One flew over the A/B test: How Shelby Hartman brought journalistic rigor to psychedelics media
The cofounder of Double Blind is bringing sophisticated technology, accountability reporting, and mushroom-growing webinars to the burgeoning psychedelic industry.
|Mark Stenberg||Dec 2, 2020||2|
A song to read by: “Both of Us,” by Jayda G
What I’m reading: “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn
Turn on, tune in, launch a media company
In my first job out of college, running a small media startup in Austin, I developed a very petty animosity toward zine culture, an artistic offshoot of the magazine world whose sole focus is a niche, often anti-capitalist editorial product. In Austin, I sometimes felt like I was surrounded by zines: there were music zines, racial politics zines, sexual orientation zines, knitting zines, gardening zines, poetry zines –– no matter how minute the subject matter, rest assured somebody had made a zine about it.
Nothing about the editorial focus of the zines irked me — St. Sucia in San Antonio, for instance, is still one of the best, most fiercely independent and wildly poetic publications I have ever read. Instead, it was their business model that frustrated me: They didn’t have one.
The handmade publications, which often featured hand-drawn illustrations, annotations, and other typographical eccentricities, were bootlegged into being, crowdfunded into existence, and distributed by hand. They had no advertisements, though readers were encouraged to tip in support of the zine’s mission, a soft call-to-action that never netted more than $100.
As a result, the zines turned no profit, paid no writers, reimbursed no photographers, compensated no designers or illustrators. Anyone involved in the production of a zine was volunteering their time, motivated by the sense that they were contributing to a worthwhile cause.
I, on other hand, also wanted to create beautiful artistic things, but needed them to make money. After all, we had employees on payroll and vendors to pay. On top of that, I took solace in knowing that through our efforts, strained as they might have been, we were giving creative people jobs, which allowed them to make brilliant, moving works of art and literature. I was jealous of the independence that zines had, absent any need to turn a profit, but I also believed that a sustainable product served its creative community more in the long-run than a series of one-off projects.
Shelby Hartman, the cofounder of the psychedelic-focused Double Blind and a veteran journalist, shares my belief that, at least in media, creativity without sustainability has a limited value. Before creating Double Blind alongside Madison Margolin in late 2018, Hartman worked at a number of different publications, several of which closed shop abruptly after the money ran out. A few of those experiences, says Hartman, was enough to fix her attention on finding a financial model that could endure, and support great work in the meantime.
Animated by her past experiences, both in media and psychedelics, Hartman realized that there was an opportunity for her to launch a publication to cover the burgeoning psychedelics industry.
The state of Oregon recently legalized psilocybin therapy, and the political group Decriminalize Nature has worked to decriminalize entheogens — naturally occurring psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and peyote — in Santa Cruz, Ann Arbor, Washington D.C., and Oakland, all within the last 18 months. In Denver, a group called SPORE led the city’s push for decriminalization.
Interest in psychedelics is on the rise, and Hartman knew that a media resource that offered education, updates, analysis, and accountability would resonate with the growing number of the psychedelically inclined.
However, the publication’s website runs no advertisements and has no paywall. Instead, it promotes a series of made-in-house paid webinars on mushroom cultivation, as well as subscriptions to its print product. Hartman dives into the details of their revenue diversity in our conversation below, but in short, she and the Double Blind team have found a way to reflect the spirit of creativity and self-expression that is part and parcel of the world of psychedelics, while also monetizing the venture sustainably and unobtrusively.
In doing so, she has been able to build out an ever-growing team of writers, designers, photographers and other staff, all while serving a readership hungry for information on this once-verboten subject.
So where did the idea for Double Blind come from?
I had the idea, in November 2018, when I was meditating. The vision was to have a print magazine — I was kind of inspired at the time by Broccoli, a cannabis magazine run by women out of Portland — and I just said, “We should start the Broccoli of psychedelics.”
From there, my cofounder Madison Margolin and I started having conversations about what it would look like and how we were going to make money — if we were even going to try to make money.
You and Madison had gone to school together, right? At Columbia?
We were both at Columbia Journalism School at the same time, although we actually didn't know each other while we were there. But afterward, we were both cannabis columnists at Los Angeles Weekly, and when I was reporting a story I contacted her dad, who is kind of a legendary cannabis attorney in Los Angeles, to interview him.
At the end of our conversation, he said, “By the way, my daughter Madison is also a cannabis columnist at LA Weekly, and she went to Columbia at the same time as you.” So I looked her up on Facebook, we had coffee, became friends, and later we launched Double Blind.
How did Double Blind actually get off the ground? What did you do first?
