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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Fighting “Writer’s Block”

WritingThere’s a lot of comments, blogs, articles, interviews with authors, and all sorts of stuff online about “writer’s block”, and what it really means. In fact, there’s so much, it can stop you from writing as you procrastinate and use up as much time as possible reading about writing problems rather than, you know, writing.

To be frank, it’s not something I’ve had much trouble with these days. So when I had a really charming letter from an aspiring writer the other day, who asked me what I do to overcome writer’s block – ironically – I couldn’t think of what to say to her.

But I’ve had a bit of a think, partly because the email was really sweet (I won’t repeat it here, she asked if I don’t as it contained specifics about her work that basically I’m too lazy to edit out), and partly because it got me thinking about my view on this alleged creativity-draining problem. So in the end, I came up with a reply, which she kindly let me share with you here. I’ve re-written it quite a bit to suit a more generic writer rather than specific issues of a specific problem.

With the disclaimer that my advice might sound crude, or undermining of a creative process you may have, I’m afraid that I only have blunt things to say about “writer’s block”, and how it may be overcome. They might not be warm and comforting comments, but I think they have the advantage of being spot-on in most circumstances, for most people.

My cousin, rather like my grandfather before him, is a trucker. Long-haul, big-rig stuff. The money’s pretty good, and it’s something he’s always wanted to do. He passed the Heavy Good Vehicle driver’s tests, and he earns enough to support his young family. He’s also a really great guy and a loving father to two adorable children.

Sometimes, somewhat unsurprisingly for a truck-driver, his job requires him to get up very early in the morning and drive from one end of the country to the other.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to suppose that sometimes the last thing he wants to do in the whole world is get out of bed very early in the morning, leave his lovely wife-to-be and great kids sleeping at home, and head to the depot to start the working day.

But he does it all the same. He gets up, goes out in the cold and dark, does the job, and – one assumes – almost certainly gets a sense of satisfaction out of knowing he’s done a good job for a good days pay.

In other words, he doesn’t get “trucker’s block”. It’s a job. It’s a job he likes. With the early starts and other aspects, he doesn’t always like every part of it (who does in any job?) but he does what he needs to in those times, and he is all the better for it.

If you are writing your first novel for example, (that’s the case of the writer who emailed me recently through this site), and you feel you’re getting what some on the internet have told you might be “writer’s block”, think of it as “trucker’s block”. And then it suddenly sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?

Yes, I know it’s disappointing that I don’t have some special, magic trick to share. But I do have that one tip. Call it “trucker’s block”. That’s my advice.

Because you might be writing for pleasure at the early stage of your endeavours, rather than the paycheck, it can be hard to carry on during the bits that aren’t as much fun. And that makes sense. Who wants to do a job they’re not enjoying if they don’t have to? My cousin wouldn’t get up at 4am to drive a lorry over to Whitstable from Stoke-on-Trent if he didn’t have to, and still got paid regardless.

And this is really the point. For the jobbing writer (of anything really, journalists, content-creators, copywriters, novelists, etc.), I’ve noticed that “writer’s block” is less of a phenomenon. Because like a trucker at four in the morning, you just have to get up and get on with it. It’s your job. If you really really hate everything about it, then why are you doing it? Seriously, go do something else and be happy. But if you don’t feel like it right now, when you booked yourself time to do it, I say force yourself to start anyway. After a while, the reflexes kick in, and at the end of the day or session, you feel pretty good about what you’ve done. Even if it’s mostly/partly junk and you’ll need to do something about it later. You did it, and that counts for something.

And here’s the odd thing that I think I’ve mentioned before. Sometimes when I get that feeling which some call “writer’s block”, it’s often because I’m really disliking what I’ve just written. Once again, instead of going “Ah, I’m not writing well today, I should leave it”, I force myself to carry on, because usually the next day, when I’m in a better frame of mind, I look at what I’ve written in that frustrated “blocked” period of time, and end up realising that I’m reading some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. Seriously.

Of course, your mileage may vary. This advice will help some, and annoy others. I’m sorry if you fall into the latter category. This isn’t a hard and fast rule for writing. I don’t believe that those exist.

It’s just that for me, there’s times when I don’t feel like writing something. But I don’t call that “writer’s block”, I call that “not wanting to write at the moment.” When I feel like that, I get on and do it anyway. Not to meet the deadline, not because of the paycheck, but because my cousin is a truck driver. And he has to get up and do his job too, so I don’t see why I’m any different.

Why Journalists Should Learn Markdown

Computer CodeHere in the UK, we have what is generally regarded to be the toughest training for journalists in the world.

One of the requirements of the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) is to learn Teeline Shorthand, up to 100 words a minute. If you don’t get your 100 words, you haven’t really passed.

There’s quite a bit of debate about whether or not we need to learn it any more. Those of us with the ability to write in shorthand find it invaluable, and those without it don’t think they’re missing out. Even I have to concede, American journalists are pumping out really great work, and shorthand has been missing as a core requirement for almost two generations.

