Simon Owens
Apr 24, 2018 · 19 min read
Source: Politico

ThinkProgress was founded in 2005 as an offshoot of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. What started as a bloggy website has grown into a fully staffed news organization that employs beat writers and conducts investigative reporting.

The site has generated real impact, most recently when it published a list of companies that had established corporate partnerships with the NRA. Activists seized on the list and used social media to pressure many of these companies to drop their partnerships.

I recently sat down with Judd Legum, ThinkProgress’s founding editor, and asked him about how the site operates, why it decided to leave the Medium platform, and how it managed to generate $500,000 from its readers after Trump was elected.

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.

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Simon Owens: Hey Judd, thanks for joining us.

Judd Legum: Thanks for having me.

Most of the people who listen to this podcast work in tech and media, they might not be into politics. Can you give us a brief rundown of what ThinkProgress is? It’s run under the Center for American Progress, correct?

Yes, that’s where we’re house. We’re a progressive political website. We cover the news, we do investigations, we operate as a media company. But we are based in a think tank and we’re editorially independent. It’s not a product of the think tank, it’s is own product, but we are affiliated with them.

I didn’t realize this, but you actually founded it.

I founded it back in 2005, and I was editor a for years then. I then left for four years, and then I’ve been back for a little over seven years.

That was in 2005, the heyday of the old school blogosphere, before the rise of social media. I remember ThinkProgress back when then. I had a blog and you guys linked to me once or twice. It had very short, pithy posts. What was the mandate back then? What were you doing to where you were in a position to launch this blog for the Center for American Progress? Were you working at CAP?

Yeah, I was working at CAP, and my first project here was a newsletter. We were doing that, and it basically just spun out of my interests in the emerging blogosphere. I saw Josh Marshall doing stuff and Daily Kos, and a lot of folks, just individual people out there. I thought it was really interesting, and it was an opportunity. You didn’t have to do it one time a day, like with an email, you could do it 10 times a day. And you could get all this sort of interaction and interplay between the sites, and linking was a big deal back then. Getting a link from somewhere was how you attracted new audiences and got your name out there. I just pitched it to the folks here at CAP. But it was a lot different than what you see if you go to the site today. There’s a lot of reporting and we do a lot of investigations, stuff like that. There were only three people at launch, so it was really more of a traditional blog, though we were always based on research.

You say you were working on the newsletter. Were you on the marketing team?

The newsletter was a similar thing. We would take two or three big topics a day. A lot of it at that time was on the Iraq War and what was going on. We would do rigorous analysis, taking out bits and pieces that we thought were important, trying to pull something that someone had said a year ago and put it in comparison to what they were saying today. So it wasn’t that dissimilar to what we were doing.

There are a lot of newsletters today that are similar to that. Newsletters are back. The blogosphere is gone at this point, but newsletters are back.

Back then it was a lot more bloggy. There were two or three people, and you guys were doing a bunch of curation with an added level of commentary.

That’s right. We’d take something — we’d be watching Scott McClellan, the press secretary at the White House press briefing, and we’d say ‘that’s not true.’ So we’d do the research, provide the evidence that that’s not true, and we’d put it up.

One of the things we did early on was post video clips from cable news, which seems strange to say, but there weren’t that many places doing that back then.

It was mainly just Crooks and Liars.

Yeah, Crooks and Liars, and then we started doing it.

Back then you could get a lot of traffic that way, because a lot of people weren’t tech savvy enough to host these data-intensive videos. It wasn’t like today where you could just throw the video up on Facebook.

I might be getting the timing wrong, but I don’t YouTube was around. So yes, we had to develop a system that would allow us to host videos.

How did the site morph since then? Base on my understanding, you guys do your own investigations now. You have a staff. You have beat writers. What was that evolution over the years to where you guys went from this bloggy aggregation site to something that was a little bit closer to a news site?

It was a process that happened over time, but I think the rise of social media had a lot to do with it. We used to have this section on the site called Think Fast. It was a blog post, but we would do it in like two sentences. And that was interesting, because there was no Twitter. But as social media rose and everyone was able to give very quick takes on things and very quick analysis, the space to go was to go deeper. That’s when we started building out the site, getting more reporters on, doing more phone calls, doing deeper research.

Our first foray into journalism was on-the-ground reporting, going to Iowa, going to New Hampshire and following people around and asking them questions, and getting original stuff on the site.

You have a travel budget so that if a reporter wants to go to a hotbed of activism happening somewhere, you can send them out?

We do. We have a couple reporters going out to Arizona this week and next week. There’s going to be a special election there that we think is pretty interesting. And we actually put up a post today where one of our reporters interviewed one of the candidates there, just to find out what she’s talking about from her campaign. It’s something we definitely do.

What do you feel like your mandate is? Obviously you’re a left-of-center website. But there are so many things you can focus on. Do you focus more on the activist side? The straight horse race politics? When you’re having your editorial meetings, what’s your approach?

