Nor is it clearly smart business: online advertising rates continue to fall, not rise. It struck me, when I did the first Belt business plan in summer of 2013, as a race to the bottom. Paywalls and sponsored content were also options I chose to avoid, and which we continue to eschew.
Instead, I designed Belt to avoid correlating revenue to page views: I basically swiped the public radio model. We ask readers to become members, or voluntary subscribers. If you value what we are doing, goes the pitch, send us $20 or $100 per year. In return, we will send you some cool things and commit to continue publishing writing that accords with our mission.
Belt has two other arms: our books and our events are integral to what we do, We also have, and are seeking, institutional and business sponsors, too. But memberships are the bedrock of the online magazine itself.
We want to hear from our members
Here’s the kicker, and the reason I am telling you about Belt’s business model: Over 1000 of you have, indeed, decided to become members. Each new membership has been received as an act of generosity that has gratified the staff and helped our freelance writers keep the lights on.
Will you help us meet our goals for year two? If you are a reader who is not yet a member, join us! And if you are a member already — you can renew, or become one of our growing numbers of sponsors and Patrons. Anyone can shop our store or buy a ticket to our upcoming party.
And let us know what’s on your mind. Do you have suggestions, comments or questions? What compelled you to become a member? How might we improve our membership program? What about Belt do you most value?What do you wish Belt would do more?What do you wish Belt would do differently?
We’d love to hear your thoughts.