From the beginning, I knew I wanted Double Blind to have a really strong visual identity, so after Madison, one of my best friends, David Good, this brilliant graphic designer, was my first call. I called him and said, “We're starting a magazine.” And he said, “I’m in.”
So I went to a cafe with a guy, sat down, opened a Google Doc and said, “Okay, I’m starting a company.” I wrote a mission statement that became our About page — almost verbatim — that captured everything Double Blind wanted to be: inclusive, rigorously reported coverage of the psychedelic industry.
Almost immediately, we were contacted by an ayahuasca conference in Spain, who said they wanted me to do a bunch of writing for them. I agreed, but on one condition: they had to give my magazine free sponsorship. They said yes, which immediately lit a fire under our asses, because this was December and the magazine had to be out by March.
So, we made a list of all the stories we wanted to write about, then reached out to all the reporters, artists, and photographers whom we had worked with in the past. We told them we didn’t have any money, didn’t know if we were ever going to have any money, but would they contribute? And so many people said yes.
Our first issue was packed with people who had written for The New York Times and shot for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. It was a top-notch magazine that was put together on a budget of $0, because people believed in our vision. After that, it just started taking off.
How many people are now full-time employees?
Just Madison and I right now, but Sarah will be full-time in the new year. We have a few people — Max, Alex, Ryan — who are 20 - 30 hours a week and whom we hope to put on our payroll soon.
I’ve worked in so many media startups that scale too fast, and one day someone comes in and says, “Show’s over, pack up.” I never want to do that to these people because I love them so much, so we’re trying to grow sustainably.
That brings us to what first caught my eye about Double Blind: its business model. The site has no ads and no paywall, but it pushes print subscriptions, a mushroom-growing video series, and merchandise. How exactly do y’all make money?
This is such an interesting conversation to me, because it gets to the heart of my passion, which is: What are innovative models for funding meaningful storytelling, and how do we come up with ways to support writers, artists, and journalists in a way that allows them to do important work without compromising its integrity?
I've literally spent my entire career thinking about this question, because I’ve worked in so many different kinds of newsrooms, from being a producer at CBS News to working at the Times-Picayune, to working at media startups, to working at an alt-weekly that fired everyone overnight. I've kind of seen it all, you know? And I never wanted to be in a position where I was going to have to accept money from brands that I felt like were going to compromise the integrity of our reporting.
I have seen from the inside that chasing brands isn’t often a sustainable or scalable business model. So for me, it was always: How can we generate revenue internally? How can we provide people with a service that they need, which is also aligned with our values?
It’s very clear that we are entering into a pivotal moment in the psychedelics industry, where there is an exponential interest in psychedelics and using them safely. But we're not quite at the point, as we discussed for your Business Insider piece, where psychedelics have been approved by the FDA. So there's a huge knowledge gap between all the people who want to do psychedelics today but need resources to guide them.
So to me it was obvious: Double Blind would be two-sided, with one side doing hard-hitting reporting on the psychedelic industry, with the intention of helping the industry unfold in an equitable way and holding the key stakeholders accountable; and the other side offering psychedelic education, both free and paid.
So you make most of your money from the education portion?
Our courses and webinars are how we make most of our money right now, yeah. We do some sponsorship and advertising, not on our website but in our newsletter. And we're just now getting into affiliate and referral links. We get more than 1 million uniques on our website every month, so there’s a huge opportunity for a passive-revenue stream there. We also have advertising in the print magazine, and our courses have been sponsored by brands.
In the future, we’re also looking to sell some physical products, like non-psychedelic mushroom supplements or a microdosing kit without the psychedelics. We’d also like to do psychedelic merch — we’ve done limited t-shirt runs in the past, and they always sell out — but physical products are a nightmare, at least until you're at a large enough scale that you can pay for a third-party logistics distributor.
You mentioned the site gets over 1 million unique views a month. What are some other key metrics for Double Blind?
The print magazine has a circulation of 10,000, although we never expect it to be a significant revenue driver. It's something we do because we love it, and if you're an investor, I would tell you it's good marketing. It distinguishes us from all the other media companies that are digital only.
More than 1,000 people have bought our mushroom course, and right now we have about 700 people growing mushrooms with us around the world. Anyone who signs up for the course gets live support five days a week from our team.
Creating and then monetizing the mushroom-growing webinars is really smart, because it scales up with very little overhead, right?
Well, it’s not quite that simple because of the live support. When we first released our course, a lot of people said, “Why are you trying to charge for something that I could get for free on YouTube?” And the answer to that is: the support staff.
When you watch a video on Reddit, does that come with a team of five mycologists who are willing to look at pictures you took on your iPhone of your mono tub and tell you whether your cake is bruised or contaminated? No, you don't get that.
