Notes on the world’s tiniest media empire

How Latterly purchased Compass Cultura

I remember where I was when Compass Cultura was born. I was right here:

My favorite coffee shop in the world, Casa Lapin X49 in Bangkok.

It was August 2014, and I was working as a subeditor at the Bangkok Post, which is a difficult job. (Imagine editing a single-source story written by Google Translate.) But it paid well and the hours were amazing: five hours a day. So I had lots of time to sit in coffee shops and think about journalism.

That’s when I came across Compass Cultura. I subscribed immediately, partly because I thought I might want to freelance for them someday. The founder, Jeff Campagna, told me later that I was his first subscriber. I never did write for Compass, but I did buy it.

I fell in love with Compass because it was so effortless and so ambitious. The subscription price of $2 made so much sense. Everybody in the journalism world was sitting around wondering how to pay for journalism, and here’s a guy who just says: Well, just give me a tiny bit of money every month, and I’ll give you great writing and photography.

Two months later, I released the first issue of Latterly under the same business model. We’d charge $3 but produce more original stories. We also ran a Kickstarter campaign that surpassed its goal by 25 percent. Latterly came into the world with about $12,000 to play with.

Fast forward to April, May, June of this year. Jeff and I were realizing that, despite selling high-quality journalism for a very low price, it’s really difficult to get people to pull out their credit cards for you.

But between the two publications, we had more than 300 paid subscribers. Whereas Latterly was pulling in only about $400 from paid subscriptions, the two publications combined were earning more than $650 per month. Latterly spends about $1,150 per month on writing, photography and web/app fees.

It was a very similar readership, too. Latterly was always a little more newsy, and Compass was a little more travel-oriented. But both were about narrative international reporting and substantially not that different. By July, Jeff was ready to sell.

We’re not disclosing the exact terms of the sale, but basically Latterly acquired everything: the website, the stories, the branding, the social media accounts and the subscriptions. The last part is the real value. We now have more than 300 subscribers paying about $650 per month. Obviously, it’s not breaking even, but it’s a huge boost.

My goal is by the end of the year to close that $500 monthly gap. I can do that in a few different ways. I could find 193 new paid subscribers, but that’s pretty much impossible. I could sell inexpensive bulk subscriptions to membership associations and other organizations. I could also sell sponsorships for our excellent new newsletter, which has 1,350 subscribers right now. I’m also working on providing journalism (the real kind, not the branded kind) to outside organizations using the same talent and technology that powers Latterly. I believe that by 2016, some combination of these steps will have paid off and Latterly will become indefinitely sustainable.

But I’m also going to try a few other things to leverage Compass Cultura’s massive following. One of those things is to swap the Twitter accounts of Latterly and Compass. Compass has 19,500 followers, but the website, for now, is dormant. Latterly, meanwhile, is an active publication with only 980 Twitter followers. It makes sense for us to try to leverage the larger following.

I’m going to make the switch sometime this evening. So, if you follow @latterlymag, you’re going to want to refollow us over the next couple of days. If you follow @CompassCultura, you’ll soon be following Latterly. If I hadn’t said anything, I doubt anyone would notice the difference: It’s little old me managing both accounts anyway.

Yeah, that’s the other thing. Even though we acquired Compass Cultura, we didn’t expand the staff. Jeff and his wife, Tania, who co-created Compass, are still living in Panama. Jeff builds motorcycles now. (Yes, he’s a badass.) And I’ve incorporated Latterly Media, LLC, in the state of Florida with just one employee. (Hi!)

Baby steps. But we’re getting there.

Our anniversary issue comes out in November. (Wait till you see it!) Year Two of Latterly magazine will be a challenging adolescent year, but I think we’ll head into Year Three with the maturity of an old publication — and a much larger budget.

If you’re a longtime supporter or a new convert, thanks for making the dream of ad-free international journalism real. This is too important to give up when the going gets tough.

Plus, I’m having too much fun.

Ben Wolford is the editor and founder of Latterly magazine.

Subscribe to Latterly for $3/month.

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