Cultivated's going paid. Why?
Plus, notes on the short and long-term vision of this newsletter, and how to make capitalism work with, not against, journalism.
First, some housekeeping: This newsletter is about my short and long-term vision for Cultivated, and some of the problems with modern media I hope it can be a small part in solving.
If you missed me last week, it’s because I’ve been working on turning Cultivated into a legit business. That involves filling out a lot of forms and sitting on a lot of long, boring calls.
I’ve landed on a Wednesday/Sunday schedule to send the newsletter moving forward, and that’s a commitment starting next week.
I’m thinking Wednesdays will be more newsy roundups, and Sundays will be longer, deep dives but I’m open to feedback: I’ll always listen to what my readers and the data tells me.
I’ve got actual reporting on the cannabis industry planned for Sunday’s newsletter, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
In the future, I’d like to get to a point where there’s a Cultivated Daily roundup 5x a week, plus weekend long reads — but I don’t have the bandwidth (yet).
So, some of you (at least those who have pledged) may have noticed that I’ve turned on paid subscriptions.
I want to give everyone a quick look at why I’m doing this now, and what the strategy will be moving forward.
I’m also stealing the opportunity to talk about my grand vision for Cultivated and what I hope this newsletter can become.
First, relax: I’m not going to throw everything behind a paywall.
Free and paid subscribers alike will all be able to read each newsletter in full.
What are paid subscribers getting?
Know that by subscribing you are supporting me and my work, and you’re supporting good journalism.
I really, really appreciate everyone who’s spent their hard-earned money on Cultivated before I even asked.
You’re the ones making this possible, and it’s the best proof-of-concept for making this leap outside of a traditional newsroom that I could have ever imagined.
But I’m not asking for handouts or donations. Here’s what you’ll get for $5 a month or $50 a year:
Access to premium content. These are paywalled stories like scoops and exclusives on the biggest names and companies in the industry that I have a long track record of delivering.
When I get my hands on primary source documents, or I have specific information about a deal or a major layoff or other important changes, you’ll be the first to know.
When I pore over securities filings to figure out who’s doing well, or who’s in trouble, you’ll be the first to know.
You’ll also get access to me and to each other. If there’s interest, I’m going to set up a subscribers-only chatroom as well as regular conference calls for those who want the best insights into what’s going on in the industry.
I’m also looking into discounted enterprise-level subscriptions. So if your company or firm wants to set that up, let’s talk.
Eventually, I’d like to do small, focused in-person events in NYC and elsewhere for subscribers, bringing people together who share a vision of a cannabis industry that’s sustainable, lucrative, and balanced for everyone.
It’s in the name. I want to, ahem, cultivate the best group of cannabis industry and policy professionals possible, and inform them well.
I’m also open to feedback on pricing. It’s not an exact science.
To be clear, a lot of what this boils down to at the moment is pure reader support until I can build up the editorial structure and capacity to regularly turn out scoops.
If you think it should be cheaper, or if it’s too cheap, let me know. Over time, the price will go up as Cultivated gets bigger, faster, and better.
Okay, so what’s the revenue model?
I believe the right revenue mix for newsletters like mine is mostly advertising, with a little subscription money thrown on top.
I’m thinking of it like a 70/30 or an 80/20 model.
This is informed by my experience in digital media, talking to journalists, investors, and operators who are way smarter than I am, and reading a lot of media newsletters.
I’ve been charging the few advertisers I’ve worked with so far a fixed rate for access to my audience.
It’s not dependent on the industry standard “CPM” or cost-per-mile that dominated the 2010s. I don’t sell a specific click-through rate (though I’m happy to walk anyone through that asks to see it).
What I do sell is the eyeballs of the ~1500 smartest cannabis industry and policy professionals in the world, especially those that want to read quality journalism.
Now, I’d like to grow that ten-fold, though I’m only in the beginning stages.
But I won’t push for mass market appeal, and I won’t optimize search engine results or game social media algorithms for maximum reach.
I’m deliberate about partnering with people who want to support good journalism and understand the basic concept of editorial independence.
