About a year and a half ago, we published a piece outlining exactly how the business and editorial of Good Beer Hunting worked. It was an exercise in both self-reflection and radical transparency for us, not because we thought we had everything figured out, but because we were interested in figuring it out—sharing it publicly was one way to do that. It was the first time we’d taken a step that far back and tried to articulate how the fledgling organization was structured, and what that meant for our future. Doing so publicly was a way of inviting our readers, our clients, and our critics into the journey we were setting out on. In short, we were eager to talk about it.
Some of us, our Art Director Mike Duesenberg and myself, were working as a small brand practice launching about a half dozen small breweries each year and helping others introduce new products and reposition themselves for a new phase of growth. Some of us, my business partner and wife, Hillary Schuster, were attempting to re-invent the beer festival and small event experience toward a more inclusive, intellectual, and emotional one. And some of us, Editorial Director Austin L. Ray and a network of writers and photographers, were interested in telling the most compelling, nuanced, and enlightening stories we could muster on the editorial side for an industry that’s still overrun with listicles and magazines constantly recycling their version of “another way to get six pack abs” every month.
The feedback that that "state of the union"-style piece generated was great. As it turns out, so many people who were likewise struggling to understand their own business or opportunity saw it as a blueprint for how they, too, could move forward. For others, it brought up a lot of thoughtful questions about how media is evolving from an advertising clickbait model toward a more thoughtful, reader-focused experience. Why is that important? Well, as stated in the amazing account of a Denver Post reporter, it changes communities, industries, and, in some cases, actually saves lives.
I’ve studied with endless fascination how magazines, newspapers, blogs, media companies, trade publishers, and creative agencies have all evolved over the years. Since my first zine in college back in the 1990s, I’ve found an immense amount of satisfaction from being both a writer, designer, and a platform for others. I love the way stories emerge from a small insight, or a moment, into something that feels like it has a life of its own. And then to capture it, present it, and send it off into the world full of anxious energy to find its audience—it’s thrilling every time.
But as much as I’ve been a writer myself, I’ve always been more interested in the platform—the stage I can set for others with a shared interest in longform storytelling. The pieces and parts that get strung together to make the project possible are the puzzle I love to solve. From the time I cashed my first student loan refund check and gave every penny to the local Xerox shop to run a stapled-together poetry journal, I’ve always been looking for a way to make one thing pay for another. I even splurged for the cover stock (production quality is always part and parcel for me). It’s always been a hustle. And regardless of where the money came from, it always served the same ends—putting something into the world that’s unexpected, beautiful, and far more valuable than anyone would expect.
I’m not surprised GBH became such a thing. It’s sort of my way. But I never expected it to become such a thing.
Ten years ago, this was a personal blog I’d write in my free time when I was working at an innovation agency. Now it’s a leading publication for an industry with an audience that stretches around the world. Our writers and photographers cover the U.S., the UK and, increasingly, places like Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Australia. Additionally, we’ve got new voices coming online in the coming months from South Africa, Brazil, Southeast Asia, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. And the members of our subscriber community, The Fervent Few, are just as widely spread, hailing from more than 14 countries.
In order to support that kind of growth, I personally continued to fund the editorial from the profits of our design studio—what ended up constituting almost a quarter million dollars over the course of more than five years. I don’t have a house to show for all that work. I still live in an apartment in Chicago with my wife, Hillary, and my two toddler boys. But I do have a zine, of sorts, of which I’m incredibly proud. You might see a pattern emerging.
Why is that so important to me? It’s hard to articulate, possibly running deeper than my own self-awareness can possibly mine. But I’ll never forget the tingle that went through my body when I first visited City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and realized that an entire generation of writers, the Beats, basically survived and thrived because Lawrence Ferlinghetti, an accomplished poet in his own right, had built a publishing platform. That platform carried his own stories to print, as well as many of those around him who were arguably more talented and impactful. As individuals, they were interesting. As a collective, they reshaped American literature. Now, I’d never equate a beer website to the Beats, but the intent is relevant here. I wanted to build a stage worthy of the greatest voices I could find, and give them room to explore their best instincts as writers and photographers.
