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If we want publications like The Pool to survive, we have to be prepared to pay

…But we also have to have the opportunity. The Pool had everything a digital media outlet could possibly want: a clearly-defined mission, a brilliant site and a dedicated audience. So why wasn’t reader revenue at the top of their list?

Late last week, The Pool, a popular female-focused online magazine founded by Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne went into administration after crisis talks to save the company failed. It leaves 24 journalists facing redundancy, and a number of freelancers have been left unpaid following months of overdue invoices.

On a personal note, The Pool was one of the rare email newsletters I signed up to with my personal email, and I opened every newsletter each morning on the train. To me and to many others, it was a rare voice of clarity amongst the digital noise, and its loss will be keenly felt.

People will point to sites like Buzzfeed, Vice, HuffPost, and a host more digital media sites that have faced brutal cuts and layoffs in the first few weeks of this year and say that this was perhaps inevitable. But The Pool had something special: a platform for real women, a unique and sensitive perspective on issues dear to many of us, and as a result, a loyal, well-defined audience. Not to mention a Webby award-winning site, and two founders that understood  just what women wanted.

That’s not to devalue the work other media outlets have done on topics like mental health and inclusivity, but The Pool knew exactly who their audience were thanks to extensive research by Baker, and more importantly, how everything from the timing of content to how they read it fitted into their everyday lives. It meant that the site could cut through what is one of the most over-served markets in media, and ingrain itself into our daily lives.

The Pool had everything at its disposal to give any number of reader-funded models a go. It did offer a paid membership tier – the Editor’s Circle, which offered an exclusive weekly newsletter and early-bird access to events for £3 a month – but it was rarely advertised to existing email subscribers or really publicised online. But they had the right audience for a well-placed reader revenue scheme in their laps the whole time.

If nothing else, the GoFundMe campaign launched to ensure that freelancers  and staff get paid has raised money at such a speed (almost £20,000 in one day) demonstrates just how much people are willing to do to support the brilliant writers who contributed to the site over the last few years.

Comments on the campaign reflect what many of us would have done for The Pool. “For every time I waited on a cold Tube platform, excited to check my inbox that morning for the latest email from The Pool…If it helps, I would have paid a subscription for such high quality journalism,” said Izzie Waterman.

“I LOVED The Pool, everything about it, from its inclusionary values to the intelligent, entertaining, comforting writing…I’d have gladly paid for the content,” wrote another contributor, Marian Baines.

A few people also say they subscribed to the Editor’s Circle, with another commenter saying “I paid £3 a month. I would have paid more so I’m paying here.”

Many of the comments both on the campaign and reacting to the news on Twitter expressed how much The Pool would be missed, and how they wished there was more that could have been done.

Of course, it’s easy for us to state online how much we would have paid to support The Pool, and whether that would have actually translated into  sustainable revenue should a campaign have been launched is another matter.

But I believe The Pool is one of those sites that had such a consistent, loyal following, and offered women a quality and perspective that we struggle to find in many other outlets online, that a reader revenue model would have worked.

Which models would have worked?

By the time many of us were aware that The Pool was in real trouble, a crowdfunding campaign was too late. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and of course it’s impossible to say what would have really worked without understanding exactly what the company was facing during the last few months.

A hard paywall is definitely one strategy that wouldn’t have worked. Cutting off access to articles and putting a fixed price point on them would go against what The Pool stood for with inclusivity, and supporting women whatever their situation.

Perhaps an expansion of the Editor’s Circle scheme to include some ‘Pool Plus’ articles only available to subscribers, and a decent publicity campaign, would have caught the attention (and wallets) of many of its readers. Although it had been running for over a year, the scheme and its benefits were never really trumpeted, and there are ways it could have been scaled up faster to draw more of the readership in.

Another option would have been to simply be up-front and beg. The Guardian’s patience and frequent testing of its famed ‘Please donate’ pop-ups has reaped massive rewards for the publisher with over a million readers opening their wallets, contributing significantly to their aim of breaking even this year.

Another story by Nieman Lab just a few weeks ago outlined how subscribers to free regional print magazine Arkansas Life asked ‘appreciative readers to become paid subscribers’ for $20 a year, after the ad-based business model became unsustainable. Just 5% of free subscribers paid up, but it was enough to keep the publication from shutting down.

If putting a price on the content would have been too far, there’s always the example from The Correspondent’s recent crowdfunding campaign. Their ‘pay-what-you- like’ model attracted 45,888 backers (or ‘members’), bringing in a whopping $2,677,070 to launch the English-language news site. This approach encourages readers to get financially involved, but only on terms they can afford, whether that be £1,000 or £1 a year.

The sustainability of ‘pay-what-you-like’ models has yet to be proved, but a membership-style approach along these lines would have played to all the strengths of The Pool’s audience, as well as encouraging a real investment in the site’s future.

The last word

However, there are some things that The Pool’s closure is definitely not. It does not, as the BBC suggested, ‘raise questions about whether women-focused journalism can thrive online’. Sites like Refinery29, whilst still subject to staff cuts and missed targets affecting all digital media companies, reach over 425 million women around the globe, and are another shining example of how to cultivate an intelligent female audience.

Similarly, the UK’s free women’s weekly Stylist magazine has outgrown parent brand Shortlist, which has now rebranded as The Stylist Group and has plans to build a US presence. The ‘power brand’ reaches around 2.1 million readers a month in the UK across all platforms, and also runs the female-focused newsletter ‘Emerald Street’, which like The Pool, has a six-figure list of subscribers.

Drawing parallels between The Pool and recent high-profile cuts is deeply unhelpful, and misses the point about why so many of these businesses are struggling. General interest news and media faces completely different issues to sites like The Pool, which although it is aimed at women, had developed a style of writing that unquestionably made it niche. The audience that it attracted just prove the point further.

In an interview a year ago, Baker reinforced that point about needing a dedicated audience. “In the beginning, we didn’t want to do ‘women-oriented news’ we wanted to just do news,” she said. “But it was probably blindingly obvious to everybody…that you’ve got to give someone a reason to come to you.

“We can’t compete with the BBC or the Guardian, and so just gradually we evolved, always asking ourselves why someone would come, why they would want to read it, how it would make them feel, and then catering towards that.”

“What we found is that we were quite early to speak up about…domestic violence, and any kind of women’s issues – although I hate the phrase women’s issues because it should be people’s issues – and the traffic grew commensurate with that…We have a mission to celebrate women’s voices and to amplify them to tell women’s stories.”

The tragedy in The Pool’s case is that its readers almost certainly loved them enough to put actual money behind the site. They just never got a proper opportunity.


Image via DeepakG on Flickr

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