A new beginning: The Technical Area, January 2024
This month at SCOUTED, we talk the industry, our tenth anniversary, and trying not to go broke.
Dear readers, has it only been a month? Well, not quite: six weeks have passed since we last spoke, although those weeks did include the time-melting holiday that is Christmas.
In my last The Technical Area, I took a moment to look backwards as we approached our tenth year of publishing as Scouted Football (or ScoutedFtbl, or SCOUTED, or whatever). But January is no time for nostalgia; this is the month of new beginnings, and so it has been here. The tenth year is upon us, and it’s time to get serious.
The Technical Area began as a look inside our journey to turn SCOUTED into a sustainable, worker-owned media company. I started this blog because I believe in a new kind of football media - a kind that treats its readers as people, not bots who click on adverts. A kind that puts quality first, that rejects the scream the stupidest shit as loud as possible mess that our industry has become. A kind that connects deeply with readers who care about words put together with passion and purpose, not mechanically for the eyes of a search engine’s robot. A kind not beholden to the whims of advertising or corporate overlords. And above all, a kind that offers transparency to its readers and invites them behind the doors that have been closed for so long - so they know exactly where their money is going.
Of course, all this is only possible by rejecting the business model that has damaged journalism so profoundly and returning to something a little more old-school: asking readers to pay for what they read again. In return, we promise all the above - plus no fucking gambling ads.
As I write this, we have 482 paid subscribers. I genuinely love every single one of you and I mean that. You are proof the world I want to create in still exists. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is my life, and you’re making all this work worth doing.
But let’s not hide from that fact that 489 is not enough to sustain a media company, even one as small as ours. We need more, dammit.
Lots of green. Green is good. We like green. Keep the green coming.
The number 489, compared to the numbers our free content generates, is tiny. We have 130,000 Twitter followers. Our podcast has 300,000 listens. Our SEO-powered website generates half a million clicks a month. And so, the question becomes twofold: how do we make those big numbers even bigger, but also make sure every person we reach knows how good Notebook is, and what we’re trying to build here? This is what’s been consuming me this month.
WHAT’S YOUR POINT, WRITER GUY?
As I’ve mentioned before, this month both Pitchfork and Sports Illustrated, two historic titans of our industry, were unceremoniously killed by their parent companies. My heart goes out to all the brilliant writers, editors and critics who lost their livelihoods because the business model their bosses pursued is utterly broken. But, in a kinda perverted way - and I hope you don’t take the wrong thing from this - such tragedy gives me hope. Let me explain myself.
Late last year, a similar fate befell a video game publication called The Escapist. Long story short, their well-loved Editor-in-Chief, Nick Calandra, was fired by The Escapist’s parent company for, as he describes it, failing to meet impossible metrics. Calandra’s entire video team immediately quit with him. Riding an unprecedented wave of anti-corporate sentiment, Calandra and the ex-Escapists set up a new media company called Second Wind. A company, funnily enough, espousing the same inspirations that drove me to pursue this model for SCOUTED. A company that’s worker-owned, audience-funded and fully transparent.
That was November. Right now, Second Wind has 416,000 subscribers on YouTube. A staggering 18,567 of those people give monetarily to the company on Patreon. Second Wind earns £46,890 directly from their audience alone every month.
When Pitchfork went under, the most common response on social media was this: who’s going to build the worker co-operative to fill the void in music journalism?
And that’s the point of this tangent: people want this. There are people out in the wide world willing to pay for good media, and lots of them. Of course, caveats: Second Wind’s audience is much larger than ours; they work in video, not long-form writing; there’s more appetite for this in video games, football is a notoriously difficult field to get people to pay for stuff in (especially with a certain American conglomerate sucking all the air out the room, ahem); and the social media firestorm that followed Calandra’s firing was a once-in-a-blue-moon event. But still.
Dear reader, we do not need 18,567 people to pay for Notebook. Not even close. I mean, it’d be cool, don’t get me wrong. But just a fraction of that would allow us to pay our current staff a proper living wage. Just a fraction would allow us to hire the members of our core team — Jake, Phil and Joe — who currently do all of their work for SCOUTED around full-time jobs. Just a fraction would let us turn this publication into the small, tight-knit but totally sustainable media business I dream of building.
The number 489 is small. But the number we need to reach — a few thousand — is also pretty damn small. Those people are out there, I believe that. Now it’s my job to reach them.
HOW YOU GUNNA DO THAT, THEN?