In addition to the seemingly endless profiles, personal essays, and travel stories we published this past year or so, we’ve used this platform to highlight the evolving nature of pay-to-play, break down how the pressure of corporate brewers influences the craft sector, expose pervasive sexism and exclusion in the industry, bring mental illness to the forefront, frame the debate between brewery taprooms and bars, take a hard look at monopolies and the three-tier system, uncover a serious issue with Chinese steel imports, examine the critical role of little data in big beer, investigate the RateBeer acquisition, outline the tension between cowardice and authenticity in craft beer, follow the the Diastaticus problem into new territory, document the anxieties around the return of Louisiana's Dixie Beer, break the news of the Sour and Wild Ales Guild, and discover the rift between Methode Geueze and the classic Belgian style from which it descends. It’s been a whirlwind of a year.
But how did GBH get here? And how will it sustain?
In today’s media environment of layoffs and closures of valuable properties like DNAinfo, Grantland, The Awl, Gawker, and MTV News, it’s an intimidating—some would say foolish—time to take on an ambitious editorial project. In an era when almost no one was winning anymore, we were just starting to play the game.
Like those days of turning a student loan into a zine I’d give away for free, GBH hasn’t been much different, albeit far more expensive. From the studio side, where my skills as a strategist and creative director are put to use, I’d take whatever revenues I could spare from my family and invest them in editorial. Some of that was strategic—if the industry I love working in gets smarter, more interesting, and creative, I’d certainly have a much more compelling industry to work in. Fantastic editorial can contribute to that. But some of it was just obsession. The stories I’d heard and experienced myself, as a person working in the industry, far exceeded what was available at the time in terms of the emotional and intellectual foundation for these human stories.
Why was so much of what I was reading so formulaic compared to the reality of the industry I knew?
It took me a long, long time to figure it out. But it was staring me in the face all along: advertising.
It’s easy to think of advertising as this mundane, ignorable consequence of simply being alive in 2018. But it wasn’t always that way. People used to pay for the content they love. They used to subscribe, or buy it on the newsstand. And when a journalism project wasn’t viable in the traditional sense, it was underwritten by an entity, usually a wealthy patron or a organization, who saw value in its existence for the greater good of society. This isn’t new—it’s basically how projects like The Encyclopedia Britannica was funded. And it continues today, with massive endowments for publications like POETRY magazine, based here in Chicago, which survives for the foreseeable future off a $200M gift from Ruth Lilly. One of my favorite recent examples is The Bitter Southerner, which survives off a reader subscription and patron model (much like our own, but more on that later) whereby businesses who believe in their mission, and benefit from its storytelling, contribute financially as “Family Establishments.”
For everyone else, there’s advertising. Companies pay to soak up valuable space in a publication in order to get in front of a population hungry for critical information. Seems harmless enough. But the cost has been far greater than many of us—especially publishers—are willing to admit.
As content transitioned to the web as the primary platform, advertising came with it. It also morphed into new, concerning forms, like the advertorial. And that put advertising-based publishing on two parallel tracks that were doomed: 1) the value of advertising space has eroded to the point that, in many smaller publications, it barely covers the costs of seeking out the advertisers in the first place. And: 2) it incentivizes the publisher, and its writers, to focus on content that gets clicks and eyeballs rather than making an impact. The whole thing is a snake eating its own tail. Very few people are focused on the right problem to solve: relevance and value to the reader.
This conundrum has caused a variety of evolutions in cultural media funding. Some examples.
1. Sponsored content: The Onion, and its network of sites like The AV Club, is regarded as one of the most effective—and worthwhile—sponsored content publications. The stories are funny, highly shareable, and fairly engaging. And they’re all that while they subtly spin a yarn on a client’s behalf, like this, this, and this. They leave you with a positive association for the brand. Some regard this kind of content as the devil in our midst. Personally, I think it’s at least more valuable to the reader than an animated banner ad I have to click on three times just to get out of my way before ultimately forgetting what it was I was trying to read in the first place. All things considered, it’s a push. Maybe a win? I don’t know. But so far, it hasn’t really moved the needle enough to support a system that would stand in contrast to the native advertising portion. Then again, maybe that’s not anyone’s goal. Regardless, it all kind of looks the same. The AV Club still just drops a beer listicle every month and moves on. (Those beer listicles have now been reclassified with all their food and drink content under a promising new title: The Takeout.)
