How WTF Just Happened Today? is rethinking membership
Most weekday afternoons, freelance editor Susanna J. Sturgis takes a few minutes out of her day to edit the latest post on What The Fuck Just Happened Today?, a news site and daily newsletter that curates the top stories in national politics.
It’s a small thing, but it’s Sturgis’ way of supporting a news source she finds valuable.
WTFJHT was launched by Seattle-based product manager Matt Kiser in the early days of the Trump administration, and as he’s built the brand over the past year or so he’s leaned on readers, such as Sturgis, to help him manage and grow all aspects of the site.
This week in Solution Set we’re going to examine how Kiser has fostered a community around WTFJHT, how he’s been able to support himself, and how he’s been able to add new products and grow while staying true to its core principles.
Solution Set is a new weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one groovy thing in journalism, share some lessons you can take away, and point you toward other excellent resources.
(You can catch up on our earlier issues or sign up here.)
Here’s the TLDR version of what you need to know about WTFJHT:
• The Challenge: In the crazy early days of the Trump administration, Matt Kiser launched a daily blog and newsletter: What The Fuck Just Happened Today? It got a ton of attention.
• The Strategy: WTFJHT has expanded its product offerings, but it’s built around membership and the community that supports the work.
• The Numbers: About 1 percent of the site’s readership supports the project, and it costs about $10,000 a month to produce.
• The Lessons: Kiser has created a membership model that allows people to contribute their skills and expertise in addition to money.
• The Future: Kiser doesn’t expect to run WTFJHT past the end of the Trump administration, but he hopes to continue to grow its readership.
• Want to know more?:Scroll down for some other resources on membership and community-centered journalism.
Now, let’s dig in a little deeper:
Matt Kiser created What The Fuck Just Happened Today? in the frenetic early days of the Trump administration.
It feels like a million years ago now, but in January 2017 the headlines were dominated by discussions over the size of the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration, “alternative facts,” the Women’s March, the Travel Ban, and more.
It was a lot to keep up with. “I can’t even process the current status of this shit. it’s moving too fast,” Kiser tweeted at the time.
Kiser, then a product manager at a Seattle-based startup, decided to start the newsletter and blog to chronicle what was happening each day in national politics over the course of Trump’s first 100 days in office.
People began to notice WTFJHT. Interest in the project exploded.
What started as a side project for Kiser had unexpectedly grown into a more substantial undertaking.
Kiser quit his job and began working on WTFJHT fulltime. The project has continued past the 100-day mark. (Today is day 413 of the Trump presidency.)
Now he had to make a living from it. And he had to figure out how to grow it.
Community has been in WTFJHT’s DNA from the start. Nearly everything about the project — from the code that runs the site to the content itself — is open source. There’s a series of bustling message boards. The site also has no ads; WTFJHT is completely supported its readers.
From 2012 to 2015, Kiser worked as a product manager for Forbes and then Business Insider. After his time working for two publishers that have ruthlessly chased scale (though BI recently introduced a paywall), Kiser decided to go in the opposite direction with WTFJHT.
In fact, he was inspired by the open-source software community.
“I always wanted to have the community be involved in the creation of this thing, while still balancing the part where it’s my blog and my view of the world and I’m trying to make sense of it for you,” Kiser told me when we spoke last week.
“But it’s not a one-way street. For lack of a better word, it’s a conversation. The idea is to make it more collaborative, and that very much comes from the software world.”
I think the best way to illustrate how readers bolster WTFJHT is by walking you through a typical day for the site. The schedule sometimes varies from day to day, but you’ll see what goes into creating a day’s worth of coverage and also will see how Kiser has been able to involve readers. Ok? Here we go:
• 7:30 a.m. EST:Joe Amditis writes four or five news blurbs for the site first thing in the morning. Amditis’ day job is as associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, but on the side, he produces the WTFJHT podcast (more on that later) and helps Kiser run the site. Amditis takes the early shift because he lives in New Jersey, which is three hours ahead of Seattle.
