Dreamers Gonna Dream. Schemers Gonna Scheme.

David Burn
4 min readFeb 15, 2024

It’s hard to make money online. It’s even harder to make money from content online because content is supposed to be free. Sadly, that’s the baseline mindset for people browsing digital media, which makes it quite difficult for media organizations to exist.

In 2022, the estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) was 20.9 million for both weekdays and Sundays, down 8% and 10% respectively from 2021.

In 1985, newspapers had 63 million subscribers. Where did those subscribers go? They, and their children, became consumers of free online content.

“A Reckoning,” acrylic on paper by David Burn

Given how difficult it is for the best in the business to make it work, exactly how are individual creators supposed to make it work?

It seems that wherever I look, content monetization is the perplexing topic of the day. Suw Charman-Anderson recently wrote on Substack, “It used to be that success brought fame. Now you need to be famous in order to even get a shot at success.” How painfully true that is.

Charman-Anderson also pointed to the work of tech journalist Joan Westenberg who breaks down the myth of financial independence via the direct funding patronage model.

The promise of it is certainly attractive.

But it’s just not realistic.

The math is pretty simple, but not pretty.

Data from Patreon and Substack suggests the average conversion rate from follower to paying fan is about 5%. This means a creator would need a total fan base of 20,000 followers to yield 1,000 paying supporters.

Why 1000 paying supporters? It’s the benchmark for financial independence forwarded by Kevin Kelly in his famous essay, “1000 True Fans.” The author and tech thinker suggests that as long as you have 1000 “true fans” who will buy whatever you’re offering, you can make a living outside of the confines of the academy, government, or business.

The support of 1000 true fans sounds nice, but how difficult is it to attract 1000 paying customers, and continue to hold their attention in a way that keeps the income flowing? In other words, how successful will you be at self-promotion and monetizing your content?

Another Substack writer, Tara McMullen recently said self-promotion doesn’t work.

Read more at whatworks.fyi

McMullin argues that “enshittification” is to blame. What is it? It’s the process that platforms use to ensnare people, media companies, and advertisers in their web, diminishing all in the process. Last year, Cory Doctorow wrote about it in Wired.

He also had this to say about monetization:

“Monetize” is a terrible word that tacitly admits that there is no such thing as an “attention economy.” You can’t use attention as a medium of exchange. You can’t use it as a store of value. You can’t use it as a unit of account. Attention is like cryptocurrency: a worthless token that is only valuable to the extent that you can trick or coerce someone into parting with “fiat” currency in exchange for it. You have to “monetize” it — that is, you have to exchange the fake money for real money.

I publish a lot of content online and I’ve tried many monetization strategies in the past, including patronage on Patreon, micropayments, paid newsletters, advertising, and sponsored content.

My conclusion is always the same. I don’t have the scale to make these things work. There’s a dribble of income, but no reliable, sizable, or sustainable source of income.

Read me, pay me!

For creators vying for an audience, the hard reality is attention is scarce and money is tight. Complicating matters considerably, individual creators are every day going up against the best content in the world — the best films, albums, books, magazines, and newspapers available. This is also true for brands hoping to find an audience for their commercial messages.

In a culture where we’re all empowered (by technology) and recognized as makers (by proponents of technology), we’re all in the arena together and we’ve never heard anything this loud in our entire existence. Some of our voices sing while others are grinding and discordant. When it’s all mashed together as it is online, our individual voices get lost and on the occasions when we are heard clearly above the din, several someones are right there on our heels with their megaphones, pulling readers toward their content.

All this competition for readers is not good, healthy, or rewarding for the millions of skilled laborers who end up giving away their work for free, just to be part of the conversation, which isn’t a conversation at all. It’s a free-for-all and we who attend are made to wear bells and blow whistles. Or we can take our place at the back of the room.

It’s easy to see how resentment builds, along with disillusionment. People want an answer, a way to make a living from their work. Is it too much to ask? I think it is too much to ask of the Internet, where connections are loose and there are countless people selling the dream and feeding the illusion.


David Burn Bio: I taught myself HTML in 1999 and started publishing my writing on a handmade website. Since then, I’ve led a few digital awakenings, started a well-regarded advertising blog (2004), an agency content department (2006), and a brand marketing agency (2010). I’m pleased to report that all three are still open for business today. I also have had the pleasure of running workshops for creative teams, and speaking at several conferences and on university campuses.