2. Partnerships and special projects: For as long as many publications have realized that subscriptions and advertising aren’t enough, they’ve been looking for ways to partner with companies who can help them raise awareness for their brand and sponsor their activities. Magazines like BeerAdvocate take on major brewery partnerships for events like Extreme Beer Fest (10 years running!). BeerAdvocate’s founding brothers also co-authored and published a book called Project Extreme Brewing with Dogfish Head. (You should buy one—I bet it’s pretty good!) The net result is that BeerAdvocate gets funding, and readers and fans get something of real value that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Win-win? Sure seems like it to me. They blur the lines between the business and editorial side. They’re continuously writing about the people they depend on for sponsorships, and promoting their projects together. But what do we really lose? It’s hard to say. As long as we keep getting pieces like this out of the deal, I’d say it’s worthwhile. It’s an indication that they’re at least putting that sponsorship money to good use for their readers.
Craft Beer & Brewing is owned and published by a branding agency that works in the beer industry (just like us!), as is HopCulture (a new site!). Both of these outlets have basically followed our model, even if they haven’t been obvious about it. Elsewhere, Mash Tun is owned by the same guy who owns an actual brewery in Chicago, and produces a beer podcast. Magazines like Pallet had unofficial partnerships with Dogfish Head in exchange for co-promotion and ad discounts. And even one of the projects we work on through Conde Nast and Pitchfork, called October, has start-up investment from ZX Ventures (which is part of AB InBev). Brewbound gains revenue through industry conferences and sponsorships. The list goes on and on.
In my view, there’s no end to these kinds of conflicts—everyone’s just trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got. And while they each may serve a secondary purpose of some sort, I have no reason to believe that any of them have explicitly done any wrong in that regard. Everyone, just like us, is probably looking for their own version of a win-win that keeps the lights on for the editorial side. That side, after all, is where a lot of rewarding stuff happens.
3. Syndicated media: The Chicago Tribune, owned by the Chicago-based Tronc, is my hometown paper. It does a decent amount of beer writing about trendy things like Session IPAs and beers of the month. That’s pretty helpful stuff for a mainstream, Midwestern reader. This past June, the Tribune ran an op-ed from AB InBev’s High End director, Felipe Szpigel, that was too short, lacked context, and otherwise came off as a sales pitch to craft brewers who might be considering acquisition. The following month, it co-produced a pop-up burger bar fundraiser with Budweiser called Bud & Burgers. Prior to all that, it ran a total of five different articles about the Budweiser America campaign in the space of just three days across its syndicated properties that all show up under the Trib’s banner. (They’d publish a sixth article a couple months later.)
All of this can be seen as a problematic part of a system that Tronc itself describes as a “content monetization engine”—an idea that frightens many.
From the outside looking in, it’s not easy for readers to understand what reporting assignments may be coincidental, and which may be motivated by the larger interests of partnerships and a web of various influences from ownership and investors. And for most, it really comes down to the historical quality of the writing, its value to the reader, and the transparency of those relationships, whether benign or problematic. For our part, we’ve taken every opportunity to be explicit in this regard, knowing that in some cases, you simply can’t account for every coincidence. NPR themselves once highlighted the nature of such things in a letter to their listeners in an attempt to address similar concerns. We’ll continue to do the same.
4. A renewed push for direct subscriptions: Ah yes, perhaps the beacon of hope in all this. In the midst of the cries of “Fake News” this year from political figures, and readers who tend to decry any premise or platform they disagree with, we saw something uncanny happen. Publications like The New York Times started recruiting subscribers. Real, human ones!
As much of advertising is revealed for a fools’ errand, and readers become more savvy about sponsored content, their eyeballs become less valuable to monetization engines. The one potential saving grace is that readers, bless their hearts, are sometimes willing to pay for something they care about. And if enough of them weigh in with their dollars, they might be able to re-incentivize the system toward producing compelling, insightful, impactful content.
