Three years ago, I stood on a tall stage in a large room in San Francisco and explained to an audience of prospective investors that my company had a “long term plan” to make “a billion dollar business” that would transform the journalism industry. At that time, the platform was nothing more than a free Chrome extension and our community was almost entirely composed of personal friends and family, but I somehow found enough fake confidence to make some bold proclamations, including: “The future of journalism is pay per read, not pay per click,” and “A lot of companies out there talk about being able to build ‘Spotify for news,’ but we actually have a path.”
We never did end up managing to fundraise, but whatever, that's a different story. Fast forward. Seven months ago, we realized that we actually don’t want to be compared to Spotify. I wrote a blog post explaining why. The main reason is that Readup is transparent and Spotify is not. On Readup, you pay a flat fee to read as much as you want, and you watch your entire subscription fee, down to the penny, as it gets chopped up and distributed to the writers you read. On Spotify, you pay to listen, and that’s it. You have no clue if, when, or how much the musicians get paid.
Spotify had a top-down approach. They figured out how to get the record labels on board, and the musicians had no say in the process. Readup’s approach is the exact opposite. We’re decentralized, bottom-up, and “grassroots,” in the truest sense of the word. We’re growing a movement by appealing to the individuals (writers) who are actually doing the work.
In other words, if writers want Readup to happen, it will happen. And if writers don’t want Readup to happen, it won’t.
That puts me in a more comfortable position, strategically and spiritually. Had we just been paying lip service to the plight of writers, I’d have to “spin” and “sell” this idea to them. Instead, I have a much easier job: Tell the story. Our mission is alive in the product, and our product is alive in the mission. I just need to get it all out to as many people as possible.
Given all of that, you’ll understand why we haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how publishers fit into this model. This is the pecking order and it is gospel: (1) Readers come first. Always. We built this company for them and they are our customers, so they’re in the driver’s seat. (2) Writers come second. From a financial standpoint, they’ll be the ultimate beneficiaries. They’re also our key to growth. And they’re the reason that we’re able to create magical reading experiences for the readers. And finally (3) publishers. Publishers are last, but they’re still on the list. (Advertisers aren’t on the list. They don’t exist to us.)
Until recently, I have implied that our plan is to compensate writers directly, without any middlemen. I made that position pretty clear in this reply to a comment on the blog post about Spotify. Basically: If publishers are on board, great. And if they’re not, that’s okay too.
As of now, that is no longer the plan.
The way in which earnings are distributed will stay exactly the same. The only difference is this: If a publisher is willing to form a partnership with Readup, we’ll give them all of the money that their writers earn on Readup.
If Readup is not in some sort of partnership with a publication, we will continue to try to work with their writers directly.
It will be interesting to see what publishers choose to do with the money. They might choose to distribute the funds evenly across their entire newsroom, even though some writers will earn way more than others on Readup. Or they could put it towards some other use entirely. Either way, the complete earnings breakdown (including for individual writers within a publication) will continue to be public so that writers and readers always know what’s going on.
If the publisher has any articles behind a paywall, hard or soft, we’ll require them to unlock it for readers who access it via links on Readup - people who are paying to read. That might sound like something that publishers won’t want, but remember: They get paid every time a reader reads something.
Finally, we’ll work with the publishers to verify all of their writers and get them actively participating as part of the Readup community. This, personally, is my favorite part. Writers and journalists need a new home online, a community that recognizes the value of their work and a technology that, at the very least, isn’t actively working to scatter and subvert the attention of their readers.
Our vision is innovative, but it’s also inevitable. Readers want to be able to read everything, everywhere, easily, without distractions. They’re willing to pay and they’re enthusiastic about our demonstrated commitment to transparency and privacy. Meanwhile, writers deserve better pay. Well-written articles and stories are not “content,” to be mutilated and used as some kind of material in which ads can be displayed.
It’s time for something new. Can’t wait to see who’s ready to step up to the plate.