Paying for Journalism Online

wpid-Photo-4-Jan-2013-0940-PM.jpgIt’s been some time now since the fall of Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Sully himself has moved back to a mainstream publication (this time the New York Magazine), and the world has moved on.

Andrew had an interesting idea. Continuing his blog as he had done on places like the Atlantic before, but on his own, allowing people to see a certain number of full-posts through a (leaky) paywall, but giving people full access for a single low yearly fee.

Alas, even Andrew Sullivan, with his huge blog following, couldn’t quite keep it going. For his own health, as much as anything else, he finally called it a day.

Does that mean his experiment failed? Does it mean that paying for online journalism just won’t work? I hope that’s not what people take out of his venture.

First of all, I’m just not sure people will pay to read a blog, that was mostly an aggregate of content from other sites. There might – and only might – be a viable platform for paying to read content, where there’s that direct link between the author and the reader.

The only truly viable platform that exclusively works like that right now is the humble book. Be it a “dead tree” version or an ebook. People, it seems, are still more than willing to pay to consume that written content.

You can say that people are still paying for newspapers and magazines too. Yes they are (though circulations are falling), but think about it, the cost of selling those publications almost never pays for the content. They all have adverts running in them. Today here in the UK, free papers like The Metro are actually (in an income/expenditure sense) among the most successful models right now. They make a lot of money, and don’t charge their consumers for that content.

However, that simple model isn’t working in the online world. Rewind a number of years back. Newspapers started getting websites. Journalists, keen to have their work  be seen by as many people as possible, convinced their bemused editors to let them post all their articles online. That content was available for free. But the value of the advertising (especially considering how clever those media-rich ads could be) was never really understood by the sales teams and editorial teams. Very quickly Google dominated that game, allowing advertisers pay pennies for ads whose equivalent in print would cost many pounds. Google was happy with this because they are working to scale. They can get tens of millions of customers and be quite happy. A modestly popular site that gets, say, 50,000 visitors a week will make a fraction of the revenue from advertising that a weekly magazine with a circulation of 50,000 would make from its ads.

So those appear to be the two main models that people concentrate on. However, I think there’s another model we dismiss at our peril.

Journalists (particularly older ones, like, say, Andrew Sullivan), really dislike “native ads”, sometimes called “sponsored content” or “advertorials”. These are articles usually made by the in-house editorial team, but used to promote a message by an advertiser. Some associate it with Buzzfeed (which does very well, btw), and the like. I don’t see why the concept, with a different tone, couldn’t work in other forms. I’m personally totally okay with that content, as are many of my fellow millennials.

I spoke to a load of people my age (and younger) about this. The response was fascinating. We often seem to be okay with advertorials, as long as they’re called “sponsor content” and is clearly labelled as such. We’re just as likely to read it (if it sounds interesting) as we are the rest of the content. We don’t like being deceived into thinking that an article is purely editorial rather than “sponsored content”, but apart from that, I think we’re okay with it. It’s just more content in the mix.

Unlike the Googlefication of banner ads, etc., sponsored content needs to be high-quality. It needs to be readable. For the consumer, it shouldn’t be in-your-face and offensive (like awful intrusive ads that block the content unless you find the ‘X’ to close it for example). And for the advertiser, it appears to actually have much higher conversion rates than an ad.

It’s scalable, but can’t be automated. A computer can’t automatically write a beautiful, artistic, engaging, clever article for a client. That takes good journalists and copywriters. Therefore, it can’t be made for a few cents. You need to spend real money, and get it out there.

I think that this kind of content can help pay for the other stuff, the content that’s unshackled from the burden of commercial pressures, while making it free to the consumer. It might be online journalism’s best hope for growth.

So I remain optimistic for the future of written journalism and content creation, and I see sponsor content – be it on blogs, news sites, Medium, etc. – as being one of the most interesting and practical ways of getting us there.

Imagine your favourite sites, clean, ad-free, fully-acessable and gratis, with sponsored content among the rest of the work. But paid for and sustainable.

So what do you think? Can sponsored content (done in the right way), be the digital shot-in-the-arm this business needs?

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