After too many years of being GBH’s personal benefactor, this possibility gave me a sense of what the future might hold. And it would create an opportunity to disconnect the studio and editorial sides of GBH once and for all. GBH could move beyond my personal means of funding it, and tap into something much bigger—both in editorial ambitions and means.
To accomplish that, we’ve done two things this past year:
1. We established a subscriber model.
2. We created room for underwriters that didn’t compete with our mission or mis-incentivize our content.
Would people pay for something they’ve always gotten for free? What would they want in exchange for that commitment? Would we ever win over enough people to make it count? I’ll tell you what, I’m shocked by the response.
Upon launching The Fervent Few, our inbox was immediately hit with a couple hundred subscribers and patrons, through Patreon, a service that helps publishers manage customers. Since then, we’ve added a yearly subscription model that enables subscribers to pay all at once. Both channels helped us double the number of subscribers who now fund about 1/3 of our raw editorial costs (rates we pay writers, photographers, etc.). That’s simply astonishing to me. And we still get more every day. I’m beyond thankful. Not only is it a confirmation that what we’ve built has real value—it’s transforming the model in their image.
Subscribers get more than the satisfaction of paying for content they love. They also get access to a subscriber community, contribute their perspectives to topics that we publish, and receive exclusive gear from GBH. So not only did this model contribute to the financial independence of our editorial—it became part of it! We even invite a member onto the podcast from time to time just to get to know them better. As a bonus, it gives our designers an audience for making more fun stuff. On a personal note, I’ll say that the conversations within The Fervent Few are a reminder how much positive, curious conversation in beer is happening outside of the sometimes toxic environments of Twitter and traditional forums. Everyone paid to be there, and they treat it that way. It’s wonderful.
Our other solution is underwriting—a concept we developed from examples offered by NPR, broadcast television shows, and special sections that are sponsored in publications like The New York Times. In short, it ties the advertising and sponsorship of a company that wants to associate with the mission of our platform, and uses that funding to create content we’re interested in making ourselves. It’s not incognito sponsored content meant to trick you into enjoying something, and then, surprise!, you just had a nice thought about Doritos. It’s mission-driven from an explicit partner who sees the bigger picture, and they’re able to invest in a platform that they—and many others—trust.
And here’s why it makes a lot of sense for everyone involved.
Too often, advertisers are paying for ads in print magazines with exaggerated circulations. Ever notice how some beer magazines give away piles of their publication to bars and breweries? They can basically count those as eyeballs. As circulations for print diminish, some publishers are doing anything they can to buoy the numbers and keep rates stable. And in the age of digital programmatic advertising, shit truly gets weird. Advertisers often end up paying for bots to look at ads instead of humans. And sometimes, when you get a real live human, it’s in a situation where the brand association is terrible. How many times have you clicked to watch a local news video of something really troubling happening in your town, like a police chase or a shooting (or anything terrifying that generates a lot of traffic for really important reasons), and you have to pause and watch an advertisement halfway through? It’s creepy. And it’s not in anyone’s best interest.
Companies like Aesop’s are starting to see the value of positive, mission-driven association instead. The high-end soap brand has started looking at specific product distribution as marketing the same way some brands look at advertising. “Be they hotels, restaurants, or boutiques, Aesop appears in places that just match its aesthetic and mission-driven profile and purpose.” P&G Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard went on to say that, in 2017, “the bloom came off the rose for digital media.” According to business publication Lean Luxe, “he criticized the inefficiency, lack of transparency, and fraudulence of the digital ad ecosystem, where only 20% of P&G’s 30-second spots were viewed for at least two seconds (the Media Rating Council’s minimum standard for viewability).”
As a result, some brands who hope to make a real, human, lasting connection are looking beyond the ad ecosystem of publishers, and are wanting to engage in real product development that provides value and curated distribution instead. All of this goes into how we think of underwriting.
