Why a NASCAR reporter left USA Today and launched a Patreon account

Jeff Gluck didn’t leave USA Today for the typical reasons one would leave a cushy reporting job at a national newspaper. He didn’t get an offer at another publication. He wasn’t fired or laid off. He didn’t decide to change careers or go back to grad school. Instead, the decision came down to not wanting to live in Charlotte, North Carolina anymore. “My wife was looking for jobs all over the country,” Gluck told me in a phone interview, and there was a good chance that whatever job she ended up taking would require a move. He told his USA Today bosses as much. “We’d been talking about it for a few months, and they kept saying, ‘Look, we need someone in Charlotte.’ They just made it pretty clear that relocation wasn’t really an option.”

So during NASCAR’s offseason, which stretches from November of January, Gluck mulled over his options. “I made a decision in early January,” he said. “I circled back with them one more time and told them I understood their position because a lot of news does go on in Charlotte, and I could understand why you’d want someone there. But it just wasn’t going to work for me.”

This might sound like a risky move, especially considering that NASCAR’s fanbase has shrunk over the last decade as the sport’s failed to attract new millennial fans. It used to be every newspaper in the South had a dedicated NASCAR reporter, but these days, according to Gluck, there are maybe a dozen journalists devoted to it full time. But Gluck wasn’t taking as big a risk as it might at first seem.

In his more than a decade covering NASCAR, he had built up a substantial and loyal following within the motorsports community. He got his start on the beat while working as a sports reporter at a small North Carolina newspaper in the mid aughts. Most of his time was spent covering high school games, but his bosses informed him one day they were going to send him to a NASCAR race. “I wasn’t too big on NASCAR,” he said. “I thought it was pretty boring. I grew up in Northern California, so I didn’t have any exposure to it.”

But Gluck was in for a surprise; he actually enjoyed the race. So he decided to launch his own NASCAR column at the paper, traveling to races during his days off. A year or so later, he took a job at a magazine called NASCAR Scene and fully devoted himself to the beat. When that magazine folded, he started discussing a writing position with the folks at sports blog network SBNation, and it was during his negotiations that Gluck began to realize he had built an audience that would follow him from publication to publication. “I actually was able to get the SBNation job because they saw I had a decent Twitter following at the time,” he said. “And they said, ‘Hey listen, we think your audience might come along with you, so we’ll essentially give you a franchise and you can do whatever you want. We don’t have any NASCAR content, so you’ll just be responsible for building it up.”

Flash forward to his January decision to leave USA Today. Gluck had over a hundred thousand followers on social media and a sense that he could leverage that audience to strike out on his own. “I always had it in the back of my mind that this might be a fallback if I ever needed it, a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ sort of thing,” he said. “It was nice to know I had a group of people who would be really supportive if I needed to turn to them.”

The question was how to monetize that audience once he struck out on his own. At first, he considered some kind of paywalled site. “The more I thought about it, I thought, I just don’t want to,” Gluck said. “If you put your stuff behind a paywall, then you’re really limiting your audience and you’re also cutting off people who may have been supportive but really can’t afford to do something like that. You’re saying hey, thanks for your support over the years, I know times are tough for you, but you can no longer read anything I write, sorry.”

Gluck came across another potential business model while listening to a podcast hosted by Rob Cesternino, who appeared on multiple seasons of Survivor and then launched several podcasts focused on reality TV. “I listen to him all the time, and he always mentions on his podcast, ‘Hey, if you want to become a patron of the podcast, here’s how you do it.’ At one point, probably a year and a half ago, I was like, hey, I listen to this podcast like three times a week, hell yeah, I’ll give him some money, I want him to keep going.”

Cesternino, like many podcasters, uses Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that utilizes a membership model in which users can subscribe to their favorite content creators. The artist sets various monthly payment tiers that correspond to different rewards, and at the beginning of each month a subscriber has that amount deducted from their credit card. “I started wondering if any journalists were embracing Patreon,” Gluck recalled. “I couldn’t really find a success story, but I thought that [Cesternino] is basically a Survivor journalist; he’s covering it and doing interviews. And I thought, well, maybe if I go to my audience and say, hey listen, this is my situation, and if you guys want to keep me around, this is what I’m going to be doing, and if not, I understand, no pressure.”

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After choosing Patreon as his monetization platform, next Gluck had to figure out where his journalism would actually live. At first, he thought about launching a branded website with a NASCAR-themed name. “There are a lot of places out there that have a lot of cutesy racing names, and I actually looked for a few on Godaddy,” he said. “But all the names that were left just sounded kind of cheesy, and I just ran out of time before I launched the site to come up with a good name. So I just ended up going with my own name, and it sort of stuck I guess.” He began publishing new content to JeffGluck.com and, in late January, he launched his Patreon account with an accompanying video.

