Forming the 'Rebel Alliance of media companies'

Matt Hardigree thinks media is broken, and believes The Autopian can save it.

Matt Hardigree
  • Built with

“Most of us at The Autopian started our careers at Gawker or Gizmodo. We were part of that first generation of bloggers,” begins Matt Hardigree, publisher of The Autopian. “When I started blogging 17 years ago, because I'm an old man, there was a very immediate sense of ‘We're not writing for anyone, it's the internet. No one's gonna read this’. At Gawker, it gave us the confidence to write what no one else would write.”

The Autopian
Matt Hardigree, The Autopian

Matt thinks that was their strategic advantage. “We could speak truth to power because power wasn't listening. Then we learned very quickly there was a gigantic community of people who were listening. We had this huge impact.”

However, during the pandemic everything changed dramatically. “What you learn in the media, and people are still learning this now unfortunately, is that if you don't own your company, if you don't know how the money is made, you are at the whim of somebody else and everything can change.”

David Tracy and Jason Torchinsky, two of the co-founders of The Autopian, decided they had to do something. Matt continues: “David was literally like, ‘I'm gonna start a website. If I can't get a website to work, I'm gonna join the Marines!’ so they got together with Galpin, a car dealership network on the West Coast, and a car dealer and enthusiast named Beau Boeckmann (of Pimp My Ride fame). I like to say, he's the Willy Wonka of cars. Amazing things happen around him.”

The three of them founded The Autopian website to provide a place for people who love cars and it was immediately successful. “I had been reading the site and I loved those guys. They're old friends of mine so I was excited to see what was going on.”

When they asked Matt to join the team, he asked to see the site's traffic. “I was like, ‘Is this a real thing?’ They showed me the traffic and I was like, ‘Oh, this is a real thing!’ He agreed to join the team. “They were kicking butt before, but we've continued to kick butt since then. Butt kicking has increased exponentially!”

The Autopian

During the transition, away from a big media site owned by someone else to their own site, The Autopian team realized something crucial in the world of online publishing: if you do it right, your audience will go with you. “Your most valuable asset is not the last story you wrote. It's not necessarily even your good ideas. It's your community,” Matt smiles.

“Membership is the best money we make”

“Media is broken,” says Matt. “The current systems, the companies; it doesn't make sense. I think you're stuck between two worlds: legacy media companies that are bloated and have giant sales staff and have to justify this huge expense. Or you have private equity, which is happy to spend money and hire people but expects a 5x, 10x return in two years. Neither end of the spectrum makes sense.”

Matt believes there has to be a better way. “There's a way to have a journalist-led, sustainable, profitable, awesome, influential media company in the 21st century, otherwise it's all over and we should just give up and go home.”

“Do we live and breathe cars and want to build a community for people who love cars? Absolutely, that is the mission of The Autopian. But I think our broader mission is to show there are other ways to do this,” he continues. “If we could make all of our money from membership, I would 100% do that. It is the best money we make. Is there a way to balance advertising, membership and all of that and to make something that works for the audience, that works for the journalists, that works for the business? I think there is. And we are proving it.”

The Autopian

“I'm excited to wake up and write about cars because I love cars. But the thing that drives me is not cars. It's the business. It’s like that old Steven Wright joke about Smokey the Bear, the mascot for forest fire prevention, who said, “Only you can prevent forest fires!’ That’s how I feel about media – ‘Only we can prevent this!’. I want to do great work, but I also want to save media. I want to give journalists jobs and I wanna give readers a website that doesn’t have seven million ads or completely paywalled.”

When The Autopian were looking to monetise, there were numerous long conversations about how to do it. Other than a launch sponsor, they led with membership. “At Jalopnik the thing that made it work was the community. People would show up for things. David would have a party at his house in Detroit and a hundred people would come.”

There was a groundswell. “People were emailing us, ‘How can we support you? We love this thing, we don't want it to disappear.’ so we were like, ‘Let's put up a membership, let's see.” They launched on December 8th 2022 and within a few days hundreds had signed up.

Sustainable revenues and the network effect

What of the future? The short-term goal is to build out sustainable revenue sources to keep the site readable and ad density low. “Membership's a really big piece of this,” Matt continues. I want it to provide a larger percentage of our revenue because it is sustainable. It doesn't fluctuate much. Throughout the year, ad rates go up and go down. With memberships it's been a more solid, predictable, every-month stream.”

The more long-term objective is to build a network. “I've worked with a bunch of large media companies and the network effect is great. Gizmodo's story gets shared on Jalopnik; Jalopnik's story gets shared on Jezebel or Deadspin. A rising tide lifts all boats – everyone gets a lift,” Matt says. “If you're at the high end of site readership, maybe it's a 10% lift in traffic. If it's the low end, it can be 20 to 25% of your traffic. That's a big deal.”

The Autopian

Matt acknowledges they have been lucky. “Our co-founders are supportive, and understand what we're doing. They've given us the runway to build this sustainable enterprise. We've done so much of the hard work, we can ‘copy and paste’ this. “If someone out there is an expert at video games or tech, somebody who has a voice and a community, I'm going to say to them, 'Come and join this Rebel Alliance of media companies’!”

In two years, Matt would love to have two more sites on the network that are profitable so they can cross-discount. “We can say, ‘If you're a member of The Autopian and you want to be a member of X, congratulations, you can get both memberships at a significant discount’. By being able to give discounts, you're just getting more people to read.”

Membership: simply proof that people care

Matt believes that, if you're a website and you don't have membership, the old maxim is true: the person reading is not the customer, it is the product. “When they come in to read you, you're selling that information to advertisers. Maybe they come back, maybe they don't; maybe they follow on social, maybe they don't. But they are not invested. They come in, you sell them, try to get them to see as many ads as possible, and then they leave.”

What The Autopian team has found is, if somebody becomes a paying member, they read more – a lot more – and they share more stories and join the newsletter. “They are so much more valuable, and yet they are still not the product. “If they email and say ‘We don't like this, we want more of this,’ we listen, because they're not just some random person; they are our customers. It's a virtuous cycle.”

In closing, Matt offers some sage advice. “Membership is great because it's a way to monetize – but if monetizing is your goal, I don't think you're going to be successful. "For us, it's just proof that people care.

"If there are 10 people who are willing to pay $1,000, and there are hundreds of people who are willing to pay $250 or $100, that's proof that for every one of those individuals who feels moved to do that, there are hundreds or thousands of other people who care. If it's important to them, it's worth doing.”

The Autopian

“If you want to write for yourself, maybe you can get away with a Substack. Maybe you can become a novelist. If you only care about yourself and your own opinion, and if you're rich enough and connected enough, the New York Times will give you a column. But for the rest of us, we have to create value in the world.

“I want to create value. I don't want to just make money and go to sleep. I want to create something that people love. It's not for the adulation; it’s something I care about and I want other people to care about it too.

“Membership is the best measure of how you are reaching an audience and if you are making them care and getting them to listen. If you're a writer, which is what we are, you want people to listen. If you don't want people to listen, do something else!”

Have an audience?

Customers like Mythical (28+ million subscribers) rely on Memberful to power their membership communities.

Get started for free