Though I still highly recommend learning shorthand for a variety of reasons, (not least of all because it demonstrates a dedication to the field: a way of showing that you really want to be a journalist, not just someone who wants to get on TV/radio/your name in print), maybe there is one thing more relevant to a modern journalist that could be the new mandatory requirement: markdown.

I write in markdown all the time, and it’s really easy to use. In fact, there’s a good chance you know markdown even if you’ve never heard of it before.

Markdown is a useful tool for writing essentially raw text files, with a few little connotations that signify basic formatting. So putting some words *between two asterisks like this* signifies italics, putting words **between two asterisks like this** signifies bold, etc.

There’s also easy formats for headers, embedded photos, and hyperlinks. Once you’ve written in markdown, there’s a ton of free or cheap apps that convert it to full-blown HTML.

Why is this relevant to a 21st century journalist? Well, most journalists spend a not insignificant chunk of their time in CMS these days. That’s Content Management Systems, which is a fancy word for website back-ends like WordPress, and other more specialised systems. Every time you want to add a blog post or a new news story, you often write on your phone, tablet (I’m writing this post on my iPad) or computer, using a variety of applications, one of the big-daddies is of course Microsoft’s Word.

Then you can paste your article into the CMS page, click save and you’re done!

Except you rarely are done. Especially if you’ve written in Word, the funny formatting in that app can cause all sorts of headaches. If the journalist prefers to write in a particular font say, or a specific font size, that can translate into the page of the website, making it look totally out of style and step with the website’s visual design. Repairing it – and adding the hyperlinks and embedded images by too – is a subeditors nightmare.

So what options does a journalist have? Well, we could write in raw text. Certainly no formatting issues there, but unfortunately it won’t allow you to add emboldened text, headers, links, etc.

So we could all use HTML – but that might take time for many journalists and creative-types to learn, and a simple mistake in the coding could end up causing more problems than copy-and-pasting Microsoft Word’s text into the CMS in the first place.

So that leaves markdown. Simple to learn, easy to apply, you can do it in any word processing app (yes, including Word), and there’s even dirt-cheap apps that allow you see the effects of your markdown as you write (like Byword, which I’m writing this on right now. Using markdown).

It’s 2014. Journalists are all having to get to grips with content management sites now. For me, markdown makes putting things on so much easier, allowing you to concentrate on your content, and less on formatting issues.

To people who write negative responses to blogs, YouTube videos, etc…

THIS:

 

 

The Future of Written Journalism

I don’t know why I’ve thought about this quite a bit recently. I’m a huge fan of the blogosphere, and I’m really excited by the possibilities of the new digital journalism steps being taken by the main newspaper organisations (like the extract replica e-editions of newspapers, available to buy on a very cheap subscription basis). I also love the new contributors to the scene, who have arrived perfectly placed to take advantage of the digital sphere, like The Daily and the longer-running Daily Beast, which of course merged with Newsweek.

But there are problems. What’s the best business model for these new outlets? How many people are embracing them? Journos are losing their jobs in droves, how do we stop this decline? And indeed, should we be concerned with stopping this decline?

Lots of questions, issues and anxieties. People way more knowledgeable and smarter than me have weighed in on this topic, and I wouldn’t bother contributing unless I thought I had something useful to contribute myself. I’ve got a couple of ideas about the best business models the print world could adopt, and I lay them out here, knowing full-well that I’ve probably missed something out really significant, but I haven’t heard these suggestions made before, so what the hell – here it is, see what you think:

I want to reference two different types of print media: newspapers and magazines. I’m defining magazines are anything that comes out periodically, but not daily. So a monthly, fortnightly or weekly release. Newspapers are (obviously) defined as anything that comes out daily. Clear? Great.

Okay, magazines first. Mags make money partially from advertising revenue, but given the lack of frequency of release (once a week, or once a month), and the lower circulation figures, advertising revenue doesn’t pay a magazines way. Magazines, by and large, make their money from the actual sale of the magazine.

So if you’ve got a magazine that costs £5 say, then about 50p goes on the printing costs (it’s obviously more expensive than a newspaper, all that glossy goodness), about 20p on the distribution, and I’ll guess a £1.30 commission for the newsagent. That means that the average £5 magazine makes about £3 for the publisher, and another 30p per magazine in advertising revenue.

So to create an equivalent digital version for iPads and other tablets, is pretty simple (assuming you don’t put all your content for free online. If you do, then you’ll have to follow the newspaper business model, see below for that). Basically, if you charge about £4.25, then minus Apple’s (or whoever) 30% commission, it’s still £3 per copy purchased, and you could charge the same for the ads, thus making the same amount of money for the dead tree magazine version.

