For a few years, Ben Cohen was living the dream. His political opinion site, The Daily Banter, was growing in leaps and bounds, generating enough traffic and ad revenue to support several full-time writers. At its height, the site was getting upwards of 6 million unique visitors a month, fueled in large part by readers sharing his content on Facebook.
But you probably know what happened next. In January 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was pivoting away from news, and that publishers would see a decline in exposure in the Newsfeed. Virtually overnight, Cohen saw his Facebook traffic drop by 90%.
He tried to hold out as long as he could, but eventually Cohen reached a point where he either had to radically change his business model or shut down the website completely. In the end, he did both. He shut down his website and launched a newsletter. Sign up, and you received two free newsletters a week. Pay a little extra, and you got two additional newsletters.
I recently interviewed Cohen about what went into his decision to pivot and how his readership responded to the announcement.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Simon Owens: Hey Ben, thanks for joining us.
Ben Cohen: Thanks very much, Simon.
You edited a website that was once called The Daily Banter and is now called The Banter. I guess the best way to describe it is a left-of-center political opinion site. How did it start?
I started it as just that, but it was a little bit further to the left when I was running it back in 2007, when I first started it as a standalone blog. It grew, and I brought on other writers, and it kind of morphed into something bigger. I put money into it as well.
It started out really bloggy, right? Eventually what it morphed into is that every article published on it was a fully-fleshed opinion piece.
Right. We went from blogger to a professional media outlet. We had an editorial team. We ensured articles were properly sourced. We positioned ourselves as a player in the game, in the industry.
As it matured, you started to think about this being a real business rather than just another blog that you were using to blow off steam. When did it reach a point when you started thinking about how it could become a full-time business?
About 2011, 2012, I thought that this could be something full-time. I thought there was a space in the industry for new players to emerge. That’s when I thought this is when I could take my shot. The traffic grew very quickly. It grew month after month after month. We were growing by 10 percent every month for at least two or three years. At that point it looked like we might be able to turn it into a profitable business. It went through various iterations. I had to cut my staffing down after three years. And after I did that, it did become a profitable business. That was until 2018 when Facebook changed their Newsfeed algorithm, and that cut a huge amount of our traffic, and then it stopped being a profitable business again.
2011, 2012, that just happens to be when Facebook poured the gas on news publishers. I was working at major magazine at the time. We just saw Facebook traffic going through the roof. It seems like you were chugging along and you started noticing this trend too where traffic started growing exponentially, and I’m guessing a lot of that came through Facebook, because I remember back then that you had a lot of viral hits.
Yeah, we were getting tons of viral hits. We were getting shared by tons of huge pages, and our page was growing fairly quickly and getting lots of traction. Yeah, I think it fairly coincided with that. We invested a lot of time and money into Facebook because that’s where we were getting a lot of traction.
You started out with an advertising-based model. Over the years that evolved as you tried different strategies. Can you walk use through the different iterations you had in terms of how you were approaching advertising? I remember at one point you were signing on with different advertising networks. At one point you tried to hire a full-time advertising sales person. At another point you joined a network called Say Media where they found all the advertising for you. What were the different iterations you were seeing over the years?
We first started out with ad networks. We were using a mixture of Adsense and other kinds of third party ad networks. We had a relationship with one network called Investing Channel, for example, that primarily ran ads on financial blogs but it decided to work with us. We would get reasonable revenue from that, but it was only sustainable when you got massive, massive traffic from Facebook. We would jump between ad networks, we had some ad partnerships work out, some didn’t. They’d work out for a few months or a few years before we’d have to switch them out because the ads weren’t performing anymore.
And some of these networks were sort of shady, right? You were doing all this on Wordpress. Weren’t there times where it was breaking your website? You’d wake up one day and your website wasn’t working because there were some abusive ads that the network was running?
Right. We’d often find out that the ads actually hadn’t been active on the page. We’d get a viral hit. We’d have half a million people come on the site but no ad revenue because the ad network had gone down, for whatever reason. Trying to get the grips with the tech aspect of it and the content side of it became too much to handle. So we moved to a partnership with Say Media in 2015. Say Media had a professional ad revenue team that handled that for us. That was our most successful iteration of our business model.