And the thing is: Growing mushrooms is not as simple as just looking up a recipe on Epicurious. Every person has a different situation in their house. The climate is different, the lighting is different. Maybe you live in another country where you can’t buy a part, so you jerry-rig a system and need some advice.
I imagine, in the future, Double Blind could throw some really great events and turn those into strong sources of revenue.
We had a launch party in September 2019, which was awesome. There were more than 500 people there, and it was just so fun. We had a panel on psychedelics. We had a tea-ceremony room, and people were smoking weed all over the place. It was great.
We were also supposed to do a bunch of co-branded events this year, which obviously didn’t happen. We had planned a psychedelic seder dinner at a co-op in the mountains of LA, where we were going to put everyone on a Ken Kesey-type bus and drive them through the mountains. We were also going to collaborate with a virtual rave series in LA called Social Sanctuary. So hopefully more things like that in the future.
A lot of media companies are really struggling right now, and yet here Double Blind is, having all sorts of success. It honestly seems like y’all have too many potential sources of revenue, which is a problem a lot of publishers would love to have. What’s your secret?
We were really lucky with our timing, for one. We literally went to print the day after Denver became the first county in the United States to decriminalize psilocybin. So if that's not serendipitous timing, I don't know what is. We literally said, “Stop the press!” cause we had to change a sentence about the initiative.
So timing, and then having spent my entire career thinking about this question of how to fund journalism. In my experience, you either have people running editorial who know nothing about business, or you have people on the business side who know nothing about editorial. I have backgrounds in both, and I think that’s necessary nowadays.
I also can't overstate how integral everyone on the team has been. I honestly don’t know how I got so lucky. Maybe more people should try working with people who love them and offer them equity.
You also make use of pretty sophisticated analytics tracking, which is definitely a best practice at large publications but still pretty rare in indie ones. What convinced you to lean into the data?
Our goal has always been to create something sustainable, so in the beginning we threw every idea at the wall: We could have a paywall, we could do e-commerce, we could do advertising, we could do events, we could do this, we could do that.
Around that time, I read “The Lean Startup,” by Eric Ries, which turned out to be a huge inspiration for me. The whole crux of the lean startup concept is the idea of the minimum viable product, or MVP, which was born in the world of tech but applies to any kind of startup business. Ries and others in the field all stressed the importance of making data-based decisions, of tracking metrics, so those tenets have become foundational to our business-development strategy.
For instance, we had a bunch of ideas for how we might be able to make money, so we found ways to test them all without spending much on the tests. As soon as there was an indication that something was working or wasn't working, we made decisions accordingly, and that's how we’ve continued to run.
We have weekly analytics meetings that are two hours long, where we look at every single thing. We’re constantly running A/B tests on the site, looking at heat maps, seeing who’s clicking on what, what GIFs get more likes, what copy converts more newsletter subscribers, what funnels lead to webinar sales, what discounts prompt the most purchases. We pay very close attention to that data, and we’ve seen our growth become exponential because of it.
Do you draw a distinction between Double Blind as journalistic operation and Double Blind as advocacy group? Are you simply reporting on the politics of psychedelics, or are you actively trying to influence them?
That's a complicated question. And to be honest, I don't think that I really have a clear answer for you, because it's something that we're trying to figure out all the time. Madison and I, historically, have just been journalists writing about something, but now we're becoming thought leaders in the space. If you report on something for long enough, inevitably you do start to have opinions about it.
I like to think that we can do both. As we’ve discussed before, true objectivity is an illusion. We all have opinions, but that doesn't prevent reporters from being able to do good, objective reporting. It's about constantly keeping yourself in check and holding yourself accountable.
Some good readin’
— William Faulkner struggled to overcome his own racism, but his characters were paragons of racial equality. (The New Yorker)
— Once again, Casey Newton’s newsletter delivers. New research suggests that YouTube plays a far smaller role in radicalizing users than had been previously thought. (Platformer)
— Speaking of radicalization: Vox’s Terry Nguyễn did a deep dive on how the Asian immigrant community, and ESL citizens writ large, are exposed to strands of misinformation that go overlooked by much of the tech community. (Vox)
— Kaitlin Phillips wrote a “gift guide.” (Spike Art Magazine)
— Venture capital: Bad thing, or bad thing with some good parts? (The New Yorker)
— I’m still having opinions about “The Queen’s Gambit,” and this article sums up the allure of the series’ aesthetics. (Vulture)
Hey, you made it to the end of this article, which means you probably liked it! If you *really* liked it, here is my Venmo if you’d like to throw a little money my way. Thank you!