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Journalism Advice From A Musician

As you know, dear readers, I'm always looking for new or interesting business models that publications (and entrepreneurial journalists) can learn from as we try to ensure that journalism not just survives, but thrives.

So last week I reached out to a musician.  

Why? Well, I reached out to singer-songwriter Mike Doughty because he's done some interesting things on Patreon the past four years to build his own audience  -- a paying audience -- to help fund his career. And, as it turns out, he has some thoughts on the future of journalism, too.

Here's a quick look at the pricing structure of Doughty's Patreon page:
Mike Doughty's Patreon Page
Mike Doughty's Patreon Page
Doughty's "Patrons" will receive a new song from him every week for a low price of $5 a month. Four songs for $5. Not a bad deal if you dig Doughty's style of music. And people do. He currently has more than 1,000 Patrons on board and has posted hundreds of songs.

"It is fabulously successful," Doughty told me. "It has replaced income from record deals entirely. It pays the mortgage and pays for food."

For those who followed Doughty's career from his early Soul Coughing days, or for those who happened to catch one of his songs on an NPR station or online and liked what they heard, becoming a Patron is like Christmas four times a month. 

But, of course, there are the less-than-hardcore fans who also support Doughty on a monthly basis. 

"A lot of people are just voting for me to exist," Doughty said. "Certainly that's true for how I pay for journalism. I read the New York Times every day, and the Post some days and Economist and the Wall Street Journal fewer than that. They're all things I give money to. Well, the Journal through Apple News, but that's another story.

"I want them to exist," Doughty continued. "I don’t take advantage of (reading) them, other than the Times, every day.  But I want you to be there."

Doughty sees the same sort of thinking with his Patreon fanbase. Even if they're not taking advantage of listening to each and every song, they still find it worthwhile to subscribe.

That song-a-week offer is key, Doughty said. Without that incentive, he doesn't think people would be willing to give him $5 a month, if anything at all.

"It wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a quid pro quo," he said.

But at the same time, Doughty also learned that there is a sweet spot for content with his Patreon audience. For a while, he was posting new songs as soon as he created them, so the audience sometimes received more than one a week. But it turns out that was overwhelming.

"It drove subscribers away," he said. "The more I put out, the more cancellations I got."

Doughty learned to stick to the script.

"One a week is the contract, and you send out one a week," he said.
During the pandemic, Doughty found himself ahead of the curve among musicians. When touring went away, many songwriters and bands scrambled to set up online concerts on platforms like And a lot are struggling with the virtual setting.

"I am so ahead of the game," he said. "And I'm so lucky to be good at this.  And being good at this means you’re absorbed and fascinated by it and engaged with it."

But the big question: Will it work for journalists? Jarrod Dicker of the Washington Post thinks there is a strong connection between the current music industry and the future of journalism (See this and this for reference). Dicker sees individual journalists building their brands and fanbases on platforms like Substack -- much like Doughty and his Patreon fanbase -- and media companies acting more like record companies or talent agencies.

Doughty was hesitant to say that vision of journalism is a slam dunk. He still thinks there is good value in an overall journalism brand and a newsroom of journalists. He pointed to The Daily Memphian, based where he resides in Memphis, Tennessee, as an example.

"They really cover the boring shit," he said. "It’s all journalists who used to work at the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Flyer.  They go to school board meetings and know zoning laws. I don’t read every single article, but I vote for them to exist. They are well worth the $10 a month."

Doughty also said the Patreon model won't work for everything. He said to make it successful, you really need a "base of members who are intensely interested from the jump." Without that, he said, you have no way to grow a business. For him, he feels a minimum of 1,000 Patrons is key.

Even though he has found success with Patreon, Doughty is actively looking for a record company. It's not because he believes his Patreon will be short-lived, but because a record company can handle a lot of the behind-the-scene tasks (like finding someone to design an album cover) while he focuses on the creativity. (This does fall in line with Dicker's journalism vision in his Medium posts, by the way.)

"My goal is to work with a record company and have a conventional recording career, and have Patreon run parallel to it," Doughty said. "You're never going to be on a label for the rest of your life. I want to have that member base on Patreon. I feel this is a thing I can do until late in my life."

Unlike other artists who are trying to make a quick buck online during the pandemic by offering up a live show, Doughty is looking way into the future.

