Who’s the world’s most well-paid columnist?

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Who’s the world’s most well-paid columnist?

The venture capitalist Hunter Walk posed an interesting question on Twitter: Is [Ben Thompson] effectively the world's highest paid columnist? I'm excluding authors/reporters/analysts who derive income from multiple sources (speaking, podcasting, commerce, etc)”

For the uninitiated, Thompson is a self-employed tech writer who quit his day job several years ago to write full time for his blog Stratechery. He publishes one free column a week, and subscribers who pay $100 per year get three additional columns a week delivered by email.

And yes, he may very well be the world’s most well-paid columnist. But first let’s establish the definition for “columnist.” I would say it’s anyone who derives the majority of their income from shortform opinion and analysis pieces. This would exclude journalists like Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell -- both of whom likely pull down several million dollars a year.

Next we’d have to know how much money Ben Thompson generates from Stratechery. Unfortunately, the last time he publicly disclosed his subscriber number was in 2015. Back then, he’d crossed 2,000 subscribers, meaning he was pulling in $200,000 in annual revenue. Since then, he’s dropped hints that he now has way more subscribers, but he’s been coy about naming a specific number. I’ve spoken to several people who claim to be in the know and they’ve said that he’s now making in the low seven figures, but I have no way to verify this.

So let’s say he has 10,000 subscribers and is making somewhere around $1 million a year. Would that make him the most well paid columnist?

I did some strategic Googling and was surprised at how difficult it was to answer this question. My first thought was that the sports writer Bill Simmons probably made more, and indeed he had a reported $3 million salary at ESPN. But in addition to his column, he also managed Grantland and had a hand in the 30-for-30 documentaries, so it’s difficult to discern how much of his salary went to the column.

Then there are the big New York Times columnists like Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman. Surely their salaries had been leaked by now? No dice. The best I could find was this New York column alleging that top NYT columnists make $350k a year. A pretty good salary, but a far way off from $1 million.

The only person I could find that made something in that ballpark was Richard Littlejohn. I’d never heard of the guy, but apparently the Daily Mail hired him away from the Sun in the mid 2000s for something like $1.2 million. 

What about other self-employed writers? Substack has a few newsletter columnists who reportedly generate something in the six figures. Its top writer, Bill Bishop, writes a China-focused newsletter called Sinocism. According to Substack’s website, Bishop charges $15 a month and has “thousands of subscribers.”

At that price, Bishop would only need to amass around 5,500 subscribers to hit $1 million. Of course we’d need to factor in that Substack takes a 10% cut of all subscriber revenue, so he’d need to generate a few hundred extra subscribers on top of that to take home a clean million.

So is Ben Thompson the world’s most well-paid columnist? Hard to say! But he’s certainly somewhere near the top.

Was I too harsh on Patch, continued

Last week I published a column that generated quite a bit of mail. It sought to assess the quality of the local journalism produced by Patch, and a review I performed of 20 articles found very little original reporting.

One of the people who emailed me was Patch president Warren St. John, and I published a follow-up newsletter that contained several quotes from him that added some additional context about Patch’s attempts to strengthen its reporting capabilities. You should definitely check it out if you haven’t read it already.

After I published the newsletter, I received this email from paying subscriber Tony Mecia:

I went back and read your original article on Patch and I think it is more than fair to examine the quality of the journalism. There’s a value in rewriting police press releases and getting the news to a wider audience — newspapers today do the same thing. But it’s no substitute for boots-on-the-ground reporting. Patch doesn’t really do that, as you pointed out. (It’s a little depressing that weak content is apparently profitable.)

I laughed at the irony of the Patch CEO telling you that your story lacked “context” — when lacking context is pretty much a feature of every Patch story.

All the best to them — I hope they keep improving. But thank you for your good work.

Yes, I mostly think my analysis on Patch was pretty fair. In his email to me, St. John claimed I should have picked up the phone and sought additional context from him. Here was my reply: “Just as I wouldn't expect a TV critic to interview the director before reviewing a TV show, I didn't think an interview was needed to comb through a sample of Patch's content and analyze what I was reading.” Still, I’m glad I was able to provide the additional context from St. John, since looking at just two Patch sites didn’t give the full, nationwide picture of its operations.

Is Wordpress still trusted by publishers?

Listeners to my podcast know I recently put out an interview with a former designer for Wordpress who went on to found Ghost, a CMS that’s specifically geared toward publishers. In the interview, I claimed there’s been a paradigm shift in recent years where news publishers are moving away from Wordpress and toward either their own custom-designed platforms or SaaS products like Vox’s Chorus or the Washington Post’s Arc. 

Paying subscriber Ben May pushed back on this claim, writing:

Good interview. But I don’t think the premise of “people are moving away from WordPress” is accurate at all.

Sure the top end of town might, but they have big pockets and different priorities.

And WordPress may not be right for a small solo writer who doesn’t want to get their hands dirty as you said yourself.

But between those two are a LOT of people / media businesses and growing.

Here’s how I responded:

Wordpress remains huge, but I do think the paradigm has shifted over the last 10 years for news publishers and this is why you're seeing so many CMS products entering the market that are specifically catered to the needs of media orgs. WashPo has made a huge bet with Arc on this.

May replied:

Arc is way over the top and a distraction for 98% of the market.

We see first hand as an agency that works with midmarket publishes people moving to WP because it’s truly open and fully customisable to suit a businesses value proposition

May later emailed me with a link to an article titled, “Digital Publishers: If You’re Not Using WordPress, You’re Missing Out.” You should definitely check it out, and if you haven’t yet, also listen to my interview with Ghost’s John O’Nolan about why he thinks Wordpress’s open source approach makes it too unwieldy and buggy for your average publisher. 

Don’t forget

As a paying subscriber, you have the ability to email me directly with comments/questions I can possibly address in this newsletter. It’s my goal that eventually the paid newsletter consists 100% of my responses to reader mail, so don’t be shy. Here’s the email address: simonowenspremium@gmail.com.