In 2014, Autostraddle boldly declared that A+ members were the future — and the numbers don’t lie: we were right.
Currently, support from A+ members covers about half of our entire budget, funding Autostraddle and keeping us majority free-to-read. For the past two years the other half of our budget has been covered by fundraiser support, PPP loans, merch sales through the store, affiliate links, and some ad sales that are slowly starting to come back. If you’re an A+ member, you can read specifics about our finances in our Annual Report.
Someday, I hope A+ income will cover even more than half of our budget, making us less vulnerable to fluctuations in ad sales or the whims of affiliate programs through mega-corporations. How many A+ members would that take? Not too many.
For example, to cover 75% of Autostraddle’s current annual budget, we need about 11,000 A+ members. Do I think we’ll get to 11,000 overnight? Certainly not. It’s taken us 2 years to grow from 3,700 to 6,500+ members. But…in two, three or four more years, with continued investment in sustainable growth and the kind of audience expansion that would lead to more people who could join A+, we really could get to that more-than-halfway mark.
Fundraising isn’t just part of our business model for the pandemic, it’s part of our long-term growth strategy. Every time we fundraise, we welcome hundreds of new A+ members, and we become that much more sustainable. (Is this you? Do you want to join and be a part of keeping this queer community here for all of us?)
When other publications lose revenue from a downturn in ad sales, they make cuts. When that happens to us, we fundraise, because we know that short-term cuts will lead to long-term loss for you and for us. We can’t grow our membership while publishing fewer articles or lower quality work, and we can’t expect even more from our already-small staff. If we published less and our traffic fell because of it, we’d likely lose ad revenue and then we’d just have to fundraise more! We would be even more tired! And also, publishing less, isn’t on mission for us. We want to bring you the work of more queer writers, not fewer. Doing less, as much as we’d like a break, isn’t going to help us longterm. That’s why we’re fundraising, especially so we can hire more people so we can do this work, but with more reasonable individual workloads. Here is a chart about the arts fundraising cycle. You will notice that making good art is key!
But you get it! If we lose the “Make Good Art” part, the actual heart of Autostraddle, we lose everything — you, members, ad revenue. The whole thing crumbles.
Our goal is $138,000 for a 4-month stretch, which is definitely NOT $220,000 — the amount we raised for a 5-month stretch last time. It’s a smaller gap of about ~10K a month. A+ as a concept is working, the steps we’ve taken to shore up our revenue streams are gradually working, but we still need to fundraise to make ends meet. We still need you.
A+ Is Why We Can Exist Without a Complete Paywall
In 2014, we launched A+ at a time when few programs like it existed. In the transition from print to digital, many readers had grown accustomed to endless supplies of advertiser-subsidized free content online. Very few newspapers had even instituted paywalls, while today, it’s hard to find a newspaper without a paywall.
2014 was a sweet spot for us in the zeitgeist where demand for queer content was high but also still just unpopular enough in the mainstream for our work to easily dominate search results in relevant categories — it was our best traffic year ever. For ad-supported publications, more traffic = more revenue. But for us, it was just more people with higher and higher expectations of our site despite us not having the money to meet those expectations — internally or externally.
Meanwhile, digital media companies like Buzzfeed and Mic also weren’t generating enough ad revenue to sustain their enormous budgets and rapid growth, but they had enough investment capital to float through regardless. That was their secret. Ours? Like so many queer women’s publications before us: we simply worked very long hours for very low pay. That’s what it took to get off the ground, but it wasn’t going to work long term.
So, they started Autostraddle Plus. This program that offered new, bonus content to its members but, unlike a traditional paywall, there’d be no change in the experience for non-members. We knew there’d always be people who couldn’t afford membership, but members would be paying it forward to keep it free for everyone else.
The Defector (a sports site) was paywalled out of the gate and in so doing, found themselves funded beyond their wildest dreams. That kind of model is fine for them and what they are doing. Autostraddle, though, has always been and remains a predominantly free space for everyone who needs it. That is how we do things. This is our contract with you. If you can, we ask that you support, and in return, we will remain [almost] completely free to read, which is your gift not just to us, but to all our readers.
A+ Helps Us To Be the Publication You Want Us To Be, To Change for the Better, To Grow
In her fundraiser letter, Vanessa talked about a time when she wasn’t paid for her work here, when most of Autostraddle was run by volunteers. What everyone did to get this space off the ground was monumental — the family they lived with, the extra jobs they had, the partners who supported them or put them on their healthcare, the savings that they used up — that needs to be recognized as the cost of running Autostraddle in those years. It wasn’t free. It cost a lot. We wouldn’t have Autostraddle if they, and honestly, their loved ones / friends / family / exes, hadn’t made those sacrifices. The old model was not sustainable.
