Meet the subscription tech behind the subscription-media revolution

How Alley, Lede, and Pico are helping usher in the era of the bootstrapped blog.

A song to read by: “Pristine,” by Snail Mail

What I’m reading: “Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders

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What a coincidence

As former President George W. Bush once said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me … you can’t get fooled again!” Like the wisdom of all great gurus, the specifics of Bush’s cryptic message are impossible to fully divine, but its essential thrust still rings true: when something happens once, it’s a coincidence; when it happens twice, it’s a pattern. 

While researching a handful of publications, several times I experienced flashes of UX déjà vu that brought to mind the oracle of Dallas’ bungled aphorism. When jumping from Defector Media to The Colorado Sun to Block Club Chicago, I couldn’t help but feel like the sites were somehow related. Each bore a similarly clean, grid-oriented design, and each prompted pop-ups that bore an uncanny resemblance to one another.

As it turns out, these similarities were not the result of a string of coincidences, but rather a pattern: each had been designed by Alley, a digital product consulting firm. Although every site that Alley builds bears its own idiosyncrasies, they share a lot in common. Most, for instance, make use of Pico, a payment architecture software.

An even smaller subset of these sites are also, specifically, the products of Lede. Lede is a program housed within Alley, to which publishers that meet a handful of criteria can apply. Whereas Alley builds websites for a variety of customers, Lede builds sites specifically for independent publishers. So far, their clients include Defector Media and, later today if everything goes well, Discourse Blog.

Why would some of the most innovative publications on the web work with the same website design company? And why has that design company spun off an independent program created specifically to build websites for independent publishers? 

In recent months, two macro trends have rocked the media industry: publications have pivoted hard to a subscription-first model, and thousands of journalists have been laid off. 

These two factors have created the ideal conditions for a suite of new innovations: editorial and news sites need to be designed to prioritize subscription and membership programs; and hundreds of unemployed journalists, disillusioned with the top-down corporate structures of their former employers, were game to try something different.

Alley, and specifically Lede, with the help of Pico, have stepped up to be the software that facilitates this corner-turning moment in media. From its tech stack, to its payment model, to the vision of its leadership, everything about Lede is designed to empower independent publishers. 

In a digital world, no new philosophy is complete without its technological counterpart. And for a media ecosystem intent on evolution, Lede just might be the perfect fit.

Exhuming the lede

Lede is not for everyone, and it communicates that quite clearly. On its site, a blurb reads: Publishers who are not the right fit for Lede or want to explore other options besides Lede should reach out to us at Alley.

Austin Smith, the CEO of Alley and cofounder of Lede, reiterated this point, gently. Lede aims to serve the needs of a specific kind of operation: either a local news organization, or what it calls “independent talent vehicles,” i.e. Discourse Blog and Defector. In fact, although Smith was excited to discuss Lede’s work with Discourse and Defector, his primary passion lies in helping revitalize local news.

“The bed that I really want to make is the medium-to-large, local news market, in response to the collapse of local news,” said Smith. “Most of my own research is on local news and the potential future of local news.”

Smith pointed to Alley’s work with The Colorado Sun as a prime example of this. The Colorado Sun is a byproduct of the slow-motion calamity that has decimated The Denver Post, which was purchased by the private equity firm Alden Global Capital in 2010 and has since faced round after round of layoffs.

In 2018, 10 of these laid-off journalists founded The Colorado Sun and worked with Alley to create the publication’s website, in hopes of stymying the attrition of news coverage in the rapidly expanding Denver area.

In graduate school in Chicago, I learned about Block Club Chicago, another site designed by Alley. A similar chain of events led to its creation: As The Chicago Tribune slowly dwindled in influence and capital under the ownership of Alden Global Capital, critical stories went uncovered, and frustrated journalists decided to experiment. Block Club Chicago was born, and the site has since grown in reputation and resources as a strong alternative to The Tribune.

In both cases, Alley stepped in to provide mission-based journalists with the one thing they couldn’t create themselves: a state-of-the-art website.

Both sites also use Pico, which helps collect email addresses and create profiles for users; on Block Club, it also enforces and facilitates the paywall. These projects helped make it clear that there was a market for a new kind of website: a member-driven, subscription-oriented, local news operation.

A perfect match

While Discourse Blog and Defector are by no means local news operations, they presented an opportunity. Smith and his team had been considering whether they should invest the time into building out a site template that they could then tweak and reuse.

The initial lift of integrating a Wordpress VIP site with programs like Pico and Coral, an open-source commenting software, would be a commitment. But if they could find a group of writers looking for a new website who would agree to be their flagship client, the gamble could pay off, especially if that group of writers had a sizable chance of success.

