‘Tomorrow,’ ‘The American Prospect,’ and the Cost of Good Media

I have a lot of friends who work at The American Prospect, the venerable progressive policy and politics magazine based in Washington, and who until recently, worked at GOOD, the progressively-oriented general interest magazine that laid them off recently. As the Prospect went through a major round of fundraising to pay off its debt and secure financing for another year of operations, and the former GOOD staffers have started a round of Kickstarter fundraising for a project called Tomorrow Magazine, I’ve been gratified to see people come through for both publications. And I’ve been struck by both endeavors as illustrations of the cost of doing quality journalism.

It’s not that I don’t think people know that doing reporting, publishing print magazines, paying reporters’ salaries, and maintaining websites costs money. It’s more that I think these projects have put a precise price tag on that rather nebulous “costs money” assumption. There are twenty two staffers at the Prospect, not all of whom are full time. To pay them, and to keep publishing for another year, the magazine raised $700,000 to cover operating expenses for the first quarter. That is, frankly, not a lot of money: it’s a figure that also presumably needs to cover production of the magazine, freelancers, IT, rent on offices, etc. $700,000 is a large number. But it is not a very large budget for a magazine.

Similarly, the folks behind Tomorrow asked for $15,000 to put out a single issue of the magazine. I assume they’re going to raise a great deal more than that — as I wrote this, the Kickstarter was at $11,174, mere hours after it was posted, and growing fast. But that was an amount of money that didn’t involve compensation for anyone working on the project. It was a figure solely devoted to “production, web design and hosting, tech needs, postage, and one amazing launch party.” Even though the Tomorrow staffers are aiming to make their dream magazine, these are still pretty low-budget dreams.

Not every publication has staffers who readers have a passionate emotional investment in and are willing to support financially. And not every publication needs to get crowd-funded or supported through a combination of foundation and private giving. But I do think that in our conversations about media consumption and supportable business models, it’s really useful to know what the minimum costs of putting out a magazine like the Prospect or Tomorrow, or a television show like Louie, or a great-sounding album are. The more targets we have, the more we can think creatively about sustainable business models that will help us consistently reach them. It’s one thing to want media to be cheaper. It’s another to suss out how cheap it can actually get, and to make peace with that.