I fondly (LOL) remember applying for the part-time Autostraddle gig during a time of finger numbing cold weather in October 2019, almost two years ago to the day I am writing this. At the time, Sadie and I were struggling to pull together enough money to get our gas line replaced because gas was LEAKING ALL OVER THE HOUSE. We had no heat or hot water or stove, and at that point it was the same temperature inside as it was outside (in the 40’s, Fahrenheit). Mya the dog’s breath came out in clouds in the kitchen in the morning. I was taking cold showers, wearing multiple sweaters at a time, cooking eggs in the microwave, juggling several gigs on top of my nonprofit fundraising job and absolutely not doing anything with my free time that didn’t pay. I would not, could not have applied to work here at Autostraddle (then, part-time) if the pay had been too low. Pay determines who can be in a space. If Autostraddle hadn’t been able to hire me or someone like me, too, then they wouldn’t have had someone to lead the fundraising efforts that helped to keep us afloat over the past two years and are helping to keep us here right now. Yesterday, I wrote about fundraisers being a ton of work. I can’t imagine how it would work if my coworkers had to do everything they’re doing right now and didn’t have another person to take this on. I don’t know how it would work! (THANK YOU if you’ve supported us!) Often, choosing to work at Autostraddle means taking a paycut compared to working elsewhere, and if we want people to bring their vision and talents to us, then we need to be able to offer pay and benefits that are enough so we can have the people we need to do this work. Carmen spoke to just how meaningful these new hires will be for us in her letter.
In 2014, Autostraddle had already thought of the means by which they hoped to support a budget that paid people more, that would allow more people to work at Autostraddle than the ones who could volunteer or work for incredibly low wages. That was Autostraddle Plus. Today, A+ members are doing more work than ever to make Autostraddle’s plan for a more sustainable future possible. We are grateful to them every day for that gift.
And we’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating, I think. Being reader supported means that we can take risks on content, it means we can publish pieces that exist to help some people feel seen, even if they aren’t widely read. Heather wrote a lot about this difference between creating content for robots and creating content for humans, by humans, with heart — and it’s worth a read.
If you haven’t already, will you join them?
A+ Is Still the Future
With every fundraiser, more people sign up for A+, meaning that the NEXT TIME we fundraise, we start with more A+ members. Next year, we will hopefully have a full freaking run around the sun with 6,500 or more A+ members! THAT will make a huge difference in terms of how much fundraising we’ll do in 2022. That, and the ad sales human who you all are helping us afford, will matter a lot when it comes to our future and how precarious our situation is — or isn’t. I don’t know if this has been evident, but with each new A+ member who signs up, and each time you help us stick it out through a fundraiser, you are helping us in solving both short-term and long-term problems. Thank you for that gift.
Remember the two to three years I said it would take us to get to 10,000-11,000 A+ members, if we kept going at the same rate, and if as many of you stayed members as was possible for you, or re-joined if you could? We can’t promise that our budget will stay the same, we could easily find work for five more people, but we are always, ever closer to more stability — and that’s really cool and a very rare (unheard of?) thing for independent queer media. And so in search of an analogy, I guess, like, you don’t want a half-baked cake, right? The cake is in fact baking. Imagine us on the Great British Bake-Off, or just picture Carmen baking a cake (she makes her cakes from scratch): it’s mixed, it’s in the oven. But if we are like WHY IS THE CAKE NOT DONE THIS IS A LIE and we cut the gas (or electricity if you have such a device), we lose all of our work and we also never get cake! So, I hope that makes sense. We are baking a five year cake here. We have two years done. The cake is still goopy, so I need us to see this through or else I will be really put out and also cakeless! Misery! I think cake might be my favorite food, so that just sucks!
AND FUN FACT you can help sustain us in the short-term AND ALSO help bake the cake by joining A+! It’s true! Every A+ membership counts toward our goal, and also really makes a difference, out there in the future.
As for what’s baking: besides the revenue part, we’re also constantly tweaking the actual membership part. We started pop-up Discord servers over the pandemic [want to come to the Senior Staff Discord Hang tonight at 5pm PST?], grew our A+ Advice column until it happened twice monthly, started Platinum. WHO KNOWS what our wild and caffeinated brains will compose for your enjoyment and our collective connection over the next several years. There is only one way to find out.
AND FINALLY, thanks to the suggestions of several A+ members and the awesome problem-solvers at YIKES, we now have an A+ Gift Membership Pool. People who want to contribute to the pool can pay forward a one-year Cobalt membership for someone who can’t afford one right now. Every contribution to the gift pool counts toward our fundraising goal, so if you ever wanted to drop a little dollop of A+ joy into a random gay’s life, now you can!
This membership pool aligns with the vision we’ve always held for A+. We’re never going to have a full paywall. Since we introduced A+, plenty of other publications, from The Atlantic to Wired to The New York Times and so many others have implemented Paywalls, but we will never implement a full paywall, no matter how profitable it might be. Our model is one where we trust in you, where we trust that if you value this work, you’ll pitch in, so that those who can’t join A+ can still enjoy a vast majority of everything on the site.
Our creating and visioning didn’t end when A+ started in 2014. We’re still creating something here, my friends. We’re looking around and going, yeah, there is so much more work stretched out before us, years of work of building ourselves up. And that’s okay. BECAUSE WHAT IS OVER THERE AT THE END OF THAT, IN THE FUTURE? An unstoppable publication run by queer weirdos? I think I can see the unstoppable part, just over the horizon, and the weirdos are all around me right this moment. So we have that part down. That is the dream. You, us, doing this together.
Let’s bake this future cake.