Paying for great writing in the Internet age

Rather than continuing to vent my rage over The Atlantic trying to pay a writer with publicity, I want to talk about how we can save great writing.

Great writing is probably never going to generate the most pageviews, and an ad model focused on pageviews, and not quality or demographics or time spent actually reading a piece, is not going to support great writing.

The Web has brought lots of new forms of journalism, and is allowing us to tell stories in completely new ways that are often better than we ever had before. Blogging has taken beat reporting to a new level. The Web, however, has not been a friend to great writing.

Needless slideshows of written text, link-bait headlines, contrarian arguments rooted in nothingness, top 10 lists and gifs will generate pageviews. None of those are remotely great writing.

In print, there never was spammy SEO or link bait. A well researched and written piece would find an audience. A great piece could carry an entire $4.99 magazine.

I have been skeptical in the past about paywalls and pay meters. But that skepticism is largely rooted in the fact that most news organizations and blogs — even traditional outlets — have embraced pageview gaming, suspect SEO practices and link baiting. That content is not worth paying for, and if advertisers want to pay by the pageview for that, so be it. It’s a match made in Internet Hell.

It may be time for those of us who love great writing and reporting to say enough is enough. Gone are the days when advertisers would pay a premium to be placed next to a premium product.

Great writing will never be supported by publicity. Or a token $100. Great writing takes time, research, retrospection and craftsmanship.

So, how do we support great writing?

We can sign up for paid accounts with news orgs that have them, but this would require those news orgs to produce great content. The New York Times, unlike most of its contemporaries, didn’t dismantle its ability to write good stories and do good reporting. While I disagree with the amount they charge for a digital subscription, and think a lower amount would ultimately bring them more revenue, I’m still a paying subscriber.

I remain unconvinced that most large dailies have enough left to warrant paying for. Great journalism takes time, knowledge and research, and Web ad models have struggled to support this. I’m not willing to pay for a piece based on anecdata or a story largely lifted from a press release or a no-research opinion piece.

For news organizations that used to produce great writing and would like to do so moving forward, perhaps they need a paywall around just that great writing and let advertising be the way to pay for the quick hitters, beatblogging and daily updates. The kind of content that The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic and newspapers’ magazines produce (or used to in some cases) was always expensive and often didn’t make much money. Those pieces were never the most popular, and with a business model centered around popularity, we need another way to pay for it.

We have a choice: Either we break out great writing and find a specific business model for it, or we risk losing it.

For individual writers looking to fund their writing, I highly recommend crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter. We recently got funded a $15,000 reporting package on Antarctica. People are willing to fund journalism, and are perhaps even more willing to fund reporting through Kickstarter than sign up for paywall access.

When you pitch a stories or a series on Kickstarter, people know what they are getting and know that a lot of time and effort will go into it. When you sign up for generic paywall access, you’re also paying for the poorly reported stories that rely on anecdata and for the opinion pieces with no research and for link bait stories that are more infuriating than informative. A lot of people don’t want to pay for that.

Journalists can also sell Kindle Singles, short ebooks that can house long-form journalism. Instead of trying to get a piece into an existing publication and attempt to get just compensation for it (usually north of free), sell it directly to consumers for $0.99 or $1.99 or something reasonable.

This idea can be combined with the Kickstarter. Your Kickstarter backers can fund the research, reporting and writing of a piece or series, and have first crack at your finished work, but then you can sell that work on the Kindle, iBooks, Nook and other e-reader stores.

Think of Kickstarter as an advance that pays for your time and Kindle Singles as a way to generate some additional income. To get your name out there and to connect with readers and fans, you’ll need a personal site with a blog. You want to keep people updated on your work and make it easy for them to find what you have done and how they can get a hold of it.

In between long-form pieces, you can do short written pieces for free on your own blog. If you’re going to blog for free or for insulting sums of money, why not do it for yourself, keep your dignity and generate publicity for yourself? Eventually, your blog may become popular enough that you can justify selling ads yourself like several Web writers do.

News orgs can do the same thing, although I think they should adjust the strategy. Kindle Singles and similar ebook platforms are something very much worth exploring for them. But I would go beyond that.