Definitely not the horse race stuff, because I think that’s very well covered elsewhere. It’s a site about politics, and we’re looking for stories and ideas that we don’t think will appear elsewhere, or maybe will appear elsewhere, but won’t be explained or articulated in a way that will resonate with people. We’re really looking to find stories that will make an impact on the world.

Is there a mandate to incite some kind of activism? Or is it just straight information and messaging.

I don’t view us as the activists, but certainly we understand that our readers are extremely politically engaged. That’s our core readership. So often people do take action based on the stories we write, and that’s certainly something we view as a positive outcome. We were the first people to publishing a list of the NRA’s corporate sponsors right after Parkland. And that launched a whole cycle of activism, and ultimately pretty much all of the major companies, aside from FedEx, severed the relationship. That wasn’t solely because of our article, it was because people took our article, went out, and started contacting people.

I think that’s a good model for our role in the ecosystem. We went through the NRA’s website, went through Lexisnexis, tried to flush out as many of these corporate connections as we could, put them in an easily digestible format that was cited and accurate, and then things went from there.

What’s the ongoing relationship with the Center for American Progress? CAP produces a lot of research an in-house expertise. How much of that are you incorporating into your reporting and what you guys are pushing? Based on my knowledge, CAP has its separate marketing staff and pushes out its studies on its own, but do you guys work in conjunction on any of that stuff?

We don’t really work in conjunction with them, but we are here in the building, so we will use that as a resource. We’ve done a lot of reporting on taxes recently, and there are people who are experts in tax issues and economics, and so our reporters here who are covering the issue, they might call them up and have an informal discussion about what’s going on. Or something more rigorous where there’s a report that the CAP people are doing, and they’re giving us a heads up on it, and we might cover that. But it’s up to our editorial discretion. It’s actually quite rare to cover a report that CAP produces, but we will do it if we think it’ll be interesting to the readers.

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You were very early on the scene in terms of think tanks producing original content. We’re seeing more think tanks do this. Brookings, I know they have a series of podcasts. The Heritage Foundation launched The Daily Signal. What is the benefit of a think tank having a media arm that operates, in some ways, that are separate from the think tank?

I think with Heritage and some of these other think tanks is I don’t think anyone’s gotten to the point yet where they’re like us, where they let us really do our own thing, and don’t use it as a marketing tool. I think that helps you build up an audience and some credibility. I do think that, ultimately, the purpose of a think tank is to influence a conversation in a certain way. It’s not like a government, where you can actually do anything. It’s the idea of the power of information can ultimately make a difference.

Something like Think Progress, we’re able to engage on a continual basis on these discussions in a way that’s a lot more rapid than a traditional think tank pace. And I think that’s the key. If we’re covering immigration, we can hit it three times a day if that’s what is required, and then there are smart immigration folks here who are thinking about plans and policies, but they’re only going to be able to engage once in a while. Maybe they’ll be interviewed by a journalist from a more traditional publication, but it’s based on their whims.

Most of what I’m familiar with at Think Progress is text-based reporting. Are you guys doing any other kind of multi-media work?

We do have a three-person video team. We’re going to expand that by one more person. We’re trying to hire the fourth person. That’s our big multi-media push right now. We came in a little bit later to that, and I think some of the topics we cover, it’s a bit of a challenge to get them to resonate on video. But we have had some recent success on that front. We had a video of the Zuckerberg Facebook testimony, a take on that that got 10 million views on Facebook. I did a Periscope where I would interview people at March for Our Lives, and I think that had 300,000 viewers of this 30 minute live Periscope. I think we’re starting to get our sea legs a bit, but I think it’s a more challenging space for us, and I don’t think we have all of the answers.

Can you tell me a little bit about some of your biggest impact reporting?

Just recently, we did a big investigation into the investors in Robert Mercer’s hedge fund, and Robert Mercer is a billionaire investor who was also a major owner of Breitbart, and a major patron of Trump. And hedge fund investors are usually secret, but we culled through non-profit filings and other documents and created a list of 10 to 12 companies, and reported that these companies were investing in Robert Mercer’s hedge fund. We published that, and what ultimately happened was the Baltimore police and firefighter pension fund, they were prepared to withdraw from the hedge fund, and Robert Mercer resigned from his position at his hedge fund and divested from Breitbart, and cut ties with Milo.

That was in the Fall. And this year, we led the way in a lot of the NRA corporate connections. One of the things that keeps coming up in these lawsuits against Trump was one of our original reports where we reported that the Kuwait embassy, after the 2016 election, moved their scheduled annual celebration from the Four Seasons in DC to the Trump Hotel even though they had an agreement. That’s been used in a lot of these lawsuits as evidence that Trump used his position as president to profit in this personal business.