• 10 a.m. EST: It’s now 7 a.m. on the west coast, and Kiser takes over from Amditis. As news breaks and evolves throughout the day he’ll keep the WTFJHT site updated. Each day’s post is a numbered list of the stories Kiser thinks are the most important of the day.
The site is run on GitHub and is open-source, so readers can see the revision history of each post and they can also make edits.
Throughout the day, in addition to following the news and updating the post, Kiser will jump into the site’s forums, hosted on the Coral Project’s Talk platform, to chat with readers. He’ll also work on maintaining the site and adding new features.
• 1 p.m. EST: WTFJHT sends out a Google Chrome notification highlighting the latest news.
At her home on Martha’s Vineyard, freelance editor Susanna J. Sturgis, who I mentioned in the intro, receives the alert on her computer.
“The notification for each issue pops up, and I almost immediately drop what I’m doing, I call up the website and go over to GitHub,” she said. “I’ll read through as carefully as I can.”
Sturgis is among the most prolific of the handful of volunteers who help Kiser edit WTFJHT. They’ll typically fix small things — think changing it’s to its — but the editors will also fact-check Kiser’s work and offer editorial guidance.
She’ll take 10 or 15 minutes to read through and edit the day’s post.Sturgis has contributed financially to support the site, but she said she likes that there’s another way for her to support a news service she highly values.
“It’s a nice work break for me and it just works,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like an imposition. It feels like I’m putting my skills to use.”
• 5 p.m. EST: Amditis begins producing the WTFJHT podcast.
The podcast is an adaptation of the Daily Update newsletter that Kiser sends out every weekday. Amditis voices the podcast and reads through the top stories of the day. He will also add in audio clips or re-word things to make them sound better for audio.
WTFJHT launched the podcast in September 2017, and Amditis first pitched Kiser on the idea earlier that summer. He was a fan of the daily newsletter and thought a podcast would be a nice complement to the blog and newsletter.
So Amditis created a sample, posted it to SoundCloud, and DMed Kiser on Twitter.
Kiser got busy though and never got back to him. A couple months went by.
But Amditis persisted. He was passionate about the project.
He told Kiser: “I really want to make this for you. I think your subscribers, readers, and members could benefit from this. I can’t always read the newsletter when I’m driving or walking home. Sometimes I just want to hit play and have someone read it to me, and I don’t want to hear Siri or Google Assistant’s voice reading it back to me.”
The podcast has been produced every weekday since the fall. Amditis tries to get the podcast published by 7 p.m. at the latest each night — though sometimes life or other responsibilities get in the way.
“People know that it’s just the two of us doing this,” Amditis said. “It’s not some massive organization, but we want to provide a professional and streamlined product.”
• 6 p.m. EST: Kiser sends out the Daily Update newsletter.
He copies the most recent version of the daily post on the WTFJHT site into Mailchimp and then hits send.
Since the start, the newsletter has been part of the core offering of WTFJHT, and blurbs summarizing the news have been at its heart since the beginning. Kiser also makes sure to appropriately credit and link back to the original reporting he’s summarizing.
Still, the update has evolved over the past year or so.
The summaries have gotten longer, he’s added new sections to the newsletter, he began directing readers to other WTFJHT products, and Kiser also started emphasizing membership. Each issue ends with “WTFJHT is supported by the readers.”
•8pm EST: Kiser will update the site with an evening update if there’s late breaking news.
And then the whole process starts over the next morning when Amditis adds the next day’s morning update.
About 1 percent of the WTFJHT audience has donated to support the work, he said. Kiser runs membership drives twice a year and raises enough to cover his expenses for six months at a time.
(Kiser wouldn’t share numbers such as the number of unique visitors, newsletter subscribers or podcast listeners. “I find all that stuff to be a distraction,” he said. “At the end of the day, the only thing that matters to me is whether or not there’s enough members out there to support my work.” The WTFJHT website lists 1,577 people who have financially supported the site, but in an email Kiser told me that the figure is out of date.)
Kiser offers two types of memberships: One-off annual donations and recurring monthly donations. One-off donations range from $12 to $200. Recurring monthly charges range from $5 to $25 per month. (It’s important to note that the site is for-profit.)
