If you regularly publish content on a theme, rather than just about a place, you might add some niche news revenue streams to your news business model. Independent publisher Randy Cassingham shares some insight from how he built an e-mail newsletter about “weird news” into a small publishing empire with multiple revenue streams…
This is True is not community news per se, but community is an important part of what makes this a successful publishing venture—with a mission that transcends mere entertainment, which Cassingham finds personally rewarding.
TRUE’s tagline is “thought provoking entertainment.” Cassingham says, “The whole point is, it’s weird news that actually makes people think! Now, more than ever, people really need to think critically. I feel great about helping them do that.”
The core of this business is a weekly e-mail newsletter: a free shorter edition and an extended subscription edition. For 18 years, Cassingham has curated weird news stories from around the world, summarized them, appended his signature pithy comments to each item, and carried on thoughtful discussions with his thousands of readers worldwide via the newsletter. The premium edition sells for $24/year and has thousands of paying subscribers.
Here’s an example of the kind of stories found in TRUE:
Librarians are protesting a new “action figure” being released by Archie McPhee and Co. of Seattle, Wash. The $8.95 doll, complete with “amazing push-button shushing action!”, is “a lovely idea and a lovely tribute to my chosen profession,” says librarian Nancy Pearl, 58, whom the doll is modeled after. But other librarians don’t like it one bit. “The shushing thing just put me right over the edge,” says Diane DuBois of the Caribou (Me.) Public Library. “It’s so stereotypical I could scream.” (AP) ...Hey! What part of “shush” don’t you understand?
The free edition of TRUE contains some ads, and there also are Google ads on the TRUE website. “But if I had to live on site ads, I would have starved long ago,” said Cassingham.
Subscriptions comprise 85% of TRUE’s total revenue. In addition, Cassingham self-syndicates TRUE as a column to several smaller print newspapers. And he repackages his content into self-published print and e-books. So far these books are annual compilations of TRUE stories, but Cassingham plans to branch out into topical books, since he has published many TRUE stories about some of his favorite themes, such as problems with zero tolerance policies.
“All TRUE stories are stored in a SQL database, so I can slice and dice this content however I want,” he noted. “My business mantra is: write it once, sell it multiple times. I used SurveyMonkey to poll my readers about which themes they enjoy the most; zero tolerance and stupid things governments do were right up top.”
Cassingham finds original weird news stories from news venues large and small around the world. Often his readers send him links to stories they noticed, too. “It’s classic filler material that news organizations have always run: stupid criminals, out-of-touch politicians, and so on. With rare exceptions it’s evergreen content, so it holds its entertainment value over time.”
In addition to directly monetizing his content, Cassingham also profits by selling products that promote and advertise his business. He has a line of Get Out of Hell Free cards, mugs, t-shirts and other products, which started in 2000 based on an exchange with a reader.
“I ran an 80-word story about feng shui. I think people have a mystical view of feng shui, that it’s about metaphysical “energy flow,” but I view it as commonsense way of making people feel good about their surroundings—which is what interior designers do. But one of my readers took such great exception to it, she wrote me and said I am definitely going to hell.
“At first I thought she could be reasoned with. I asked a Christian minister about story, and he said he thought it was funny. She replied: he’s going to hell too. It was obvious that reason doesn’t matter to this person, so I came up with the idea of a card you can hand to those people, to show that you can get out of hell free.
“I printed up 2000 cards and told my readers: if you’re tired of people telling you what to think and how to believe, send me a dollar and I’ll send you 10 cards. The dollar covered printing and postage; I wasn’t making money on that, but that was fine because these cards got my URL out there. Essentially, people were buying ads for TRUE that they could personally distribute to other people. And it self-sorted the audience—anyone who’d be offended by a card like this wouldn’t like my newsletter.
“This was before I had a online shopping cart, so people were sending me dollar bills—even fives and twenties—in the postal mail! Just four days later I had to print more cards. Then I saw a real business opportunity.”
Since he started TRUE in 1994 (while employed as a software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.) Cassingham has constantly been experimenting with new ways to monetize TRUE content, create spin-off products, and launch related publishing ventures. Experimentation is the key to exploiting opportunities.
Not all experiments succeed, or have long lives. While his Get Out of Hell Free products have been selling well for over a decade now, Cassingham no longer operates two separate curated-news-with-commentary publications he launched. In 2003 he transferred Heroic Stories (“examples of people being good to each other, to inspire similar heroic actions in others”) to another publisher. Also in the 1990s, TRUE began publishing Stella Award stories about ridiculous lawsuits. Cassingham spun these off into self-published book compilations, and in 2005 a major publisher released a mass-market Stella Awards print book.
In recent years, Cassingham’s publishing efforts have focused mainly on TRUE. He also runs a separate business to mentor and support online entrepreneurs.
He’s also discovered business value in what might at first appear to be adversity. “After running TRUE for several years I decided to change e-mail list service providers. When I did that, I made everybody resubscribe again because even with good software it’s very difficult to track which addresses have gone bad,” he said. “Almost overnight my free list dropped from well over 100,000 subscribers to just 43,000. But those were 43,000 people who were sufficiently engaged to go to the effort of resubscribing. That helps build my business, because the free TRUE is the main way I keep finding new subscribers to the paid edition.”
According to Cassingham, having a strong mission that matters to you personally is a key to business longevity. TRUE’s mission as a fun way to spur critical thinking emerged within a few years of founding the publication in 1994, but it has become a driving force behind the business and it continues to keep him excited about his work.
“It wasn’t my explicit goal right up front, but it became more obvious that that’s what TRUE is really about. Early on, my goal was simply to get as many paying subscribers as possible. Numbers were everything. To maximize the numbers I tried to walk the line to not offend anyone. But I found that I couldn’t do that and also make people think. Some people are really angered by being prompted to think.”
Angry or thoughtless comments are the bane of many community publishers, but Cassingham relishes them.
“Since TRUE is an e-mail newsletter, two-way communication is built in; readers can just hit “reply” and talk back to me. I’ve always gotten useful reader feedback, but the angry feedback is the most interesting. Readers who are angry are either thinking, or they are spectacularly not thinking. That starts a very engaging dialogue. Also on the TRUE blog, my posts often spring from discussion about stories. It’s not uncommon for one of my blog posts to have more than 100 comments.”
How can publishers that focus on a geographic region or community benefit from the niche news strategies that have built Cassingham’s business?
“First of all, understand that even if your niche is geographic in nature, not all your readers will be local. People from all over the place may be interested in your stories even if they live somewhere far away. When you’re online, you automatically have a potentially global audience,” he noted.
“Pay attention to your analytics to see where your audience is coming from. Write a really clear “about” page that’s linked from every page of your site, that explains where you are (if you have a geographic focus) and what your mission is. It’s amazing how many local news sites don’t offer that context, and that makes them less engaging to a broader audience.”
Cassingham also recommends, where relevant, publishing a fair amount of evergreen content (including humorous stories or backgrounders) alongside conventional news coverage. “Evergreen content is easier to sell over and over, in various packages and channels,” he said. “That’s not rocket science. I worked at JPL—so I would know.”
The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.