Say Media had their own publishing platform. They also sold ads for the publisher. It seemed like a pretty sweet deal. You just had to focus on what you did best, which was the writing, and then they would handle the publishing platform, so if you had any tech problems — I remember you had some problems with Wordpress where you’d update to a new version of Wordpress, and if some plugin hadn’t updated to that new version, then it could crash the site. Whereas Say Media had its own tech team. It took a lot of the stress out of your life.
Exactly. I spent countless hours trying to figure out what had gone wrong with our ads, why a certain ad wasn’t running, why a certain ad wasn’t performing, why a plugin had broken the ad. It wasn’t a particularly useful way to spend my time.
Say Media eventually shut down, right? What happened with them?
Say Media is still around. They partnered or were acquired by Maven. It has a whole network of sites, and they’re trying to fill a bit of a Facebook void and build a new platform for content to be distributed across their network.
Tell me about the golden age of The Daily Banter when it was kind of at its peak in terms of traffic. You had three main writers. You, this guy Bob Cesca, and this other guy, Chez Pazienza, who sadly passed away a few years ago. When you were humming along, what were you seeing in terms of traffic, viral hits, and what was it like to be a publisher during those years when Facebook was sending a lot of traffic?
It was very exciting. At one point we had a team of five or six full-time writers. We had a guy, Tommy Christopher, who would go down to the White House and report from there. I think our best month was about 6 or 7 million unique visitors to the site in one month. That was the peak of our traffic. When we partnered with Say Media, we were bringing in substantial revenue. That’s when Facebook opened up their ad platform as well. That allowed us to generate significant amounts of revenue.
And it was very exciting. We were part of the national conversation. We were being cited by every major publication. We were getting viral traffic all the time. We were constantly getting in fights with people in the media. That brought attention. Not all of it was nice attention. We were being talked about. I guess they say any news is good news.
A lot of that traffic was driven by a small number of viral hits. You were playing that viral slot machine where you write piece after piece, and one out of every five pieces would take off and hit whatever sweet spot the Facebook algorithm was looking for. And then you would get massive traffic on a single piece.
The goal wasn’t to write viral content. That wasn’t the goal. I recognized in about 2013 or 2014 that just having viral traffic wouldn’t be a sustainable business strategy. We had a membership program where we’d have more in-depth content for paying members. We always hoped for the viral hit. Sometimes the articles would be quite provocative. We’d post it and hope that it’d go viral. That was never the strategy itself, but we played the game, for sure.
You also introduced a paid subscription component. When was that? You also played around with different ways of approaching it. At one point you had a metered paywall, but you ditched that pretty quickly. And then you created this Sunday magazine where, if you were a paying subscriber, you’d get this extra, well-designed publication delivered once a week.
We tried virtually everything. Every iteration of a paywall, we tried it. We had a meter at one point, and then we’d lock individual articles. Then we delivered a magazine once a week. We tried everything we could to create a valuable product to our readers. It took a lot of tweaking, a lot of experimenting.
One strategy would work for six months, and then it’d just stop working. So we’d switch and try something else.
Where did you feel that your sweet spot was, at least back then?
The sweet spot for us was the locked articles. You’d have most the stuff as free, and then 20 percent would be behind the paywall.
So people would be browsing through your site. They’d open up articles. The vast majority of articles were completely free, but every now and then they’d click on a headline and it’d say ‘this is part of our membership program, in order to read this, you have to pay up.’
That’s very similar to the approach of Talking Points Memo. I interviewed Josh Marshall once, and he said that’s where he saw most of his conversions, publishing subscription-only articles to the website, and then people would eventually get tired of hitting that paywall and then open up their wallets and start paying.
Exactly. That’s where we found our sweet spot.
You benefited from a Trump Bump in 2016. After he won, you wrote this rousing essay about how The Daily Banter was going to become part of The Resistance, and if you wanted to support The Resistance, you need to pay to subscribe to our publication.