Anecdotally, the most loyal readers tend to be recurring donors and also buy merchandise and help spread the word about the site, making them more valuable, Kiser said.
“One-time donors give at a higher dollar amount (about 4-5x) than recurring donors, but the lifetime value of a recurring donor is much higher (somewhere between 3-5x),” he told me in an email. “It makes sense when you think about it: recurring donors stick around for a long time. e.g. a one-time donor might give once at $25, but a recurring member might give $5/mo over a year – or about $60.”
He’s also sold “thousands” of t-shirts and stickers last year to support the site.
Kiser is more forthcoming about the cost of producing WTFJHT. On the site, he has an itemized list of how much he spends each month to run it.
He estimates that it costs $10,071 per month to run the site. That includes $6,757 for labor and $3,314 for everything he needs to keep WTFJHT running. (That’s before taxes or other administrative expenses.)
In terms of his own workload, Kiser estimates that he spends at least nine hours a day writing and producing the daily post and newsletter, sharing coverage on social media, and working on other tasks required for the site.
The costs for keeping everything running includes $1,200 monthly to run the podcast (that includes what he pays Amditis) and at least $800 for Mailchimp costs.
Other monthly costs including $59 to run the search functionality on the site, $100 for Spike by NewsWhip to help source his coverage, $50 for news subscriptions, and $1,000 to pay freelancers.
You can find the full estimate here.
Kiser would ultimately like to raise $20,000 per month to be able to hire more help and continue to develop the site and allow him to save some more. “There’s no WTF 401k,” he said.
• Membership can be more than money: While direct donations are critical to WTFJHT’s sustainability, Kiser quickly came to the realization that there are other ways to support his work beyond direct monetary contributions.
He’s put out calls for people to share what skills or knowledge they can, and the WTFJHT GitHub is full of requests for help on projects Kiser would like to pursue.
“I think that’s a really big missed opportunity for news organizations,” Kiser said. “Your community is filled with experts. You can leverage this expertise of people who want to share and invest in what you’re doing.”
We’ve already discussed how community members help edit the site and how Amditis’ interest in WTFJHT led to the creation of a podcast, but Kiser has also leaned on readers to help with everything from developing an Alexa skill, to implementing new features on the site, and moderating the forums on the site.
With regards to the podcast, Kiser ultimately decided to work with Amditis to produce the podcast, for instance, because he felt that it stayed true to the brand on the website and in the newsletter and fit within his overall goals for WTFJHT.
“It’s turned into this great partnership. There’s so much more we can do there, and I think there are so many more examples to come of that [type of] relationship with members of the community who care deeply about the mission. They go from asking what do I get from this brand to how can I help this brand.
Some of the moderators have set up running threads to keep track of things such as who has left the administration. “It’s just cool to see a community create its own content,” he said.
Kiser has worked with a developer in London, who is volunteering his time, to create Current Status, a tool that’s launching soon that ranks the top stories of the day based on what stories the political media is following. (Think of it almost as a cross between Nuzzel and Nieman Lab’s Fuego.)
These arrangements work out for everyone. Kiser gets help he wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise, and volunteers feel like they’re able to contribute something meaningful to a cause they support.
Kiser acknowledges much of the volunteer help he gets on a page on the site and also regularly tells the contributors how much he appreciates their work.
That doesn’t go unnoticed, Sturgis, the editor, said.
“I really had the feeling that he respects me for my expertise and time and is giving me some credit for that,” she said. “I do a lot of editing for nothing for people who have no idea what goes into it, so actually being appreciated is a big plus.”
• “The Minor Threat of political newsletters”: As WTFJHT has grown, Kiser has worked to ensure that he doesn’t deviate from the core principles that led to its initial popularity.
“I’m not so worried about alienating or pissing people off so much as trying to do the thing that they came here for first and then offer them additional valuable things second,” he said.