It’s implicit: You choose to advertise with me, and I’ll get your company in front of readers right in their inbox in a way that makes sense to them.
That’s the deal.
Why go paid, and why now?
Subscriptions will be a valuable part of Cultivated’s mission.
There’s clear value in the stable, recurring revenue subscriptions provide —ARR in business-speak — especially for solo operations like mine.
I need that predictable money to reinvest in Cultivated and eventually pay myself a little bit, which is why I’ve chosen to add a paywall now.
Reinvestment means simple things like setting up an LLC and a business bank account, paying for images and graphic design, and eventually, keeping my books and filing my taxes.
It will also allow me to pursue some modest paid growth, which I’d like to do.
Later, I’ll use that money to hopefully hire more great writers, editors, lawyers, salespeople, and the other necessary roles that make a good publication tick.
Okay, so what’s the overall vision for Cultivated?
A journalist is only as good as their sources, and likewise, a newsletter is only as good as its readership.
My long-term dream is to build the best, most fascinating cannabis industry publication possible, and to provide journalists with stable, good-paying jobs that free them up to do their best work.
I’m not looking to dominate the world. I don’t care about getting fantastically wealthy off of this (though to be clear, I do care about making enough money to go on surf trips).
I’m thinking really hard about the broader mission of journalism, and how the right revenue model can provide the right incentives for producing quality work.
Slow and steady wins the race
Right now, my biggest cost is my own labor. Everything else is circumstantial.
Maybe I’ll need to adjust this strategy in the future, but newsletters are a pretty low cost business and I’m cognizant of not letting things spiral.
That calculus may change if, when, and how I want to grow.
I’m keeping Cultivated small and steady for a reason, and I’m intentionally not dependent on any large tech company to send me more eyeballs.
The only thing I need to do to keep readers happy is to keep putting out great newsletters. I can do that and I’ll continue to do that.
It’s a bit harder to do that when I’m spending half my working hours negotiating with advertisers or trying to drum up business. That’s where subscription revenue comes in.
That doesn’t mean I’ll throw all my content behind a paywall, but it does mean that paywalls can be useful.
That said, Cultivated’s business model will involve some trial and error.
I’m thinking about what’s worked for B2B newsletters like the Morning Brew and The Peak. I’m also informed by worker-owned, reader supported models like Defector and Hell Gate.
The right structure can and should support the journalism, and vice versa.
Why it’s crucial to put the right incentives in place from the beginning
My incentives are clear: Grow my audience within my specific niche and serve them well.
It’s all about the right incentives. Believe me, I’ve seen the other side.
I’ve seen how the pursuit of scale, driven by advertisers, undermines writers who are forced to chase clicks instead of stories.
I’ve seen how subtle tweaks to social media algorithms or search engine results can kill off entire publications and force journalists out of jobs.
I’ve seen how investors, hungry for returns that media doesn’t provide, can undermine the quality and rigor of the stories by pushing for too much.
Bad incentives lead towards salaciousness, lazy aggregation, and sloppy reporting. It leads to stories that are catered to the lowest common denominator, instead of informing readers and making them smarter.
And crucially, I’ve seen how all this impacts mental health for journalists themselves.
Good reporting is essential to our society, and I believe it’s essential for capitalism to function fairly. Bad journalism does the opposite.
That’s doubly true for the cannabis industry, where, believe me, facts are slippery, egos are huge, and sleights-of-hand rule the market.
I’m not anti-capitalist by any stretch, but I do think businesses need to be held accountable to more than their bottom line.
I want Cultivated to be a tiny, baby step in fixing some of the issues plaguing modern journalism.
I want it (hopefully) to give other writers good-paying jobs and a platform to interrogate, investigate, and inform the cannabis industry, which sorely needs it.
I’m not delusional enough to think one newsletter can fix some of these deep-seated tensions between capitalism and journalism, though I hope it can play a small part.
But more than that, I just want to write a great newsletter. I love doing this, and I hope that you love reading it, too.
And yes, all that said I do want to make some money, but I want to do it in a way that aligns with my values.
That’s it. For just $5 a month, you can support that mission.