With the conditions set, the partnership between Defector and Lede was born. Critically, Lede offered a payment plan that suited the management team at Defector. There would be no upfront cost, but Lede would recoup its investment through a yearslong revenue share. 

According to Jasper Wang, the vice president of revenue and operations at Defector, it was this repayment plan that made the decision to work with Lede a no-brainer.

“For us, that was what really unlocked this whole thing. They were willing to take that leap and build their platform around us, which was a calculated risk on their part,” said Wang. “We're very grateful that they were willing to make that jump.”

Aleksander Chan, a cofounder of Discourse Blog, its publisher, and a frequent Medialyte guest, also pointed to the financing structure as a key incentive for working with Lede. 

Discourse Blog has seen steady growth since its launch in March, recently surpassing the 2,000-subscriber mark, but the bootstrapped blog is still price-conscious. When the team at Lede reached out to Chan, offering a bespoke website with a richer feature set and no upfront cost, the decision was obvious.

In luring Discourse Blog away from Substack, Lede did what few other companies have been able to do. Substack is wildly appealing to nascent publications and writers setting off on their own, but its limited functionality leaves it poorly equipped to serve as a CMS. After months of trying to accomplish fine tasks with blunt instruments, Chan found the pitch from Lede too tempting to resist.

“You get to be hands-on from the very beginning,” said Chan. “Every other site I’ve ever worked on, you don’t have a say in anything: not what color it is, what the fonts are, how it's organized, literally how it functions. This time, we got to decide all of that, so it's exactly how we want it to look and feel.”

Pickaxes in a gold rush

While Lede has certainly capitalized on this new wave of horizontally structured, subscription-driven publications, it is not responsible for the sea change transforming journalism. Lede builds sites that facilitate a new kind of media company, but it owes its rising prominence to shifting attitudes in the media world.

The Alden Global Capitals of the world have destroyed the trust between journalists and the corporate higher-ups who presumably had their best interests at heart. Sweeping cuts, diminishing budgets, and widespread layoffs have wrecked the careers of thousands of journalists, while fat cat executives have walked away from the wreckage with million-dollar payouts.

As a result, publications have increasingly turned to unionization, with The New Yorker Union winning its yearslong negotiations just last week. Others, like Discourse Blog, Defector, Study Hall, and Brick House, have gone the employee-ownership route to avoid the issue entirely. (I just wrote about this for Business Insider!)

Additionally, were it not for the duopoly (and growing triumvirate, if you count Amazon) of Facebook and Google putting the digital advertising ecosystem in a chokehold, there would be no sudden pressing for subscription-based financial models. It used to be that you could throw up some junk on a website, turn on Google Ads, and wait for payday.

Now that a pageview is as worthless as the pixels it’s projected on, the old revenue models no longer make sense. This has upended the traditional financial structure of journalism, which has in turn created a need for technological, financial, and organizational innovation.

And it is only thanks to the tireless advocacy of forward-thinking, community-oriented journalistic pioneers that publications have begun to put their focus back where it belongs: on readers, especially marginalized readers. It is no accident that the founders of The Colorado Sun and Block Club are mission-driven, reader-oriented journalists.

Others, like The Objective’s Gabe Schneider and Maria Bustillos, have similarly taken the industry to task. The industry has long ignored the people it was intended to serve, but there is reason to believe those tides are shifting.

With the help of Lede, Alley, and Pico, journalists lacking in capital but rich in purpose, vision, and determination can create websites that let them compete at the highest levels.

Smith and his team at Lede have no grand plan for reinventing the landscape of media; they just want to create a product that lets journalists do their job without having to kowtow to oligarchs to keep the lights on. 

Likewise, the people at Defector, Discourse Blog, Block Club, and The Colorado Sun have no machinations for journalistic dominance; they just want to make a living writing good articles that serve their readers.

In the age of venture capital, scale, and billion-dollar valuations, their goals are refreshingly human. Hopefully that’s a good thing.

Some good readin’

— I love when the cultural bastions of the East Coast and West Coast take up arms against each other, and boy are things getting steamy with Coinbase. (The Washington Post)

— Just in case you overlooked my shameless plug, I spent a lot of time researching and writing this piece about Defector Media’s organizational and financial structure. It’s interesting, I swear! (Business Insider)

— I was recently put on to Hunter Harris’ recurring “This One ____ Line Plays on a Loop in My Head,” and I loved her “Pirates of the Caribbean” version. (Vulture)


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Cover image: “Sleeping Gypsy,” by Henri Rousseau, 1897

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