Just three months ago a group of nine publishers, Popula among them, concluded a Kickstarter crowdfunding of more than $90,000 to build a cooperative journalism platform. We launched this new home, The Brick House, on December 9th. We’re still in the earliest stages of building, but it’s already a rare, beautiful reading experience, and we love it.
In the three weeks we’ve been live, The Brick House has published the story of one woman’s lifelong love of lingerie, an exposé of the U.S. congressmembers who voted no on COVID-19 relief for their fellow citizens while pocketing millions in PPP money for themselves, the Quest for Corvo-like tale of an Italian man obsessed with immortality and blood-swapping, riveting movie reviews from Taipei, a sumptuous comic about a lady’s inadvertent voyage to the Moon, instructions on how to become a confused-ass Muslim, new poetry from Africa, podcasts from New York about a psycho news guy and the loss of a beloved Cadillac, a column that asks how people are sleeping, a meditation on transnational solidarity and the Milk Tea Alliance, a report on what happens when you introduce the infamous Harper’s letter to an AI language generator, the story of a neighbor’s betrayal in Soviet-controlled Poland, and a strangely moving newsletter about penguins.
But the feast of reason and the flow of soul at The Brick House is part of a much larger objective. We’re creating a home for this kind of work to grow and thrive sustainably—and not just for our nine founding publications. Our goal is to expand The Brick House into a great realm comprising more and more publishers, writers, artists and editors, all working together safeguard our independent publications, and all sharing the proceeds equitably between ourselves. We believe this expansion plan to be unique to The Brick House.
Other new publishing ventures are taking a strikingly different approach. Substack, for example, is a portfolio company of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Last year, Andreessen Horowitz led a $15.3 million Series A round at Substack in exchange for an undisclosed equity stake. “So what?” you may be thinking. “Isn’t this how business today works?” And you would be right! Venture capitalists invest a lot of money in new companies in the expectation of a return on their investment. That means Substack writers, vital and brilliantly talented as so many of them are, aren’t working for themselves alone—they’re working for Andreessen Horowitz, and Substack. I am not about to knock any journalist who can make a decent living in these rough times; I mean to draw attention to the fact that investors expect to make a lot of money from their work.
By contrast, The Brick House is an old-fashioned startup, the kind that really starts in a kitchen or garage (not a fake one forced on after the fact, like Cinderella’s stepsisters wrestling the glass slipper on). It begins with a few wildly talented people, plus a good idea and a little money of their own; doing the work, building the business to create a sustainable living for themselves.
Venture capitalists, owners and investors like to refer to themselves as “job creators,” or even “wealth creators.” In fact, in the case of Substack, and of the many other media companies controlled by investors and owners, the opposite is true: writers, editors and artists are the ones creating the wealth—for them. (Just as the legions of warehouse workers and manufacturers and drivers and Washington Post reporters are wealth creators for Jeff Bezos… but I digress.)
In any case, as we’ve seen in media over the life of the internet, the priorities of owners, investors and advertisers have consistently outweighed those of the journalists who rely on their money to survive. That’s largely why the U.S. has lost tens of thousands of media jobs over that time.
But what if things were different?
Our goal at the Brick House is to put writers, editors, and artists in charge of our own livelihoods, sustainably and into the future. Not only to protect our jobs, but to ensure that we can keep publishing the first-quality, freethinking work we want to make.
Unlike traditional newsrooms, which tend to pay white men the most, The Brick House shares everything we take in with each other. Our founding editors are a demographically diverse group based in Lagos, Taipei, Cape Town, and nine U.S. cities. We promote one another. We work to advance the fortunes of The Brick House collectively while working on our own individual projects.
We’re taking no money from anyone who would expect us to operate at a profit for their benefit. No loans, no ad money. Whatever money we raise, we will either share or retain for the sole benefit of our membership. These principles are outlined in the Operating Agreement we all sign when we join the cooperative. And maybe most importantly of all, our equity structure is such that the Brick House Cooperative is permanently not for sale to anyone. (This is a super rare thing.)
So how long can we keep this going? We have no idea!
We sought no war chest, in order to avoid handcuffing ourselves to those who brought the money. The Brick House will last as long as readers and friends of the independent press support it.
Since our Kickstarter crowdfunding closed in late September, we’ve basically built the site and thrown open the door. We’re working hard and growing every day. The more readers subscribe, the sooner we will be able to make our model work, and bring on new writers and artists. You can help!!
And finally, thank you so much for making this difficult year so unexpectedly rewarding for all of us at Popula. Thank you for reading Popula! Thank you, thank you. We can’t wait to bring you more diversely interesting and mindblowing things to read and enjoy together in 2021, the more hopeful year to come.