One of the things I think is most special about SCOUTED is the people who own this company with me. We are six friends who essentially grew up together in this industry. We’ve all taken our first steps into the professional world at the same time, swapping stories, giving each other advice, talking every single day and occasionally gathering to belt out karaoke at 2am in Soho.
I want to put our relationship front and centre, to prove we’re not a faceless corporate brand. So the first thing I put into action this year is a brand-new podcast, SCOUTED Weekly. If you’ve not listened yet, I don’t blame you - we’ve been knocking out episodes quietly as we get into the groove. I’m hosting a podcast for the first time in eight years, and it’s been about as smooth as you’d expect: technical issues, awkward pauses, and dumb turns of phrase have been plentiful. But I believe in just doing shit and seeing what happens, and I know with time we’ll get pretty good at it.
Every Monday, whoever from the team is free joins me to chat about the weekend’s stories. We throw some SCOUTED-centric insight in there too, of course, but mostly the point of the show is just to get the boys together regularly and have a chat, have a laugh, and see what comes of it. I’m having so much fun; I can’t wait to see what it becomes this year. I’ve even launched a dumb gameshow called Handbook History.
SCOUTED Weekly is just the first part of my plan to reach more people with what we do. Soon, we’ll be recording video of the show and uploading it to YouTube. After that, I plan to adapt some of our best work into YouTube essays; I tried this a few years ago to great success, but didn’t have the time or resources to keep it up. I’m going to put all my effort into making sure this year, I do. And I’ve said it publicly now. So I guess I have to.
As with everything we do, we’ll be learning as we go. I hope to build a decent foundation in video skills in the first half of this year. The goal is to build a strong enough following and skill base to, this summer, do livestreams around the European Championships. I think that’d be really fun.
Those are my short-term goals. When I dream about what I want SCOUTED to be, ultimately, it’s this: a sustainable media company that makes free, personality-driven content that offers a glimpse into the people and insight we offer on Notebook; and converts the people most interested in that into paid subscribers. Notebook will, over time, become the best, most beautiful, most enjoyable to read football magazine on the internet. It’ll be the engine that drives everything. But we’ll tell people it exists with our faces and voices. And have you seen Joe Donnohue’s face? That’s a money printer right there.
If we can reach thousands of people on these other platforms, and tell them all about how cool Notebook is, the odds of enough of them paying for it - and remember, we don’t need that many - are pretty damn good I think.
I LIKE YOUR FUNNY WORDS BUT WHERE IS THIS GOING EXACTLY
Sorry, it’s 10pm on a Friday night and I’ve had two Coke Zero’s. Apparently the ‘zero’ part doesn’t apply to its caffeine content. That was perhaps more of an insight into my personal life than I’d like to share, so let’s move swiftly on.
Late last year, Stephen and I had a discussion (an argument) about how much of Notebook should be behind a paywall. He argued, almost everything. I argued that would suffocate our reach - I thought we needed to circulate free articles so they’d travel widely and more people would get sucked into our orbit.
I was wrong and Steve was right. I’m glad we’ve published some of our very best work for free — like our Adam Wharton interview, most recently — because lots of people have read it. But not many have subscribed as a result.
So, here’s the deal: going forward, more and more of our work will be going behind a paywall. This blog, for instance, will soon be paid only, which will allow me to talk more directly to our subscribers about our finances. Any paid-for content - meaning articles we’ve been contracted to produce by our commercial partners, like J.LEAGUE or SkillCorner - will remain free. We’ll replace the missing circulation with video and podcasts, which have a much better chance of reaching more people - Twitter, let’s face it, lost its usefulness as a writing discovery tool a long time ago. Not relying on Notebook for circulation will allow us to step further back from clickbait, publish less and put more energy into everything we write. It’ll be premium, baby.
OH NO THE COKE ZEROS ARE WEARING OFHFGSHLDJKFGHJKL
I think we should wrap this up.
I’ve done a lot of words here. This has been helpful in centralising my thoughts - and now I’ve shared them with you. That’s the way it should be.
This is my plan for the year. Reach more people with our faces and voices, make them fall in love with Joe (and our insight) and convert the most engaged into buying the best online football magazine around. In time, we’ll build a new kind of media company: one that represents its readers, returns to quality, and is incentivised only to write really, really good shit.
Subscribe now. You’ll get the best youth football journalism anywhere on the internet dropping into your e-mails almost every day.
If you’re up for the ride, please subscribe. I just looked at our analytics and we’re up to 489. You could make it 490.
It’s our tenth year. We’re celebrating our anniversary in the summer. I’d really love it if you were there.