In the wake of the victory, I was thoroughly depressed by the outcome. I took a tour of the White House with a friend of mine who worked in the Obama administration. She told us to come down, assuming Hillary Clinton was going to win. Trump won. We went down there anyway, and it was like visiting a morgue. It was pretty depressing. And then, it kind of inspired me to write this piece and say, listen, this is pretty bad, but we’re going to put all of our effort into combating this administration.
It inspired a huge avalanche of members who signed up after reading this article.
[LIKE THIS ARTICLE SO FAR? THEN YOU’LL REALLY WANT TO SIGN UP FOR MY NEWSLETTER. IT’S DELIVERED ONCE A WEEK AND PACKED WITH MY TECH AND MEDIA ANALYSIS, STUFF YOU WON’T FIND ANYWHERE ELSE ON THE WEB. SUBSCRIBE OVER HERE]
Would you say that, at that point, the majority of your income was still from advertising?
Yeah, the majority of the income was advertising based. It was maybe 80/20.
That was around the time Facebook had an awakening. They were horrified by all the news reports of how its platform was manipulated. That was the beginning of its awakening when it contemplated whether it wanted to be involved in news publishing all that much after all. It started to tweak the algorithm at that point.
And then in early 2018, Mark Zuckerberg came out with this post basically saying ‘we’re shifting our priorities, we’re no longer going to focus on news. We’re going to drastically decrease news in the Newsfeed and focus on posts from friends and family.’ Tell me about what you were seeing with your traffic as Facebook was making these changes.
Our experience was fairly traumatic. It had been steadily declining over 2017. And that definitely had to do with Facebook tweaking their algorithm. And then it was in February or March, all of a sudden the pages we were posting on just went dead. Our page did a bit better. Nobody knows really how the algorithm works, but I’ll tell you what we saw. I’d post something on our Facebook page, and usually you’d see an immediate return in traffic. You’d check it on Google Analytics and you’d see how the article was playing. All of a sudden, we’d post something to our Facebook page, and despite the metrics on Facebook saying ‘you’ve reached X number of people,’ you’d see nothing on Google Analytics. There’d be almost no bump at all.
It would claim that it was showing your post to a whole bunch of people, but nobody was clicking on that link.
Yes. I just now inherently distrust Facebook. I got into a Twitter fight with Adam Mosseri, who was the head of the Newsfeed. I said ‘where’s all my traffic gone?’ and he said ‘oh, you should have only seen a 25 percent decline.’
But it was closer to 90 percent for you, right?
Yeah. About 90 percent of our traffic from Facebook disappeared.
And did you see some of that loss made up from other areas? Some publishers saw a sharp increase from Twitter traffic or from news apps, but that traffic wasn’t replaced in any way for you?
We did see more traffic coming from Twitter and Google, but not enough, nowhere near enough to make up for the loss from Facebook. And also we were part of Facebook’s advertising program, so that was bringing in a significant amount of revenue for us as well. It decimated our traffic. Decimated our revenue. I could cover my costs, but not more.
So your advertising just tanked.
It completely collapsed.
A few months ago you announced that you were abandoning The Daily Banter as a website and converting it into a newsletter. Walk me through your thinking as you were leading up to this announcement.
I tried absolutely everything to try to pull our way out of the mess. I wanted to keep our team intact, keep paying them, and I held out for as long as I could, and just watched the traffic continue to decline. We saw a little bit of a reversal, but not enough. We weren’t in an election cycle. We were in the midterms, but it’s really a general election cycle that drives significant traffic. So the recovery wasn’t anywhere near enough. I couldn’t pay myself anymore. After about a year, I just came to the conclusion that there’s no point in continuing doing this.
Let’s say I got rid of the staff and just did it by myself. I’d have to work insanely hard to just bring in a small amount of income. I wanted to find a way of keeping the heart of what we were doing, but basically accepting the fact that the advertising model for The Banter’s content just wasn’t there anymore.
You were contemplating a couple different things. At one point you were considering whether you could make a living through consulting.
