Case Study: How the American Prospect Grew Its Revenue and Site Traffic Without Losing Site of Its Mission

Original article from MetroPublisher.com viewable here.

“We are creating a journal about what America is becoming and what it can be,” wrote The American Prospect’s founders in 1989. Read how the current publisher of the storied Washington D.C.-based magazine used a digital overhaul to continue that vision.

Steph Zimmerman, October 12, 2020 6:00 PM

July/August 2020 cover

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The American Prospect has been busy. Within the past two years, the team at the progressive political magazine switched publishing platforms and launched a brand new reader membership program. Updating software and leaning more on reader-driven revenue has helped the magazine weather the coronavirus-induced storm, allowing it to continue to be “an independent voice for liberal thought.”

“Reclaim A Tradition”

The American Prospect was founded in 1989 by three college professors and journalists interested in, according to their mission statement, “reformulating a liberal public philosophy and new directions for public philosophy.” The sponsorship of ideas and building of intellectual institutions was a job, the founders argued, that conservatives had honed and deployed successfully a decade prior. Liberals needed to start building a similar infrastructure.

“We are creating a journal about what America is becoming and what it can be—the deep-set patterns in our national life, the risks and choices we confront, and the paths we ought to take,” the founders wrote.

This mission-driven and politically engaged approach would be the foundation of the journal’s strategy throughout the decades. (One of the co-founders, Robert Reich, later went on to become Secretary of Labor during President Bill Clinton’s first term.) 

Digital Pioneers

Web 1.0 was coming to fruition around the time of the magazine’s launch, and The American Prospect was an early Internet adopter.

“Some pretty renowned political reporters got their start at The Prospect,” says current publisher Ellen J. Meany, “like Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, like Ezra Klein who works at Vox now. They were using TheProspect website early on to blog. It started off as a political blog and slowly they built up the archive and got all the magazine content online.”

Recently, it became clear to Meany and her team that the technology behind the Prospect site was outdated and unwieldy. “We used the Drupal platform, which is pretty archaic,” says Meany. “The Drupal site was so complex; we were using an outside service for support. Basically, any time we wanted to change something, like adding a tag, the people in editorial seriously didn’t know how to do that. We’d have to call the support guy—who cost $90 per hour!”

The system was unsustainable. When Meany was hired as publisher in 2018, one of her first initiatives was to move The Prospect onto a new publishing platform, Metro Publisher

Before joining The Prospect, Meany worked at Isthmus, an alt-weekly paper based in Madison, Wisconsin. There, she spearheaded the effort to modernize the publication’s web presence. 

“We were desperate to change our platform. It was a really old, hand-built website written in Pearl script, which was just really hard to maintain. We wanted to redesign it in a way that was mobile-friendly. We heard about Metro Publisher through an associate of mine who worked at a newspaper. So, we switched at Isthmus back in 2014.”

Within six months after moving The Prospect to Metro Publisher, the website’s traffic doubled. The magazine’s stories started popping up on Google News and the amount of time each user was spending on the site increased. In April 2019, prospect.org received around 97,000 users every week. A year later, that number jumped above 200,000.

And the cherry on top? “We saved a bunch of money,” says Meany.

Reader-driven Revenue

But Meany didn’t stop there. She also launched a reader membership program to help diversify the magazine’s revenue sources. On June 1, she teamed up with BlueLena, a company that specializes in providing affordable end-to-end audience management services to small publications. (In a previous article, we detailed how another MetroPublisher client, INDY Week, also grew their existing membership program with BlueLena.)

BlueLena started managing a large part of The Prospect’s membership program. Part of that included setting up the magazine on Pico, a software that makes it easy for prospect.org readers to subscribe or donate. Readers can donate once or sign up to donate on a recurring basis. (The Prospect is a nonprofit corporation.) 

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 Caption: The American Prospect includes links to their donation and subscription pages on prospect.org’s main navigation bar, within articles, and in daily editorial newsletters.

Meany saw the results immediately. Within the first three months after launching, the magazine raised over $70,000 from its membership program and added 11,000 new registered users to its database. 98 percent of all paying members are now monthly or annual recurring supporters.

Meany, of course, has more digital development plans going forward—to grow the magazine’s social media presence, for example. But for now, the magazine has a solid digital foundation, allowing staff members to focus on advancing progressive policy discussions, not adding article tags. 

During the interview, Meany mentioned that The Prospect had recently hosted a bipartisan group of economists to discuss what the economy should look like after the pandemic. “That’s our mantra,” says Meany, “to keep the discussion going and to move policy forward.”

Pico – Connect your Pico account in just one click and take advantage of their signup and payment tools.

BlueLena – End-to-end audience management enabled by world-class technology, proven best practices and deep industry expertise.

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Steph Zimmerman

Steph Zimmerman has worked in digital media management for over five years, holding positions at St. Louis Magazine and St. Louis Public Radio. She is currently a master's candidate and part-time lecturer at Rutgers University

October 12, 2020

6:00 PM