But there’s a vital difference. Typically, newspapers charge a CPM rate for online adverts (Cost Per Mille, or cost per thousand readers), that’s 2.5 times higher than the ads in a dead-tree model. That’s because the ads can be dynamic, they can be more tailored and animated to suit the audience, and crucially, when someone wants to find out more about that product or service, they can just click or tap on the ad, and they can go to a website or video or virtual shopping cart or whatever.

So you can sell ads and generate 75p for the same ads in the digital version. So if you sell the magazine that retails in a dead tree version at £5, (which gives the publisher £3 + 30p = £3.30), you can sell the digital copy that’s exactly the same for just £3.65 and make the same money. (£3.65 minus the digital distributor’s 30% commission = £2.55 + 75p for ad revenue = £3.30 per magazine bought). And you can charge even less for the magazine and sell more which increases the ad and sales revenue further and makes use of an economy of scale.

Newspapers have a totally different problem. The toothpaste is out, and you can’t get it back in the tube. Without understanding what it really meant, the editors happily let the reporters and columnists at all the local and national news outlets publish their content for free online. They had to in a way, competing with all the amateur bloggers, etc.

So now the content is free online. No going back. The ad-revenue per thousand is better than a newspaper ad, but people dive into a news site, see a few pages, and leave. That means they’re only seeing a few ads, even if it makes the news organisation more money per ad.

With a newspaper, a client has to pay upfront for the total estimated circulation to see the ad, whether that was 100,000 people or ten million. And everyone who buys the paper, probably sees all 50-70 ads that are published in the edition.

Digital app-based versions can fix this. When you buy a copy of the electionic paper, it’s a really good and delightfully accessible version, and the purchaser will see all those ads, and those ads are more ‘valuable’ (ads you can tap on them and go to the company website, etc) but…

…But why would you buy it? Sure, they can sell them way cheaper than the paper versions, but all this content is mostly free online, and if you hide it behind a paywall, your listenership will just ditch you and go to your competition.

I think that the best thing to do is dramatically increase your circulation by making the app-delivery totally free. Now that means that lots of people who download the paper each day won’t necessarily treat the paper with the same reverence, but they’ll be way more of them, and they’ll see a hell of a lot of those ads. Let’s just (probably very inaccurately) go over some example figures:

A dead-tree newspaper sells for, say, 55p. Once you buy raw materials, (paper, ink, plates, getting all that stuff delivered to the printers), get the paper printed, get it distributed, and account for the commission from the newsagent, the paper makes about 5p. Obviously, you can’t sustain a newspaper on 5p, (especially as less and less people buy them – why when you can see it all online?), so they need advertising revenue to make ends meet. The average paper generates, say 50p of ad-revue per purchased copy.

Now each ad can be charged at 2.5 times more on a digital tablet edition, and even if someone doesn’t read each ad because they just browse (as it’s available free), you still negate that by having a huge increase in circulation, which will only grow as the paper versions vanish.

So if for a typical circulation, a paper that costs 55p generates 55p of ad/sales revenue. If the current circulation is a million say, that’ll be £550,000 of revenue per day. But if the average person only sees a third of the ads in the paper on the digital version, based on a 2.5 increase in CPM price and a conservative increase in circulation from one million to two million, you’ll see revenue of 40p per download. That means over 2 million downloads would give you £800,000 per revenue per day.

There’s probably a million things wrong with this long, inarticulate badly-written rant, but I can’t help feel that creative destruction will solve the current problems that written journalism is facing. And while amateurs and Twitter will now always be the first with breaking news, professionally produced and written journalism will still provide the high-value contextualisation that we crave. There’s a need for it, and I’m sure there will be a business model that will make it work.

 

New Book Info Coming Soon…

I know, I’ve really been slacking on this blog, (and Andy Jones TV) but it’s all been for a good cause; my new book. It’s out now, and I’ll have all the info for you real soon.

In the meantime, on the back of the new book, some have asked for a brief summary. And I thought about it a bit last night. I think the book is basically a rather mischievous thought-experiment, but also, it has a message about what we might be able to define as good government. As such, I scribbled this down and thought you might find it interesting. Or you might find it to be nonsense. Either way, enjoy:

Andy Jones’ 3 Rules of Good Government
1) Government must keep us free above all other things.
2) Government may make us safer, unless this violates rules one.
3) If government violates rules one or two, then it must be ended, and a government that obeys rules one and two must be put in its place.

Welcome to the Blogosphere, NT!

Just thought I’d mention it: Norman Tebbit is now blogging.

I doubt I’ll agree with everything he says, but he’s written a couple of very interesting posts (that I partially agree with) already here, and also here.

I particularly like his line about our welfare state and it’s perverse effect on the poor:

It is madness to claim that people so poor that they need welfare payments are at the same time sufficiently well-off to pay income tax.

It’s nice to have this articulate voice on the web. From his appearances on TV, I’ve often found myself agreeing with him often, but he sounds pretty stuffy a lot of the time. I feel he’ll really shine in the written word.

Welcome to the web NT, I’m sure you’ll have a blast!