For the NRA story, you guys identified all these corporate partnerships between the NRA and companies where NRA members got special discounts. People were using your article as a reference point on social media to pressure these companies into dropping partnerships with the NRA.

As far as putting something on the internet, it was one of the more dramatic examples we’ve seen. The reason why we did it, I actually noticed, just looking at our Chartbeat numbers, people were pulling up a really old article along the same lines after Sandy Hook. I think at that time there was a hotel chain that did drop the NRA, but I think people were just searching for corporate sponsors of the NRA, and I thought, ‘Oh, let’s try to update this,’ and it did take off.

Speaking of Chartbeat, talk a little bit about your traffic sources. You were early on the scene in leveraging social media. I was at US News & World Report in 2012, and we were just starting to build out our social media stuff, and you guys were leagues ahead of us, and definitely one of the places I looked to in developing the strategy for what we were doing. Facebook has made a lot of algorithm changes lately, and it seems that the more ideological publishers are the ones that seem to be getting hurt, whereas the more mainstream publications are seeing a small boost. What have you noticed as these algorithm changes have come in?

We really started noticing things in March of 2017. Even though it really got publicized in January of this year that Facebook was making the big change, for us the big change already happened where our engagement was going down. I will say that if we have a big story, something that’s new and unique, it can still perform very well on Facebook, but definitely we’re trying to diversify our traffic sources, looking at things like Flipboard and Reddit, because Facebook is not consistent a traffic driver as it was in 2016.

Most of the changes you saw happened a year ago, you haven’t noticed much different in the last three or four months.

There may be some small decline over the last three or four months, but not nearly as big a difference we saw over 2017. The big hit we already took.

You’re trying to develop partnerships with Flipboard and Apple News. You mentioned Reddit. Obviously it has its rightwing underside, but a lot of the big subreddits have a leftward slant. How are you developing those relationships?

You have to try to respect the platform. There’s less to do. It’s not like you want to promote every article you write on Reddit. I think that would be huge mistake. But I think it’s helpful to stay in touch with their people. Reddit is definitely courting publishers more. There are folks to talk to. There are different strategies to pursue. You can set up a brand handle now, and that’s cool with the Reddit rules.

Flipboard has best practices. It’s exactly analogous to a Twitter or Facebook, where you have to feed everything, but certainly I think if you take Flipboard and Reddit, and combine it together, it’s at least on par with something like Twitter.

One thing I see you do that’s interesting is your use of tweet storms. You’ll tweet out an article, but then also you’ll have a threaded series of tweets where you go in and pull out a lot of facts and stats where you pull out stuff from the article. And then every single threaded tweet you link back to the article. Tweets are fleeting since they float down the feed so quickly. Do you see that as an effective way of driving traffic and keeping the tweets fresh?

Yeah. On Twitter, even as Facebook declined, our Twitter traffic is higher than it’s ever been. And I think that reflects the fact that the quality of our content is getting better, but also algorithmic changes on Twitter have helped us, because they’re surfacing things that get higher engagement. And I think those threads are effective because, on Twitter, you’re really looking at the algorithm as flavoring engagement, and so if you break out the story into different pieces, you’re giving different ways for people to engage with the story. Maybe someone’s interested in the headline, but maybe someone’s interesting in the third subpoint, and the more engagement you can get overall, the better off you’re going to be.

Buzzfeed reported that it used to be that Facebook was sending four times as much traffic as Twitter, and now it’s down to 2.5 times as much. So Twitter seems to be rising as an important traffic driver. And even though its monthly active users number has stagnated, its daily active users are up. It’s always been mocked by publishers as just a place that journalists hang out, but it doesn’t drive a lot of traffic. Do you think it’s becoming a more and more important distribution platform?

I do. We get significant traffic from it. I was just looking at our stats for last week. I think it’s less than two to one of Facebook over Twitter for us. For a site that’s our size, and if you look at the last couple years, we get six to 10 million visits a month, it can be a very significant source of traffic, especially if something gets really going. I think Facebook, with their changes, it’s still very important, but it’s not the dominant force it once was. That’s not a knock on them. It’s just the direction they decided to go.

In terms of other distribution methods, you guys were one of the publications that Medium courted to go on their platform. What kind of difference did you see? There was a lot of reporting that traffic was down for many publishers on Medium, but then Medium pushed back and said Comscore wasn’t capturing a lot of the in-app traffic. What did you notice in terms of how good it was at helping with distribution?

It’s a little hard for me to say because we switched on to there right as Trump won the election. We really had some of our best months on Medium because it was just such an unusual news environment. We switched on in August 2016, and then were on for a year, and I think for the first month we were on, they were having some problems with the meta tags with their data that did hurt us for the first month, but after that, I don’t think it hurt us really at all. I think it was fine for that purpose.

