And Now, a Word For Our Sponsor

This past year has been a rough one on media entities. I’ve already spoken of the collapse of Draft, All About Beer, and the diminishment of Celebrator and BeerAdvocate—which all happened just this year. But the difficulties go well beyond beer. One of the most important political magazines is days from publishing its final issue. Sunset Magazine, founded in the 19th century, is in real danger of going under . The list of casualties is a mile long, and the announcements just keep coming.

We tend to chalk all of this up to the “internet,” but traditional media actually suffered two pivotal technology changes for which they had no answer. The first was the internet itself, which cut off the bottleneck to publication. For next to nothing, anyone could print their own newspaper or magazine online. That changed the advertising calculus, because there emerged nearly unlimited places to advertise. As a consequence, ad dollars plummeted. The second watershed was the arrival of social media, which created an even wider font of content, and untethered people’s reading experience from news sources themselves. Instead of going to All About Beer magazine or the New York Times, they went to Twitter and Facebook and clicked on links, often without any real sense of who generated the content. This made it exceptionally hard to maintain a functional revenue model.

It hasn’t all been bad news, though, and this is actually a happy post. In this new media environment, some sites have flourished. Josh Marshall, the founder of the online politics site Talking Points Memo, describes one model that has shown success.

The exception in digital publishing has long been the subset of trade or specialty publications that have some specific and valuable kind of information that people really want and can’t easily get elsewhere.

This gets at the most irreducible foundation of digital publishing. A publication is only really valuable to people if they cannot easily replace it with something else. If it’s not easily replaceable, a publication can probably have at least some success selling subscriptions, even though there is an almost limitless supply of free things to read online. And here you see the direction a big chunk of digital media is going in. Rather than fighting for an ever diminishing slice of the advertising pie, smaller publications which are distinct (not just like every new entrant that pops up) and have a real relationship with an audience are trying to build around that audience relationship.

A little less than two years ago, I began running an experiment here when I took on Guinness as a sponsor. In July, we signed a contract for a third year of sponsorship, which will run through June 2019. This is a slightly different model than the subscriptions Josh describes, but the upshot is the same: the idea was to find a partner who saw value in the site and wanted to reach my very specific, engaged readers. From both the perspective of making it possible for me to maintain this site and the quality of the content you now find here, the change has been astounding.

To the first benefit, the sponsorship means I don’t have to scramble so wildly to survive. Writers greet each new year with panic looking at their empty bank account. Anything we can do to raise the floor on our income and bring reliability to the year is a godsend. Having a sponsor means looking at that January bank account with a little less fear.

From your perspective, there’s a more important effect. When I first brought Guinness aboard, I was quite anxious that it might damage the trust readers had in what I had to say—the central value of this blog. In fact, nearly the opposite has happened. Far from the blog suffering this change, the quality and depth of the material has gotten far better.

Blogging used to be the activity I fit into my spare time. Now it’s one of my primary activities, and I have been able to throw myself into it with energy. To my own shock, that has turned me, from time to time, into an actual reporter, as when I wrote about sexism in beer, broke the news that All About Beer was kaput, discussed a brewery’s battle with the city or looked into Trillium’s recent troubles. Having a sponsor gave me the time to do research on the state of salaries in brewing.

I don’t think the sponsorship has come at the sacrifice of having uncomfortable discussions, either. I felt fine writing about the troubling history of Coors, exposing the sometimes awkward relationship of brewers and distributors, and digging into the generally-unmentioned specter of alcoholism in the beer industry. My proclivity to offer opinion hasn’t slowed at all—I’m just as mouthy as ever. And along the way, I did try to include some silly pieces, bloggy hot takes, and generally unserious material you expect in a blog. In short, while I tried to keep the character of the blog the same, I have also put many more hours into producing the kind of stories I would have formerly written for one of those magazines that no longer exists.

Of course, I do cover Guinness from time to time. Shortly after becoming my sponsor, Diageo (the brewery’s parent company) flew me out to Dublin. This past spring, they flew me to Baltimore to see their new brewery. I didn’t expect readers to view those pieces as unbiased journalism, but I also attempted to write about the experience in my own way. I don’t know anyone who enjoys “sponsored content,” and I will never write it.

By the old standards of journalism, when big media companies sent reporters out to cover events, this would have been an unthinkable arrangement. We’re in uncharted waters here, and I have been grateful that Guinness was willing to work with me on my own terms. On both of those trips, I wrote about their competitors, and I am still as happy with the stories I wrote about Guinness as I am any on the site. (Getting to meet Michael Ash in Dublin and write about his impact shortly before his death was a highlight of my writing life.)

So as we near the end of the year, the traditional time of looking backward, I’d like to note that this step up in ambition (and quality, I hope) has been due to Guinness’s support. I literally couldn’t have done it without them. Many, many thanks to folks in Dublin, New York, and now Baltimore.

As an addendum, let me note that I may add a sponsor in 2019. If you have a brewery and are interested in such an arrangement, reach out via the About/Contact page.