In early 2011, I turned to Spot.Us, a crowdfunding journalism experiment that at the time was running with seed money from the Knight Foundation and led by media upstart David Cohn. My aim was to subsidize the fee I'd earn from an article for Earth Island Journal, to expand my reporting and the story's scope. I raised $400 in short order, which buoyed my confidence that this model could really be a game-changer for freelance journalists. Then I realized something a little terrible: my in-laws had fronted nearly half those dollars.
While I deeply appreciated -- and gladly accepted -- the support, I could not shake the feeling that I was just fleecing my family and friends to support my writing habit.
Recently logging onto Spot.Us for the first time in more than a year, I found the digital equivalent of a ghost town, with spam tumbleweeds flitting across its Twitter feed. Despite this, experimentation in journalism is pretty active these days.
There is a groundswell of digital platforms and publications that, using twists on conventional subscription models, are designed to promote lengthy, heavily investigated articles ("longform" in journalism-speak) and to bolster the connections and relationships between reporters and readers.
At four years old, Longreads, a platform that curates non-fiction and fiction from all over the Web and serves it up in a reader-friendly format, is one of the granddaddies of this nascent field. Its subscribers pay $3 per month for content not otherwise freely available in digital format: things like book chapters or magazine features that previously existed only behind paywalls. The Atavist commissions and publishes longform articles that are offered through a subscription (starting at $20 per year) but are also sold singly ($3 each). Byliner (currently offering a "sale" on membership at $6 per month) is a bit of a middle ground, with original content and curated works from other publications, and not all of them are long reads. The Magazine is a tablet-optimized digital publication that for $2 per month offers fortnightly feature-packed issues and zero ads. (Disclosure: I contribute to The Magazine.)
Patrons of the penA common thread among these longform experiments and the Spot.Us project, is that they spotlight -- indeed, they market -- the writers themselves. This summer, Daniel Fletcher, formerly of Time, Bloomberg News and Facebook (where he developed its Stories page), helped launch a new venture called Beacon that really puts journalists front and center. Beacon asks readers to subscribe to the online publication as a means of directly supporting journalists' work. Many contributors are foreign correspondents who want to share stories that happen "between the bombings" but are not the kinds of pieces these writers, who often work on a freelance basis, can sell to newspapers.
When I conveyed to Fletcher how my experience on Spot.Us made me feel, he remarked, "but we want family and friends to support" our writers. "It's great to have that base."
What Beacon is betting on, however, is that these groups of familial patrons will soon grow to include many more readers who do not know the writers but care about the niche they cover. Take, for example, Iona Craig. She is The Times of London's Yemen correspondent and has covered the country's political upheaval since 2010. For Beacon, she tells stories about the things, such as reflections on Yemeni culture or lifestyles, that tend to get cut from her news coverage.
Beacon is designed so Craig and other contributors can interact directly with readers, who are essentially their patrons (Beacon staff takes a very small cut.) Beacon writers also look to feedback from these patrons to guide them on what to write about.
"There is so little reporting coming out of Yemen, so the nuance and cadence of life there is not reflected in mainstream media," Fletcher says. "I am sure there are 10,000 or 100,000 people who care about the country [and are willing to pay for news about it]."
Each subscriber earmarks the writer he or she wishes to directly support, and that writer is paid based on the number of subscribers he or she cultivates. But Fletcher says Beacon is designed to only become more valuable to subscribers as its base of writers grows, because everything that every contributor writes is available to subscribers. That seems key to the site's success, since its $5 per month fee is high among subscription-based journalism startups.
"We feel good about the price point," Fletcher says, but he adds that Beacon is still evolving and could change significantly over time. "We have 55 experiments going on," he says, referring to the current stable of Beacon contributors.
Matter, another subscription-based publication promoting longform journalism, launched this year with a bang following a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Matter takes its mandate to connect readers with writers rather seriously, having established an editorial board comprised of subscribers, who meet periodically to help shape the pub's future. As Matter's co-founder Bobbie Johnson told me in an email: "It's basically a way to open up some of the decision-making and direction to our readers and most ardent supporters."
Not all of these experiments will succeed, and some consolidation is likely. (In fact, Matter was acquired earlier this year by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams' latest Web project, Medium. Medium has also partnered with The Magazine as a venue for sharing some of its short features.)
The success or failure of these experiments will depend on readers' willingness to pay for content in a world where there is already an overabundance of it -- but that overabundance might also serve as a good reason to pay for well-edited, curated work.