And then Ev Williams was guaranteeing ad revenue and had these revenue guarantees, and then he famously pivoted to this new subscription platform, screwing over a lot of these media partners that signed these with them. What was your motivation for leaving? Was monetization part of the factor?

The reasons we got on were no longer there. What was interesting to me was less the guaranteed money, we always knew that was a temporary thing. But it was more that they had a very compelling model. A site our size, I don’t aspire, and we’re never going to have, a 12-person sales team to sell ads. So the value was that we go on the platform — they did have a lovely CMS — and then Medium will handle the ads for us, they’ll take a cut for the trouble, but we’ll still do better than when we were on our own. That sounded good to me, but by the time they left, they were no longer doing the ads anymore. It was unclear to me what our future really could be. Because we’ve always been reliant on a certain percentage of our ad revenue to generate from advertising.

What platform did you move to?

We went back to WordPress.

What’s your responsibility from a funding perspective? Is ThinkProgress required to pay for itself?

We get some report from CAP, but mostly we try to pull our own weight. We certainly have support, but the idea is that we’re identifying funding streams for the people who work here.

Do you do advertising? And if so, what kind?

We have a business person who does everything, including advertising. Which effectively means for our advertising it’s programmatic. We do have an ability to run campaigns that aren’t programmatic, but we basically just take it as incoming, because we just don’t have the infrastructure to go our and pitch.

After Trump was elected, you launched a membership program. How did that happen? And what was the motivation behind that?

It came a little bit later than that. We did do a campaign around a Trump accountability fund around his win. We weren’t seeking memberships, we were seeking one-time donations. It was just a product of noticing very intense interest in the site at that time, and intense interest in progressive sources of news. That was successful for us. I think we raised about $500,000 in that process. From about November to January.

But one thing I realized after that was it’s hard to figure out how to project forward with that, because you’re never going to have that moment again when Donald Trump gets elected. How do you know you’ll get that amount every year? And just looking at what was going on last year, we pivoted over to memberships and really encouraging the monthly donations. That way we could see how many monthly donors we have, we can calculate a churn rate as people drop out. But we’ll be able to know this is how much we’re bring in per month, and we can start planning around that.

You’re not doing a meter paywall. You’re doing a membership program where most of the stuff is free. What entices people to subscribe?

Basically nothing. It’s about wanting to support the site. Our basic appeal is here’s the kind of work we’re doing. Here’s the kind of impact we’re having. If this is important to you, we need your help. That’s why people join the membership. Everything is free. You basically have the exact same experience.

We started a Facebook group for members, but we may be winding that down, because with all the news about Facebook, we’re getting members who don’t want to be associated with the Facebook group these days. So I don’t know if that’s something we’ll want to continue in the long term.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, he has a membership program, but he offers exclusive content. Political Wire, they do exclusive content. You don’t offer any extras. What’s the motivation for someone subscribing? Is it purely a form of activism for them?

I think it’s them saying they think this work is important. We’re honest with people about what’s happening with programmatic advertising. It’s not working as a support mechanism for journalism, particularly progressive journalism. Google and Facebook are just gobbling up a lot of the ad market. If you want to support this kind of work, you want to have a direct relationship with the readers. Sometimes I do those threads you were talking about on Twitter, where I say here’s what we did on Monday, here’s what I did on Tuesday, if this is something you want more of, we need your help. And we’ve gotten memberships that way.

I don’t know if you have a measurement person who is measuring this. Something like the New York Times has an entire measurement team that is trying to see what calls to action generates the most subscribers. What are you seeing that converts subscribers? Where are you seeing the subscriber growth happening?

The calls to action at the end of the articles are a very steady source of subscribers. We generally get 10 to 15 a day just from that spot down there. As I was saying before, we have an email list that’s very substantial, and we’ll make various appeals on that list. We have our social media as well, and for us, people really want to hear what we’re doing. We also let people into this idea that because of the controversies surrounding politics these days, and the racial elements of things, these third party groups are essentially giving the advertisers the ability to block out political content, and we’ve gotten wrapped up in some of that. I think that’s another reason some of our yields are down for programmatic advertising. And people responded to that as well.

I wrote an article about this, about advertisers getting a little bit more aware of their programmatic ad buys, and are trying to steer clear of anything but pure entertainment content. Facebook and Google are also gobbling up more and more digital ad growth. Do you think this is the future for political journalism?

I do. We’ve only been going at this since November. We already have 3,000 members right now, some of whom are giving us well over the $5 minimum we set. I think we’re projecting, if you just look at a linear growth rate, that it’s going to be a larger sources of revenue than advertising. This is the future for funding the work we’re doing. I’d love to one day just fund all of our work and we take all the ads off our site. That would be great.

You’ll be pulling more money from memberships than advertising by the end of this year?

That’s what I’m told with our current projections.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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Tech and media journalist. Email me: simonowens@gmail.com

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