Yeah, I thought maybe I could become a consultant and help other people who had more resources than me but were in the same kind of mess. Because if I had resources — if you’re well-capitalized, you can ride out these gigantic fluctuations in traffic. But I’m not BuzzFeed and I don’t have access to huge amounts of venture capital. So I thought that could be a way of doing it. I just really decided that that’s not what I wanted to do.
You eventually went with this platform called Substack. What made you choose that platform?
I saw some writers I respected go onto this platform. I looked at the platform. I signed up for some of the newsletters they were running. And I just thought this was a really simple, clever way of doing it. And this was also a refuge from the social media giants. They can’t touch me here. Twitter and Facebook cannot get to us. They cannot affect my traffic because everything’s on email. So if you want to read us, if you want to read these writers, you have to be on email, and it goes straight to your inbox. No algorithm can mess with that.
The cool thing about Substack is it has a really nice CMS. It’s a publishing platform where you can actually publish articles to the web. Any free article that isn’t behind the paywall is published just like a normal article like you would to your own website. But it also makes it really easy for people to subscribe via email. I think that’s how a lot of people consume Substack articles — the entire article is being delivered to the inbox. And that’s what you’re talking about; the inbox, because it’s decentralized across a lot of different platforms, there’s no algorithm that controls it.
It also allows for this paid component. You start by getting people subscribed to the free version, and then you start trying to convert them into paying members so they get extra emails that are only sent to their inboxes if they’re paying subscribers. You basically moved 100 percent away from ads. You already had some paying subscribers, and you just went all-in on having a subscription business model.
I thought, you know what, if I’m going to do this, I need to do it properly. I can’t have it as an extra thing. I posted an article saying, ‘we’re closing The Daily Banter, we’re no longer going to be publishing here, we’re publishing exclusively to an email newsletter.’ We had no idea what would happen. Had no expectations as to what would happen.
And you made a little bit of news within the media industry because a lot of people were watching for publishers that were shutting down because of Facebook. How much traffic did that article draw?
It was one of our biggest articles we’ve published. It drew a lot of traffic. A lot of people took note of what was happening, and likewise we got a huge bump in newsletter subscriptions, both the free version of the newsletter and the paid version. Which was nice. It was a nice sign that people cared about us and cared about what we were doing and wanted to keep hearing from us.
It was pretty dramatic, but I figured there was no other way. I had basically exhausted all other options, and at that point I was ready to walk away from the whole thing.
So tell us what your publishing schedule looks like now.
It’s much more muted. It’s calmed down significantly. It used to be that I’d be writing two pieces a day. And I’d be editing at least one or two articles from the other writers every day. The workload was insane, and I felt like the last year or so, my brain was scrambled, and I wasn’t taking as much care as I should have been over articles and what we were publishing. There were a lot of mistakes being made where I didn’t have the energy to either see them or correct them. And that’s not a good place for a publisher to be in. I knew that, in the next iteration, that had to calm down dramatically. This was no longer a sprint, this is a marathon. We wanted to go for much higher quality pieces, as opposed to volume.
Now we’re publishing about one piece a day. It’s four to five in-depth pieces a week. And two of those are paid and two of those are free.
I’m guessing your free distribution list is much bigger than your paid distribution list, and your goal is to get people addicted to the free stuff, and then eventually, as they get more and more loyal, to convert them. Obviously a big conversion point was when you made that big announcement. You were able to convert your already-existing audience into paying subscribers. What’s your conversion look like now? How are you making that convincing argument to try to get people to convert into paying subscribers.
It’s slowed down since the beginning. I think a lot of this stuff is seasonal. We’re not in an election cycle. We’re approaching Summer, when, traditionally speaking, nothing happens, and people aren’t as interested in news. It’s slowed down. But it has been fairly consistent. It’s a hopeful model. It’s a slow model. You’re not going to generate a thousand readers overnight.
How are you converting them? What calls to action are you using? If I’m reading your free version, at what point am I getting the pitch to convert into a paid subscriber?