The Magazine is a new iPad-only publication that focuses on medium-length writing. It comes out twice a month and each issue usually has 4–6 stories in it. While I think the writing has been uneven thus far, and I’d like to see a lot more research and reporting go into most stories, especially the personal essays, which would be a lot better if they took the Harper’s approach to essay writing, consumers have embraced the publication. It is off to a pretty good start, and it’s showing a sustainable way to create a new news publication focused on writing that isn’t reliant on ads, click bait, spammy SEO headlines, slideshows, top 10 lists or other gimmicks.

The Magazine is, in my opinion, the best journalism app for the iPad when it comes to content presentation and readability (trust me, readers appreciate readability). It’s all about the writing, and it feels like a truly native iPad experience rather than an app trying to mimic print on a glass screen.

News orgs could create a monthly tablet publication similar to The Magazine that puts together their best long-form writing each month. The Magazine has eschewed complicated print-style pagination and layouts for something simpler, cleaner and less time intensive to put together.

Traditional news orgs really need to look at more innovative ways to showcase their best written content: Kindle Singles, tablet apps similar to The Magazine, strong Web layouts, etc. Do it all, and try to make money each step of the way. Fight, scratch and claw your way to making money off of good content.

Pricing also helps The Magazine. News orgs like to give people huge discounts on subscription over single issues when they sign up for a year, but that’s a print anachronism. What we have found is that people are more willing to sign up for a shorter duration and just have it auto renew for them. A lot of people will balk at committing even $24.99 a year, but $1.99 a month? Why not?

With the iTunes Store and other platforms, most of those subscriptions will auto renew month after month after month, essentially giving you yearly subscribers without the high initial cost that causes most people to balk.

For great bloggers that work a beat and like to write long-form pieces from time to time, of which I am very found of, they also may need to find ways to package their best long-form content and make additional money off of it. The core writers at The Atlantic all have beatblogs, but they also produce long-form written pieces for the print edition. The print edition can support those pieces, but for bloggers at news orgs without access to a vehicle to subsidize that great writing or for independent bloggers, looking to Kindle Singles, Kickstarter and other means of bringing in money may make a lot of sense.

These are just a few of my ideas, but rather than stew about how news orgs aren’t paying for great writing anymore, let’s try to find solutions. We need to get creative, and luckily for us, there are a lot of creative solutions to be had. And we no longer need traditional gatekeepers to produce great writing and reporting.

  • http://billbennett.co.nz billbennett

    If you think this is a problem is a large market like the US, it’s even harder in a small country like New Zealand. You’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of media entities here that are profitable and can honestly claim to be editorially independent. Our problem is simply size – we’re not going to get 1 million clicks in a day when the total population is just 4 million people. 

    • http://twitter.com/pwthornton Patrick Thornton

      I can imagine this is a huge issue in smaller markets. How has the reaction been to paywalls, pay meters and other ways of paying for journalism beyond advertising? In smaller markets, advertising is probably even harder to work with.

      • http://billbennett.co.nz billbennett

        What appears to be New Zealand’s only obviously profitable online media outlet, The National Business Review has a successful paywall. As the name suggests it’s a specialist business newspaper.

        Otherwise, media outlets seem over dependent on Google ads – which is in no way a business model – especially where there’s not the international volume. There’s a huge local inventory oversupply – I’m not sure if this is better or worse than in other countries. 

        A few independents around scoop.co.nz have their own media sales organisation which attempts to break the Google Ad mould with some success. 

  • http://CMBW.us/blog Craig Martin

    Very well stated about editors not being forced to stuff spammy or SEO links into a magazine.

    I think there’s still some potential to have a legitimate system – perhaps on the Kindle or tablet apps – that resembles a print magazine.. but I’m sure some of the “modern” ways will creep in.

    Thanks for the post!
    –Craig

  • HM Epstein

    Thank you! I am so happy to have read this post on this particular day when I was despairing of ever making a living wage as a journalist again. While I work with pubs, print and online, that do pay me well for my articles, the number of assignments has dropped as news outlets have closed. I think your suggestions are highly doable.

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  • EduNewsDaily

    Thank you so much for this article and for the resources. I greatly appreciate it.