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We need to talk… Is the business model for online journalism broken?


You might have witnessed the recent spat between online journalist Nate Thayer and the online arm of respected US magazine, The Atlantic.

In a nutshell, Thayer was asked by an Atlantic editor if she could use a piece of his, which he would have to shorten and edit. He wouldn't receive any payment for the submission, but rather exposure to its sizeable (a claimed 13 million) audience.

An enraged blog post by Thayer, a swift counter-statement from Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic and a spewing of hysterical Tweets later, the one thing that this whole exchange has brought to light is that these are uncertain times for online journalism and its business model. We need to talk...


You don't get nothing for nothing

I've existed on both sides of this particular fence – both as a freelancer trying to scrape a living in the face of declining standards, pay rates and increasing output expectations; to being an online editor, attempting to squeeze the best quality *and* quantity while having next-to-zero budget.

Of course, Thayer makes completely valid points – he's a professional writer, why should he assist a for-profit organisation by giving away his content for free? This is his living, and believe me, it's not an easy one.

And Madrigal makes a similarly impassioned response: since media went online, advertising revenue went into freefall – online editors have to struggle daily with the demands of a flooded marketplace, attempting to land stories to woo readers and the fickle social-sharing sphere while all the while relying on a shrinking budget.

What's clear is that the frustration from both (genuinely passionate) parties hints that something is broken in online publishing.

Madrigal explains his options rather nicely, in a way I know that nearly every online editor will appreciate:

1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It's someone else's content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)

Now, I'd love to spend more time on No.1, but most days I am simply too busy working on 2,3 and 4. I flatter, I wheedle, I call in favours. My “free content radar” is scanning for opportunity at all times. And I don't know a single online editor for whom this isn't the case.

But here's my policy – if the piece is one that is provided for free from an industry expert rather than a full-time writer, then it needs to be good. It might need a day-long rewrite from me to be site-ready and to check that the agenda is sound, but it has to provide genuinely useful take-home information or points of inspiration for our readership. In return, you get exposure for your company, traffic for your site or increased visibility in your sector. I get good content from interesting people. You get seen.

Stuart Dredge wrote a lovely well-balanced piece that explains his different hats when he is promoting his personal website and brand to when he is writing a straight freelance article.

I also get approached by many young, hopeful freelance writers. Approximately three arrive in Berlin every hour. I ask them for three pitches and to provide the first piece of copy for free. If it's good, we talk about paid pieces. That way I can build up a decent bank of contributors, and get a risk-free example of their talents. And they get paid if they're any good.

Fast, good, cheap – pick two

fast cheap good

I remember my time as a freelance journalist in the bad old SEO-chasing, land-grab days. The gadgets and technology sector was especially soul-destroying, as a million hardware websites paddled around in keyword soup, driven by the twin tides of product releases and Google algorithms, producing Onion-esque headlines to boost uniques (never mind the bounce rates, advertisers rarely asked about those).

I was once requested, at a senior level, to edit a website, supply five articles plus an opinion piece per day for £80. Without simply spewing out press releases, this is simply impossible, not to say insulting and depressing.

The good news is that there seems to be a genuine swing back to quality, long-form journalism online. Or at least a division into aggregation behemoths such as Buzfeed and HuffPo, who I would lump in with the sudden spate of list-based lifehack sites that scream “share me”! Both are akin to watching the web eat itself and shit out the contents.

As Paul Carr puts it in his bold mission statement for his new NSFW network: “There will be far fewer of these sites than there are now, but those that remain will be highly profitable, fantastically soul-destroying places to work.”

On the other side, Look at the critical success of Vice's pivot from hipster fanzine to creating outstanding long-form pieces and great videos. Or the reaction when Gizmodo goes gonzo. Or the existence of carefully considered and curated sites such as Fair Observer or The New Inquiry. After the initial sugary rush of limitless free content, online readers seem to be putting down their spoons and demanding quality over quantity.

What's the future for online journalism?


Madrigal's response delves painstakingly into the numbers and the compromises needed to succeed in ad-supported online journalism. But what of other models? I don't know an online editor who wants banner advertising on their site. And I don't know any web user who clicks on them except by accident.

Carr points to a future where numerous models and revenue streams will be tested. NSFW is planning eBooks, audio reports, unlockable social content. A growing amount of independent publishers are dipping their toes into paid-for models – The Magazine by Instapaper creator and tech writer Marco Arment is an app offering long-form pieces for mobile consumption; individual journalists are experimenting with paid-for apps and self-publishing; numerous mags are starting Kickstarter campaigns to launch; The New Inquiry ia allowing PBS-style reader contributions to pay contributors.

Just like music publishing before it, the written word needs disruptive new models in order to survive online. Music consumers have adjusted to the fact that ad-free, cost-free, high-quality music simply doesn't happen any more. And what's more, they're willing to pay for stuff that continues to amaze, delight and enlighten them. It's time that publishing viewed its industry with the same eyes.

Strike a balance, experiment, create something you believe in


So what's to be done? As I've said, the fact that The Atlantic issue has created such a reaction of passionate frustration within the industry is because the answers aren't yet apparent.

An obviously pressured Madrigal concludes on a rather defeatist note, stating: “The biz ain't what it used to be,” and that he wishes he had a better answer for Thayer. Dredge has a rather more optimistic take: “The present is a frightening, revenue-squeezed, uncertain mess – yet it’s also marvellous, fast-moving potential-packed…”

Have (paid) interns. Have a backbone of short-form news, possibly even aggregated. Allow staff members (if you're lucky enough to have them) the time to develop long-form opinion pieces on subjects that excite them. Make sure you pay and nurture stellar freelancers. Get free content from those with a product or platform to promote. Experiment with payment methods. Branch out to events and meetups. Offer premium unlockable content. Consider print. Trial weekly paid-for dispatches or newsletters. Make it work.

But above all, be profoundly thankful that enough people still care enough in quality journalism to keep this debate alive.

Image credits
Please Pay: flick user allaboutgeorge
Typewriter: flickr user olivander
Drop: flickr user Ecstaticist 

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