"I'm looking for people who will pay $5 and stay with me for a really long time," he said. "That’s my model. It works for me. Because it suits the way I work and the way I think about what I do. But I don’t know if it works for everyone."

Patreon, Substack Just the Beginning

If the idea of using tools like Patreon and Substack interest you, or you are wondering how those might fit in with what your organization is already doing, well, check out this long Twitter thread from JD Shadel:
The thread really dives deep into options that are out there and is worthy of your time.

NewStart Update

I'm so impressed by our first NewStart cohort. 

You heard a bit from Tony Baranowski last week.  

This week I'm happy to share this link announcing that Andrew Weiler is joining his hometown paper as a product developer. It's a role that is expected to grow and morph over time. So keep an eye on what happens at that Washington state weekly.

And another member of our cohort, Victor Hernandez, has been busy at his day job at Cascade Public Media. Last month the organization unveiled a new way for other media outlets to republish their stories for free. And Hernandez also penned a letter that was co-signed by numerous other public media leaders in Washington state to object to an order forcing the Seattle Times and other outlets to hand over unpublished photos and video of activists clashing with officers to the Seattle Police Department.

They've done all of this while finishing up their first course of the NewStart program. It's now on to the early Fall semester, and we can't wait to see what the entire cohort does next.

Does this sound interesting to you? If so, you should consider becoming a media entrepreneur via our NewStart program and taking over a rural publication somewhere in the country. Email me at and we can set up a phone call or Zoom meeting and chat.

If you're an owner or publisher who is grooming someone in your newsroom to eventually take over, why not enroll them in our one-year, online master's degree in Media Solutions and Innovation from West Virginia University? It would make a worthwhile investment in your publication's future.

Quick Hits

Now on to the latest news and notes from around the world of local journalism:

Learn: "Fortunately, an ecosystem is beginning to emerge among those of us who are trying to create and support digital news startups. While each of us may have different theories of change, I’m confident we’re all after the same goal: To ensure that the future of independent media is equitable, impactful and sustainable." “We had these huge numbers, and it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for us,” explained Orson Francescone, the Managing Director of FT Live. “We quickly realized that we could do something bigger and bolder.” "Here are the four most important things you should know about why Madison365 has been so successful at generating earned revenue..." "At no time in our history has the value of high-quality journalism been as clear as it is right now, at this intersection of a global pandemic and a nation in turmoil over systemic racism and inequality,” stated Michael Reed, Gannett Chairman-CEO. "Lookout doesn’t want its local news sites to be a supplement or alternative to the local daily. They aim to be the news source of record in their communities, outgunning their shrunken newsprint rivals from Day 1." "There haven’t been many friendly public service announcements in the past few months that have been kind to our physical and mental well-being. Or our wallets. We at Daily Maverick are hoping that we’ll buck the trend with this one."

This An' 'At: "Most books about the future of news examine financial alternatives to the moribund advertising-based business model. Wenzel, though, takes a different path: encouraging collaborative storytelling networks among journalists, residents, and other stakeholders. Such networks, she argues, will bolster trust and contribute to the renewal of civic life." "They wanted to know where their money was being spent," Jenkins says. "They wanted watchdog reporting. They wanted us to go beyond the basics of crime." "In this segment of E&P Reports, publisher Mike Blinder goes one-on-one with Citizen publisher J. D. Meisner to discuss small market survival during challenging times, along with their new homegrown activity page product that local readers are loving." “We’re like the oldest interns in Alaska,” Munson said, only half-joking. “I’m sure the other candidates had more experience than us, but I don’t think they had the enthusiasm we had.” "The vast majority of papers in the country have some sort of digital access plan to help fund local journalistic efforts," Free Press Editor and Vice President Peter Bhatia said. "We are grateful for the support of our readers as defined by the massive digital audience we have every day. We're asking now for a modest contribution to make sure we keep local journalism strong for our readers in Detroit and Michigan."


That's all for this week. As always, thanks for reading.

A reminder: Share your success stories! Share your innovations! You can reply to this email, or hit up NewStart on Twitter @wvunewstart, and you can @ me @jimiovino.

Be like the fine folks at the Knight Foundation and the Benedum Foundation! If you, your organization, or anyone else you know would like to fund a NewStart fellowship position or would want to offer a scholarship in Year 2, feel free to reach out to me. I'd be happy to talk! Seriously, I would love to offer more fellowships and scholarships, and you can help.

And don't forget, you can find NewStart online at

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