He makes smaller tweaks to the core coverage with that in mind as well. Readers began to tell Kiser that the main narrative in the daily update was getting congested with too many stories. So he pared it back and created a Notables section at the end of each issue with stories that are worth mentioning but aren’t as important.
He’s taking that same approach as new opportunities present themselves, and he judges things based on whether they will detract from the central offering of recapping the news in a concise and clear way.
“I’m trying to become the Minor Threat of political newsletters,” he said, referring to the 1980s punk band. Some of the bands’ members created their own record label to be able to sell their music without major distributors.
“They put out hardcore records for all these great bands,” Kiser said. “They’ve remained true to their value system and they’ve never compromised on that value system. It gives them so much authenticity and cred within their community that people 30 years later still refer to them as I’m doing as one of the best hardcore bands ever.”
• You can only do so much: Even as Kiser tries to get community members involved, he’s trying not to overstretch himself.
There are two or three people, for instance, who primarily handle the copy editing.
“That’s a manageable number for me, Kiser said. “Now, if I had 10 or 12 people doing that, now that starts to become a bit of a distraction. I don’t broadcast that as much even though on every blog post there’s a link that says ‘improve this article’ and people find it organically.”
He wants people to find ways to get involved on their own terms so they can make it want they want.
You also need to know when to say no or stop doing something. It’s valuable to experiment, but you shouldn’t keep doing things if they aren’t working.
Before partnering with Amditis, some other people tried working with Kiser to start a WTFJHT podcast. Kiser didn’t like it, so they stopped. It didn’t fit the brand. At one point Kiser was also selling merchandise, but fulfilling orders was taking up too much time so he’s put that on hold.
And just recently, Kiser experimented for a few days by asking community members to contribute their own blurbs for WTFJHT on a public Etherpad, a collaborative document from Mozilla.
Every day, up to 12 people would be posting links and their own summaries into the document.
“The problem was that it became unmanageable for me,” Kiser said. “It took me more time to leverage that wisdom of that part of the community and figure out how to make it fit into what I normally do.”
• Everything dies, baby that’s a fact: Kiser says he sees two natural endpoints for WTFJHT:
1. The Trump administration ends, or
2. “I royally F up and stop providing a valuable service and people stop supporting it financially.”
He doesn’t anticipate either of those things happening anytime soon, but he’s cognizant that this effort won’t last forever.
“I don’t see this being a forever job,” Kiser said. “I certainly don’t see this growing up and becoming a dozen verticals of What Just Happened Today in Climate Change and Health Care. That’s beyond the scope of what this project started as. And you’ll notice I refer to this as a project and not a business. That’s how I view it.”
In the meantime, he plans to continue to maximize his impact by providing useful curation and trying to attract new readers and members.
• Can this approach work for something else? Kiser was undoubtedly in the right place at the right time, providing a service to many people who have taken a deep interest in the ongoing national political news.
But would a similar service work for another beat or even on the local level?
Kiser thinks so. Though he readily admits that he couldn’t do what he does without the excellent original reporting that’s done on national politics on a daily basis.
“There’s a million ways to do what I do, and I think whatever form it takes for a different subject matter, it’s got to speak to that subject matter,” he said.
He continued: “I don’t think I could just copy this whole thing and be like, here’s what happened in healthcare today, and expect it to have the same velocity of growth or have the community feel so invested from the very beginning. It’d take longer and it’s a little harder trip to get there, but I think it’s certainly doable. It’s going to have to be doable. I don’t know what local media is going to do without reader revenue.”
Want to know more?
• Here’s one of the early stories on WTFJHT from Fast Company.
• Thinking about alternative forms of membership? This 2015 report from Melody Kramer is a must read. She looked at how public media membership can be expanded and strengthened, and Kiser said this report influenced his thinkin around WTFJHT.
• Just this week, NYU professor Jay Rosen announced the Membership Puzzle Project’s Join the Beat program, which wants to recruit reporters to build membership into their beats.
• City Bureau is an awesome local news site in Chicago, which has grown rapidly over the past few months. Co-founder Andrea Faye Hart wrote about how City Bureau is thinking about how it can grow while staying true to its mission.