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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Glenn Greenwald: The 21st Century Bob Woodward?

It’s been an interesting few years for Glenn Greenwald.

He’s a lawyer, but has a take on journalism that’s interesting, subversive and deeply important.

As the face of the Edward Snowden Saga (with a documentary centred around him too), it could be argued that Greenwald is a modern version of journalist Bob Woodward – made famous for his coverage of the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein that lives on through the movie All The President’s Men.

In the above video, he talks to Reason TV, and talks more about his new online magazine “The Intercept”.

Looking Back on the News to Look Forward

I’ve really enjoyed spending a little bit of time on website Retro Report recently.

They subtitle it “The truth now about the big stories then” and it is a really valuable journalistic endeavour.

It’s supported in part by the New York Times, but I believe it operates with autonomy, and is a totally separate company that works with the Times, rather than for them.

Whether it’s the hyperbole surrounding the media’s frenzy over the Y2K bug, or the fear-mongering that plagued the GM revolution and the so-called “Frankenfoods”, it’s very refreshing to watch mini documentary web videos with a more accurate and fair analysis of what really went on during these times. And who knows, maybe this kind of reporting can help those of us in newsrooms around the world to avoid making some of the same mistakes again in the future.

Click here to see for yourself.

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.

In the Land of the Free, Disruption is King

Robot ArmThere’s a very human fear of technology ruining our lives.

“It’ll replace us,” we say, when a new-fangled bit of technology comes along. But is there any real truth behind that anxiety?

It’s our instinctive reaction. But that doesn’t make it the right one.

When I was young, I can still recall a (serious) news report, commenting – with furrowed brows – how, shock horror, some children as young as 8 “had access to the internet.”

That was it. It wasn’t that they were doing something wrong, or even that they were unsupervised. It was the fear that they were using new technology. I posted a great video here a while ago featuring the founder of Wired Magazine, who says that in the early/mid 90s, mainstream newspapers were still writing articles about the web as “The Internet – Threat or Menace?” and, though that precise type of hysteria about the web has died down, general fear-peddling about new advances hasn’t ceased at all.

The truth this, technological change is part of an observed phenomenon I’ve written about before: “creative destruction”.

In my great-grandparents day, there used to be someone who’d ride down the road on a horse and cart, selling blocks of ice, so the local housewives throughout the city could preserve meat and other things for longer. Eventually a bunch of clever American and Japanese people came up with an electrical device called a refrigerator, which has become a feature of pretty much every house everywhere.

Now the ice-block salesman’s job has gone. Indeed, so has the job of the people who made the ice. But seriously, are we worse off because of it? Furthermore, are they? Did those people who found themselves out of work lose out long term?

In the short term it must have been hard, but surely with their expertise in the freezing business, they were well-placed to sell and support those buying the new appliances. And today: well, those people are long gone, and their descendants are just like the rest of us – with better jobs, better (inflation-adjusted) wages, more buying power, higher standards of living, and even more leisure time than their great-grandparents could have dreamed of.

The smart and thoughtful Roger Bootle has raised some interesting points related to robots and artificial intelligence in the workforce. His article in the telegraph, though too negative for my money, is nonetheless well worth a read.

We can’t begin to imagine the hardship of living in an early hunter-gatherer society. Where the life expectancy is around 25, things were, to put it mildly, pretty hard. The agricultural revolution must have rendered thousands of hunter-gatherer “jobs” redundant. But everything got better. The industrial revolution must have rendered millions of agricultural jobs redundant. But everything got better.

This technological revolution is, well, yes, rendering many jobs redundant. But the wisest among us shouldn’t worry too much about it. I’ve been made redundant. It’s an awful feeling. But for those of us who do find themselves out of work, the stats show that it virtually always leads to better things. And the world gets more efficient, and the standard of living of the people globally continues to rise.

In the land of the free, disruption is king. Long may it last.

A Look at the Past, a Peek at the Future

Nick Gillespie from Reason TV sits down with the smart, engaging and inspiring Louis Rossetto – founder of the brilliant Wired Magazine – to look at what changed in the twenty years since the publication started, and where things will go next.

As always with anything made by the boys and girls at Reason, this video is well worth 15 minutes of your time.

In 1971 Rossetto co-authored a piece in the New York Times Magazine describing libertarianism as the next great social/political movement for young people, tired of the centralised zero-sum game currently played.

It’s great to see he’s still unrepentant in his outlook. And the evidence is on his side.

The Best Deterrant to Piracy

PiracyEarlier this year, the chief content officer of Netflix, Ted Sarandos, pointed out that in places where Neflix was available, BitTorrent traffic fell. This is an interesting correlation. Cheap, easily available access to content on most devices without restriction encourages people to happily pay for it without looking for illegal alternatives.

One of my sources in Silicon Valley has told me that there are more users of Final Cut Pro X, Apple’s latest incarnation of their professional video editing software, than every Final Cut Suite user they have ever had. Yet the percentage of pirated versions of that software is lower than ever. This is a piece of software that only costs $299 (compared to the old suite which was north of a grand) and basically allows you to run and install it on every Mac you own or are allowed to use, with no restrictions. Improvements and updates occur automatically using the Mac App Store, so you always have the latest and greatest version.

And that same source tells me that Adobe have seen estimated piracy levels fall (though all of this is admittedly hard to quantify) since launching the Adobe Creative Cloud: Full access to the latest versions of all their pro software (a good few grands worth) for about $50 a month.

There’s a pattern here. Lots of films, music, ebooks and software is expensive, and saturated in lots of restrictive DRM (Digital Rights Management, i.e. copy-protection software) that dictates how and where you can use your content. On the other hand, most pirated content online can be used – and re-purposed – in a variety of different ways with no restrictions. In short, it’s more open, and it’s (mostly) free.

But when content creators publish their content without heavy-handed DRM restrictions, and at a much more reasonable price, then a supply-side effect seems to take place, where more people purchase the content and fewer people pirate it. The content producers (and as a novelist, I include myself in that group) earn more money.

Rather than create more rules and more restrictions on how we can use content, I’m hopeful that a cheaper and more open future is the direction we continue to move in.