Our first underwriting example was our “Coming to America” series from Guinness, where we look critically at the trajectory of imported brands in the age of local, something that sprung from a conversation among our writers about what was going to happen to brands like Saison Dupont when every craft brewer in America starts making their own. In our second, with New Belgium (and which is not yet live), we plan to write down the rabbit hole of wild and mixed fermentation beers, adding to the conversation of how these beers will be made, bought, sold, and drank into the future. Having brewed with the longest continuous sour culture in America, this is obviously of benefit to New Belgium, even in the case where the content isn’t specifically about them at all. And while wild and sour beers have been written about in earnest for more than a decade, there are still some very important aspects that remain unarticulated and unresolved. They may still! But our focus on the category may be the push it needs to get through some of the mud some feel it’s perpetually stuck in, especially since it's been of clear interest to those making, drinking, and thinking about beer for years.
In both of these examples, the brewery sees a benefit in that conversation taking place, and the content creator needs funding to bring their voice to the market. Both parties want it to be presented as fairly and progressively as possible.
Another aspect of underwriting is that it’s not tied to clicks or impressions, which are things that GBH has never relied on. We’re under no obligation to provide a certain number of eyeballs like most web properties. In fact, there isn’t even any reporting on metrics at all for our underwriters. There are a number of critical benefits to that: 1) our content isn’t incentivized to become the clicky kind—these are longreads from top writers, recently referred to as “prestige journalism” in the beer world. We certainly don’t want to abandon that approach to chase eyeballs on behalf of an advertiser. And: 2) we’re still, despite our reach, part of a niche category—beer. The rates we would get under traditional pay-per-click rates would be paltry by comparison. We needed a way to charge based on the quality—not the quantity—of our readership. Finally, 3) we didn’t want to have to create an ad sales team at all, because that would eat up the value being generated by those ads. This is a conundrum so many smaller publications find themselves puzzled by. We needed to be able to sell less, gain more, and support the larger mission all at the same time.
I’m happy to report that it’s working beautifully.
From an ethics perspective, it’s no less problematic, just like all the examples I’ve mentioned above. And for that reason, we think it’s critical that we continue to be radically transparent with our readers, and describe ourselves as a studio first, like we do in our social media profiles, and list every client we work with, like we do in our Twitter client list, and on our studio page on the website. But it solves the right problem first and put the incentives in the right order: readers and quality content first, money second.
The future of this so-called “prestige journalism” won’t include any perfect examples whereby all of the needs for independence of thought and commercial viability are somehow all magically met. That’s a hundred years’ war still smoldering. The system so many journalists today look back on nostalgically only seems more innocent because the mechanisms of its compromise are now commonplace.
We didn't choose the way journalism has evolved in recent years, but like so many others, we are forced to take part in it to a degree. Like a small craft brewer who only has a red (AB InBev) or blue (MillerCoors) distributor in their region, we have to make the most of the situation. If we can self-distribute more of our product directly, through our subscribers, we might be able to bypass the system altogether. We’d be like an own-premise brewery in that way. And if we can find a way of doing things that’s incrementally more independent, transparent, and produces exceptional writing, then we’re thrilled with our contribution to that long, ongoing dialogue.
And you don’t have to take my word for it. Many of our contributors are quite active on social media, and many work for other magazines and outlets where they have highly relevant comparative experiences they can speak to. They took home a stunning six NAGBW awards this year between them. Engage them. Ask them about working with GBH. Ask them what we offer no one else does and why they’re taking part in this project. Their answers will be varied, but they’ll all, I’m confident, speak to a part of the shared end-goal: intellectually-honest content, beautifully presented, that honors the intelligence and curiosity of our audience, enables them to explore their own passions for storytelling, and pushes them to be better with every piece.
The fact that we have a viable subscriber community tells me that we’re doing a pretty good job. The fact that we have continuous criticism from other industry voices tells me we can always do better (and that what we’re doing is getting thoughtful attention). And based on my growing team’s input, and their passion for this project, I’m also confident that no one is holding us to a higher standard than ourselves.
Thanks for being a reader, a critic, a subscriber, or any combination of those things. It’s important to us that you’re here for it.