How to fund a new Southern voice
Feb 02 2016
Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series about people experimenting with new revenue models in media.
Most full-time magazine staffers don’t include tutoring high school students on their weekly agenda. But for Evan Walker-Wells, co-founder of Scalawag magazine, it’s one of the side jobs he’s used to make a living since the magazine’s first issue in June 2015.
Getting into the magazine industry isn’t easy. For the seventh year in a row in 2014, overall magazine circulation fell, according to Pew Research Center. At Scalawag, the permanent staffers — including Walker-Wells — have yet to be paid.
But armed with modern revenue strategies, the Scalawag staffers hope to quash typical expectations of print media.
Scalawag is a nonprofit quarterly magazine with a focus on stories about the South. It was created in response to a lack of serious long-form journalism and commentary about the region, said co-founder Jesse Williams.
It was about two and a half years ago that Williams and Sarah Bufkin, two of the original co-founders, came up with the idea for Scalawag. Weary of hackneyed coverage of the South, they decided to introduce a new voice to the region.
They called the magazine Scalawag, referencing the white Southerners who supported Reconstruction in the late 19th century. The new Scalawags are more diverse than the white men of the Reconstruction era, but their goal is the same: make the South more than a stereotype.
Born from crowdfunding
Scalawag is organized as a nonprofit, which makes it accountable to readers and potentially insulated from the rapidly-changing journalism industry, Walker-Wells said.
So far, the bulk of Scalawag’s funding has come from crowdfunding via Kickstarter.com, Walker-Wells said. The magazine earned just over $30,000 in a March 2015 campaign.
That didn’t come without a lot of planning. Before the campaign went live, the Scalawag team sent out emails to initial donors.
“We had a select group that we were 90 percent sure would pledge that first day,” he said. By the second day of the campaign, those existing donations helped prospective donors feel like they were joining a winning campaign.
Then using Boomerang, an email scheduling service by Gmail, the team sent 300 emails in the course of a few hours to everyone they could get in contact with, from fellow journalists to friends and family.
“We thought $20,000 was a reach goal, but we decided at the last minute to increase it,” Walker-Wells said. “We reached $20,000 in the first 10 days.”
Though the crowdfunding money is the largest lump sum the magazine has received, other donations continue to come in, Williams said.
“We have a lot of individual donors across North Carolina and throughout the South,” he said. “Not million-dollar baggers, you know, just regular people who have been very supportive of what we’re doing.”
A startup called Racery also donated free office space in Durham.
‘A good-looking magazine’
The co-founders decided that in addition to posting stories online, they would create a quarterly print publication.
Walker-Wells said having a print edition was in part a business decision.
“We want to foster an inclusive conversation around Southern politics and culture, and if you have a good-looking magazine or book you can sell it to literally anyone,” he said.
Scalawag is sold in 30 bookstores in 14 states and Washington, D.C. Walker-Wells said the magazine also has partnerships with institutional libraries and is looking into other places to sell, including coffee shops.
The magazine also has about 600 subscribers. “Subscriptions represent a major income source that continues to go up,” Walker-Wells said. A gift campaign in December led to about 200 new subscriptions, about half of which were gifts.
He added that Scalawag is also applying for grants.
Walker-Wells says it’s vital to pay Scalawag’s writers.
“People gave us this money and trusted us to make a good publication,” he said. “And that for us means from the get-go it was important to pay our writers.”
Cheney Gardner, a recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, wrote a story for an independent study class about the Haw River. Her professor turned it in to be published in Scalawag.
“It was so surprising when they emailed me back,” Gardner said. “And then they chose it for their cover story — it was my first cover story.”
Gardner said she was paid between $400 and $500 for her 3,000-word-long story.
“My story was already written, so (the pay) was kind of the icing on the cake,” she said, adding that she would have been paid more by a more established news organization.
But part of the fun she had with being published in Scalawag was the editing process, she said. At news organizations she has written for since, Cheney said the editing process was mostly hands-off.
“With Scalawag I was with them the whole time, and I think it really matters to them to have the writer’s voice in the story,” she said.
Gardner said one of the most welcoming aspects of the process was the team.
“They have a really well-rounded crew that was working on my story,” she said.
At the heart of Scalawag’s success is diversity, which comes from both the full-time staff and the contributing writers.
“One of the things we’ve set out to do is to lift up voices that often are left unheard from the mainstream conversation,” Williams said. “We’re able to articulate perspectives and ideas that haven’t been heard about the South in past.”
For Walker-Wells and Williams, it’s a moral obligation to make sure their writers get paid. But they themselves have yet to see a paycheck. Their other staffers, who primarily work in the editing process, volunteer between five and 10 hours a week.
When might they pay themselves?
That’s still an open question, Walker-Wells said: “We’re a young team and a lot of things in our lives are changing, and that’s one of the big questions for us in 2016.”