We’ve tried different strategies. At the beginning of the piece and at the end of the piece you’re reminded that this is a free version of the newsletter, if you want to become a subscriber, you can get the rest of the articles we publish. We offer a free month trial as well. That seems to be quite popular.
You also show the headlines of the subscription articles so they can see what they’re missing.
How do you decide what gets published to the web for free versus what gets sent to paying subscribers?
That’s an interesting one. Over the years, I’ve discovered that you have no idea what’s going to entice people to pay. There’s absolutely no way of knowing what article is going to convert. There’s been articles I was sure people would convert on, that didn’t do anything. And then there were articles where I thought that nobody was going to subscribe to this, and they do. A lot of people subscribe after just reading the free articles.
And when you’re decided whether to make an article free, are you thinking in your head ‘is this piece likely to go viral? This might have a chance of taking off on social media and elsewhere’? Are you calculating that in your head?
Sometimes, yes, and sometimes I have to fight my own instincts and accept that I don’t know. I don’t know, and we’re going to publish two pieces for free, and two pieces paid, and that’s it, basically. I try not to discern between them too much.
Can someone easily hit ‘reply’ and reply to the emails? Can people comment using the Substack platform? What kind of interaction with your audience are you seeing?
They can reply to the email and email me directly. Or they can comment on the actual article itself. It’s really easy to interact with people.
Have you introduced any reader mail feature or something like that?
We’ve published comments that readers sent into us a couple times. That could be something to consider in the future. We don’t want to bombard people with emails. That’s another thing I want to be careful about, bombarding people with multiple emails per day. Some people seem to want that. I sent an email out saying, hey look, what would you prefer to see? We got a 50/50 response. About 50 percent said they want fewer emails, while 50 percent said they want more.
It’s been a few months for this to percolate and grow. Obviously you had a subscriber base before you launched the newsletter. Now you’re settled down. Where are you now compared to where you were when Facebook traffic was at its peak and you were under the advertising model?
We’re nowhere near to that. We’re nowhere near to where we were in terms of revenue. We’re publishing far less. My costs have gone down significantly. I obviously hope to reach where we were at before, but we were on an insane schedule at our peak, and it was extremely stressful. This is no longer a full-time occupation. I can afford to focus on other things as well. And I need to adjust accordingly. It’s bringing in revenue, and it’s great for what we’re doing. We can sustain it. It’s not a full-time living, that’s for sure.
This wasn’t a panacea switching to this model.
Do you have any projections, based on current growth, for when you could reach that point again?
I’ve been doing this a long time and have watched subscription numbers come and go. Some months they go up, some months they go down. I also know it’s quite difficult to predict these things. You’ve also got churn rate. People unsubscribe. I’m not going to treat this as becoming a full-time publication again. I’m going to treat this as I’m going to do my best, I’m going to write what I like to write about, and try to make as good a product as we possibly can, and if the subscribers come, they come, and if they don’t, I’m pretty happy with what we have at the moment. In this industry, if you have a different attitude — if you’re backed by big money, that’s one thing, but if you’re an independent publisher, for your mental sanity, I think that’s the best way to approach it.
We’re heading quickly toward another presidential election year. That’s going to be big for politics publishers. Do you think that could be a point where you start seeing a huge pickup again?
I’m pretty certain we’re going to see a huge pickup in subscriptions when the presidential politics start kicking into gear. That’s probably not going to happen for another six months. It doesn’t really heat up until the end of the year. Yeah, I predict that’ll happen, but I’m not going to base my livelihood on it. I’m not putting it into the bank.
You publish two pieces a week for free. Do you ever see viral liftoff anymore with these pieces where they still take off on Facebook?
Yeah. We see things take off. On email you can tell the open rate is much higher. And we still post things to Facebook, and we know our stats on Substack as well. They give us some indication of how many people are visiting the article. But I’m not interested in traffic anymore. I’m interested in how many are becoming email subscribers. If something takes off, you’ll probably get some more email subscribers out of it. But the difference between traffic and subscription numbers is not often related.
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