Rick Ellis's entertainment news site generates millions of views a month. Here's how he built it.
It involved writing up to 50,000 words per week.
Over the past year, dozens of writers have left their mainstream media jobs to launch their own standalone newsletters and publications. In almost every case, the writer monetized his content through paid subscriptions, usually with a tool like Substack.
Rick Ellis never bothered with paid subscriptions. Instead, his website AllYourScreens.com generates so much traffic each month that he’s able to make a good living mostly through programmatic advertising.
Ellis has been operating AllYourScreens.com off and on since the early 2000s, but a few years ago he decided to abandon traditional media completely to focus on the site full-time. I recently interviewed him about how he found his audience, what his weekly writing schedule looks like, and why he has no interest in building out a paid subscription business.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
How Rick launched his website
A headhunter once described Rick’s resume as “eclectic.” He spent most of his 20s in standup comedy and eventually transitioned to talk radio. From there he moved on to a Bay Area startup. During his free time he started writing about entertainment for various websites, and then he launched his own. “It was basically just a place to sort of archive things that I either wrote myself or freelance pieces I'd written for other sites. And when I would get laid off, I would spend all of my attention on the website for the six months or a year until I got another full-time job. And typically when I got a full-time job, they would say, ‘you can't do your website anymore.’ So it would kind of go back off to the side.”
The web was a different place back then; there were very few ways to monetize a blog and bandwidth costs could quickly add up. “Around 2003, I wrote a bunch of pieces about Phil Donahue leaving MSNBC and got tons of traffic. It ended up costing me $400 in bandwidth, and paying for that really wasn’t a sustainable model, so that was part of the reason I didn’t write more back then. It just wasn't sustainable.”
In those early days, the site was called AllYourTV.com. “And at some point I decided, well, look, TV's changing. I wanted to write about stuff that isn’t just specifically about broadcast television. So I got the idea of changing it to AllYourScreens.com.” That way he could write about streaming platforms and other emerging video players, from YouTube to Facebook Watch. “I think it fits my mission statement a little better.”
Transitioning it to a full-time job
For years, Rick ran the site on his nights and weekends. “And then probably eight or nine years ago, I went through a spell where I was laid off three times in two years, and I was going into my fifties and it was just a situation of really having to think about what my future was. And I knew it was going to be difficult to get another good job at my age. I was living in Minnesota. I liked living here. The education was really good for my kid. I didn't want to move. And if I was going to get a job somewhere, I was going to have to move to New York or Atlanta. And if I didn't want to do that and there weren't jobs here, I had to figure out some other option. So I started out freelancing and working on my website, and over a three, four year period, it evolved from mostly freelance to all on my website. And that's what I've been doing in the years since.”
The timing worked well for Rick, since this was a time when the streaming wars were starting to heat up. Suddenly, there was a ton of good television to cover. Rick’s content included everything from recaps to reviews to industry scoops to aggregated content. “At the end of 2020, I went back and tried to figure out my weekly output, and it turned out I was averaging somewhere in the range of 55,000 to 60,000 words a week, which is a crazy amount. And look, I'm the first person to admit it's not all Shakespearian quality stuff. A lot of it's news items, a lot of it's, ‘Hey look, this show's coming, here are the details.’ But there are also some really good interviews, really good insight in there. It's really a mix of different things, from goofball stuff to hard news to think pieces about the future of streaming television, but it's a lot every week.”
How Rick monetizes the site
Most modern media startups leverage a variety of business models, from native advertising to affiliate ads to subscriptions. Rick chose to stick to good old fashioned display advertising. “All I'm really concerned about is generating enough money that it pays a salary and I make a decent living. And so I can do that with the amount of traffic I get just by running display ads. You don't make a lot per page, but if you have enough pages and your overall costs aren't very high, then it works.”.
Over the years, Rick has become an expert on ad tech and is able to test out different programmatic options. “The problem with any of this programmatic stuff is that there isn't a lot of transparency. You don't know what you're going to make until after the fact, and because all of it's done behind this veil of technology, you're just trying to estimate as best as you can. Like most people, I started out using Google AdSense. I still have a decent amount of Google AdSense ads on the site. I have it set up so that I have some other networks that pay better. I compare what those sites are offering me versus what Google is offering me, and it just automatically chooses the better rate. And it's all sort of done behind the scenes automatically.”
Of course, Rick’s reliance on programmatic means he wasn’t able to avoid the pandemic-induced cratering of the ad market. “The first half of 2020 was brutal. It went down about 40% for me, and that was pretty typical across the industry. All that money that used to be spent on advertising movies and different live experiences, all that stuff went away. Even though streaming services were spending a lot of money on advertising, the problem you run into with a site my size is that the tendency is for them to want to spend the money at the big sites, and getting to that point where you're a trusted enough site that they'll dump some money onto you takes awhile. I'm lucky because the site's been around so long that it has a pretty good reputation with the advertisers that I use, but it's definitely a challenge.”
But luckily, Rick’s site is lean enough that he can still make a good living even if he's not capturing all the premium advertising dollars. “I like the idea of being the only person at my website. I like that I don’t have to justify why I covered a specific thing. It's really freeing in a way, especially after working for all these different companies that were either startups that didn't know what they were doing or big media companies that were just so bureaucratically weighed down. It's really nice to be in a situation of being a lone wolf. I mean, there are definitely disadvantages, but it's nice not having to justify your decisions to anybody.”
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