Is there an audience for a center-right news publication focused on original reporting and analysis? That's the proposition that The Dispatch set out to test when it launched last October, and the early results are promising. The startup says it's now approaching 10,000 paying subscribers, adding up to more than $1 million in annualized revenue.
Editor and CEO Stephen Hayes (former editor in chief of the now-defunct Weekly Standard) told me that his vision for The Dispatch was to "slow down the news cycle." That doesn't mean ignoring the day's headlines. But rather than just recycling the same stories about, say, Bernie Sanders or the COVID-19 pandemic, The Dispatch aims to "take a breath" and try to approach important news in a fresh way.
In order to do that, Hayes said that building a subscription business with newsletter-focused digital media platform Substack (the Substack team also handles all of The Dispatch's technical and product needs) was key.
"We're not trying to monetize eyeballs," he said. "What Substack was doing fit pretty much exactly with what we wanted to build — a company with an editorial-first philosophy."
As part of that strategy, The Dispatch has gradually been rolling out its membership program and paywall. At launch, it offered a lifetime membership ($1,500), then added an annual membership ($100) when it launched its full site in January, and finally introduced a paywall and a monthly membership ($10) less than a month ago.
Hayes said it's been largely "an ad hoc process" of figuring what should and shouldn't go behind the paywall. Apparently, one piece of advice that has been helpful is, "Don’t hide your good stuff behind the paywall. You need to be serving some of your best, most substantive work in front of the paywall, so that you get people into the top of the funnel."
On top of its paying subscribers, Hayes said The Dispatch is reaching about 60,000 people with its newsletters. And it's partnering with podcast company Sounder, with plans to participate in Google's Play Me The News program for Google Home, where it will offer short-form audio news stories.
The startup has also raised $6 million in funding from individual investors (none of it comes from venture capital firms).
Hayes acknowledged that one of the constant questions he had to answer during the fundraising process was whether he was aiming for too narrow an audience — namely, the #NeverTrump slice of the political right.
It might look that way on "the traditional political spectrum," but in Hayes' view, it's more accurate to see the spectrum as a "hardcore 15 percent" on the left and another 15 percent on the right that's "more partisan than ideological" and will root for their party no more what. And while The Dispatch is "unapologetically center-right," he's hoping to appeal to the remaining 70 percent, who are looking for a publication that can "help you make sense of all this stuff that doesn't make sense," regardless of political leanings.
The Dispatch is in many ways the flagship among full-fledged news organizations built on Substack, but the list of publications now includes Asia Sentinel, Let's Go Warriors and Write for California. The startup is also announcing that it's now reaching more than 100,000 paying subscribers across its platform.
Substack CEO Chris Best said that The Dispatch's success so far shows that there's "a hunger out there."
He added, "Are readers willing to pay for something that helps them make sense of the world and adds value to their lives? I think the answer is unequivocally yes."