A La Carte Journalism: Where People (and Reporters) Set the Agenda

Other companies have tried and failed to institute a paywall for this new way of reading news. Why are we suddenly hopeful that this model could work?
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So you want to do investigative journalism? Or produce a TV series? Or create a biopic? But you don't have the money to fund it? No problem. Ask your future consumers for money.

The conundrum in journalism today is that most people are not willing to pay anything for content. At the same time, there is a small pool of consumers that is willing to pay a large amount of money to see a story covered or content produced on a specific topic.

So what do journalists and media organizations do? Tap into the generosity of a few to fund production for many.

And this is just as well, since the one-size-fits-all model of old-school journalism no longer works. As On the Media's Brooke Gladstone pointed out recently, "consumer surplus" is the latest, and arguably one of the most successful ways, to pay for media productions. This is the reason for the success of independent crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

In its initial years, crowdfunding started as a platform for independent journalists seeking to fund stories they deeply cared about, but this avenue is now being used by household names in media and entertainment. Spike Lee has a Kickstarter campaign for a new movie on addiction and screenwriter Rob Thomas raised $5.7 million for a Veronica Mars movie.

Setting aside the question of whether celebrities should be exploiting the masses for their pet projects, crowdfunding appears to be the way to go for most media projects.

In a journalism landscape where it is getting harder and harder to obtain revenue through page views and subscriptions, perhaps carefully cultivating and pursuing your audience, however esoteric, may not be such a bad idea.

Little wonder then that well-known journalists like Andrew Sullivan with such impressive past affiliations as The Atlantic and The Daily Beast are turning to their core community of readers for support. Earlier this year, Sullivan gave up his affiliation to The Daily Beast and made his incredibly successful blog, The Dish, his primary online home. And he's making money by selling his brand: for unlimited access to every blog post in its entirety, readers pay $19.99 a year. Rob Leathern, CEO of a social media analytics firm called Optimal, told NPR that Sullivan's readers spend an average 17 minutes a day on the site, and a whopping 80 percent check in twice a day. Sullivan's former colleague, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has stayed on at The Atlantic, but fosters a well-knit community of readers in the comments section of his blog on the magazine's site.

Reaching out to devoted followings with unique voices and personalities and cultivating a community of readers and viewers may be one characteristic of journalism that hasn't changed much over the century.

The media has always been about brands. Be it the face of a television anchor like Walter Cronkite or the voice of a radio host like Paul Harvey, journalists' personal brands have been part and parcel of American living rooms for decades. Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe's unique writing styles and the look, feel and personality of magazines like The Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Harper's -- which despite name changes, revenue problems and design overhauls -- have pretty much remained consistent over the decades are brands in themselves.

In the digital age, this idea of journalist as brand has become quite literally true. Social media has allowed journalists to communicate with their audiences on a person-to-person level, and blogs let readers follow and keep track of their favorite media personalities' thoughts and viewpoints almost in real time.

With crowdfunding, these same journalists can sell their journalism directly to readers without news organizations as mediators. Perhaps more importantly, it could be a model for true a la carte journalism consumption. Which is going to become more and more important as consumership gets atomized.

Ever since the advent of digital journalism, the responsibility (or freedom?) of curation has fallen to readers: RSS feeds and email alerts, individualized newspaper home pages, curated content from Twitter and Facebook, read-later and personalized magazine apps like Instapaper, Flipboard and the like: endless options where readers can tailor their news sources based on their favorite topics, publications and personalities.

This realization has led to pay-per-article news services hoping to capitalize on this new way of consuming news, offering readers the ability to buy individual news articles for a subscription directly from the journalists they support -- eradicating the "barrier" hitherto known as the media organization. The Journalism Shop debuted as early as 2006 and more recently, CrowdNe.ws came about, which describes itself as iTunes + KickStarter + News.

Mainstream media organizations, having battled with paywalls and subscription models without success, are also beginning to publish and distribute individual articles. Wired has tried the e-book approach and The Wall Street Journal sells individual videos and e-books that can be downloaded on tablet apps and e-readers like the Kindle and Nook.

The journalism world has been in an excited frenzy ever since Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos bought one of the country's stalwart newspapers, The Washington Post a few months ago. The takeover of a major name in journalism by a digital titan is certainly comforting for an industry that has struggled to handle the transition from subscription-driven dead-tree newspapers to the free-for-all online world. The industry went into a similar, albeit more muted, furor when Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought The New Republic last year.

Perhaps what Bezos' buyout spells best for journalism is his effective use of Amazon as a content distributor of news. And even as the world watches with bated breath if Bezos could do for journalism's distribution (and profitability) what Amazon did for the distribution of almost anything online, we can already celebrate Amazon's Kindle Singles as the best thing that has happened to journalism in a long time.

Running anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 words, nonfiction and journalistic pieces published by Kindle Singles occupy that heretofore platformless niche between articles and books.

No one has tapped into Singles better than Propublica, the New York-based independent nonprofit investigative journalism machine. Propublica has not only produced some of the best investigative pieces in recent years but has also been fairly successfully at distributing them across various channels. Singles are a perfect vehicle for the site's treatises on everything from the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the U.S. housing crisis to natural gas drilling and fracking.

Somewhere between the Internet destroying long-form journalism by erasing revenues and reducing attention spans, it has made in-depth narrative reporting popular again. As Nieman Journalism Lab's Megan Garber calls it, "the editorial normalization of long-form."

Sites like longreads.com and longform.org are aiding this newfound fondness for in-depth journalism. Applications like Instapaper and Read it later have defied the prediction that LCD screens don't allow the easy reading that paper provided for decades.

Is this a business model? We are not sure, yet. From a marketing perspective, Singles can advertise to specialized niches of audiences. A special issue on tennis, or a focused feature on hybrid cars could be a goldmine for advertisers.

And in an age of "diversifying your channels" -- Web, tablet, mobile, print -- Amazon Singles provide just one other channel to enhance revenues from a single story. And it certainly doesn't hurt to increase the likelihood of your story being seeing by Amazon's millions of customers worldwide.

Since we are still in the experimental stages of paid online journalism, perhaps, at the very least, Amazon getting involved in pay-per-story distribution of journalistic pieces could help us figure out how people's buying habits change for paid vs. free pieces, as Megan Garber has suggested.

In a journalism world atomized by an array of digital channels, such targeted stories are also attractive to consumers. E-singles such as Lifeboat No. 8, detailing the story of one of the first lifeboats to have left the doomed Titanic, have beat out traditional books on The New York Times bestseller list, and prolific investigative journalism pieces like Propublica's aforementioned Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks has topped its category of books on Amazon's bestsellers.

We are as close to a la carte story selling as we've ever been.

Way back when mobile content consumption was on the rise and Apple had just announced its upcoming iPad, media and technology pundits predicted that these handhelds would redefine journalism consumption.

Whether it solves journalism's paid content conundrum or not, one thing the Singles model can do is help pay journalists, or at least enable them to shop around for the best available wages. A couple years ago, Josh Benton anticipated an iTunes model of journalism through these very devices that would soon cut out the middleman, the news organization: "a way for an individual writer to kind of go around getting the approval of a glossy magazine editor or getting a newspaper editor's approval to get something to an audience."

Other companies have tried and failed to institute a paywall for this new way of reading news. Why are we suddenly hopeful that this model could work? Because now it involves the Amazons and the Apples of the world.

As Ken Doctor says, "They've got the customers and the credit cards, and they've tapped the willingness to pay."

That iTunes model of news all over again. It worked for music. We're very close to finding out if it will work for journalism.

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