Publishers have been rolling out paywalls and membership programs in the hunt for a way to fund online journalism. The latest is Boston Globe Media Partners’ medicine and health news site, Stat, which is introducing a $299-a-year premium plan for professionals working in and around the pharma and biotech industries.
At launch, Stat Plus benefits will include a daily newsletter by Stat’s star pharma columnist Ed Silverman; exclusive and early looks at pharma and biotech coverage; a private Slack channel for subscribers and chats with Stat writers covering those industries, as well as exclusive invitations to events. Stat counts the size of the target market in the hundreds of thousands, and is aiming for at least 10,000 of them to sign up.
It’s a fast timetable. Politico, the fast-paced political news site whose model Stat is loosely based on, was four years in before it launched its membership model Politico Pro, and it did so with 40 people, a team the same size as its newsroom. Politico Pro starts at $5,000 a year and can exceed $100,000, depending on the level of subscription.
Stat is only one year old, and its cost puts it more in The New York Times camp than Politico’s, but it’s also putting fewer resources behind it. The publication has a full-time staff of 50 and is putting a “handful” of business- and edit side people on Stat Plus, but not all of them will be dedicated full-time to it.
It’s hard to get readers to pay for general news online, but publishers have found some success with specialized content. Stat’s readership is small (Stat claims 1.5 million monthly uniques; comScore puts it at 734,000) and is hardly a household name, but its principals say they were encouraged by the positive response they’ve gotten from readers and their indication in a survey that they’d be willing to pay for content. They also see an opportunity to charge since the media market for biotech coverage isn’t as mature or saturated as, say, technology, and people will pay for information that can help them do better at their jobs.
The vast majority of Stat’s revenue comes from native advertising; over time, the hope is for 10-20 percent of the revenue to come from events, with the rest divided equally between advertising and subscription revenue.
“It’s ambitious to do it after 12 months, but given the response from readers, we thought, let’s do it,” Stat chief revenue officer Angus Macaulay said. “It’s challenging for media brands to charge for a general interest story. But when you get to information people will use to advance their interests, there’s a different threshold.”
Like Politico (where Stat’s executive editor Rick Berke served in the same role in 2013-14, in addition to The New York Times), Stat set out by hiring established journalists such as Sharon Begley, Bob Tedeschi and Carl Zimmer to produce high-quality reporting that would be essential to professionals but reaches a broader audience by being more accessible to regular people than a traditional trade publication would be.
One way Stat does this is by covering a story like, say, opioids, from the business end but also the human perspective — “where the stories touch everybody but they have a huge impact on the industry,” Macaulay said. In this way, Stat says its on-site readership is about 50-50, while its newsletter subscribers lean professional.
“We try to shy away from commodity coverage,” Berke said. “In terms of pharma in particular, we have a type of reporting that brings a personality or tone that you can’t get from some of the other paid products.” Stat particularly sees an opportunity to attract readers with President-Elect Donald Trump’s vow to overhaul national health care.
Launching a membership program can be tricky because it puts extra human resources pressure on an organization. That’s especially true of one like Stat, which has a small staff to begin with and some people will have to pull double duty.
Berke said Stat would some reporters will contribute to both Stat and Stat Plus, and if there’s an exclusive story, Stat may decide to give it to subscribers first. But he said the kinds of stories they do won’t change, regardless of whether they go on the free site or behind the paywall, so he doesn’t foresee any conflicts of interest. “It’s not going to affect the tenor of the journalism — it’s about what bucket it goes into,” he said.