The response was immediate. “I just went to my Twitter audience and said, ‘Here’s what I’m doing,’” he recalled. “I had told everybody a few days before that it was my last day at USA Today and I’d be able to give details about what was next in a few days. That was on a Friday, and on the Monday I announced what I was doing. So I think people were looking out for it.” Prominent NASCAR journalists and drivers, after subscribing, then tweeted out the link to their own follower lists. Within just a few weeks, he’d amassed several hundred subscribers.

And then in March, he got a lucky break. Gluck was at a race in Las Vegas and happened to have his camera filming when two drivers, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, got into a fist fight. There were no camera crews around and so he had the exclusive. “The video took off and went viral,” he said. “And so because of that, I got a whole huge boost in subscribers because people were like, ‘If he wasn’t at the track, then nobody would have seen this video, so let’s keep him at the track.’” By the time the subscriptions leveled off, he had over 800 subscribers who were paying $6,500 a month.

So how does Gluck reward his fans for subscribing to his Patreon? At the $2-a-month level, you get behind-the-scenes posts and videos about what’s going on in his life. For instance, after his wife got a job in Portland, he decided to first make the announcement for the move to these subscribers. Those paying $5 a month gain exclusive access to a private Facebook group. Gluck gave me access to the group; it has about 500 members, many of whom post and comment several times a day. “My goal is to be in [the Facebook group] at least once a day,” he said. “Sometimes I get sidetracked with other stuff and a couple days go by, but for the most part I try to be in there regularly participating in the conversations and commenting on things.”

About 70 percent of his subscribers fit within these first two tiers, but he also offered up more expensive tiers — all the way up to the $100-a-month level. For instance, at $50 a month, he offers to get on a 30-minute phone call with the subscriber. At the $100 level, for which there are  currently 10 subscribers, he gives them an “assignment editor” role where they have regular, direct input into what he covers. “I’ll ask for advice sometimes or run stuff by them — try to figure out what they’re thinking.”

With his Patreon subscribers generating $6,600 a month, Gluck has a run rate of almost $80,000 a year. This number is misleading, he said, because about half of that money is going toward his travel expenses to races. In other words, he’s still a ways off from matching his former salary at USA Today. He’s at least a little worried that the amount shown on Patreon might dissuade future subscribers. “If they go to my page they’re going to see this big number there, so they’re going to be like, ‘Why am I going to give this guy more?” His growth in subscribers has slowed considerably, mostly because he hasn’t done much to promote the Patreon account since it first launched; there’s a link to it on the sidebar of his website, but that’s pretty much it. He’s been reluctant to continue plugging the Patreon account, but his friends and colleagues have encouraged him to get over his qualms about asking for money.

I wondered how his coverage has changed since leaving USA Today and whether he’s getting the same level of access to sources without the big name publication behind him. “I was definitely prepared for a big fall off [of sources talking to me],” he said. “When I went from the NASCAR magazine to SBNation, it became a lot harder to get interviews because nobody had heard of SBNation at the time. When I went to USA Today, it’s like suddenly every door is open, and you’re dealing with all these pitches every day, and everyone wanted you to do something.” But since striking off on his own, he said, “I’ve gotten about 95 percent of what I’ve asked for.” It’s rare that an interview request gets turned down.

As for his coverage, he said eschewing an advertising-based business model has been intensely freeing, as he doesn’t have to chase stories that will generate pageviews. “With my business model it does not matter if I get one click or 10,000 clicks on a story,” he said. “So I’m just constantly saying, ok, what are people going to be interested in? If there’s a story that pops up that a lot of my colleagues are covering and I don’t see the point of writing about it, I’ll just do something else instead.” His writing has also grown more conversational. “It’s a much more personal relationship with the readers. It feels more like talking with them one-on-one rather than making this grand pronouncement of ‘behold my article.’ It’s more of like, hey guys, here’s what I’m seeing, here’s what I’m looking at, here’s what I think.”

For this reason, Gluck doesn’t think he’d take another job at a mainstream publication, even if one comes knocking. “I really feel like this is sort of an ideal situation,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun, and I feel like a lot of my readers are enjoying it and having fun with it. You get in sort of a rut with whatever job you’re in for a long time, and this new challenge has sort of gotten me out of that. I‘m having the time of my life, and it’s been probably the best year of my life. I figure, why mess with a good thing?”

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com