Turning inner space into outer space

October 11, 2014

When readers pay, journalism is the winner

The people have spoken loud and clear. They want their news on the Internet, but they don’t want to have to pay for it.

Sites like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have responded by creating advertising vehicles thinly disguised in a veneer of journalism. But the clickbait journalism needed to bring in advertising revenue winds up lowering the bar and doing little for anyone hoping to become an informed citizen.

At the heart of two recent experiments is a complete ban on advertising in favour of reader support. The Dish, run by U.S. blogger Andrew Sullivan, and De Correspondent, created by a Dutch crowdfunding campaign, both promise substance in their reports, along with independence from advertising.

The Dish, which claims to be both “biased and balanced,” continues to bring in revenue of close to $1 million a year — all of it from about 30,000 subscribers, according to the publisher’s latest report.

Traffic to the site, on the other hand, can vary widely from month to month. Publishers of ad-driven sites would be worried about even a small drop in pageviews, but The Dish can ride them out, knowing that the business will be sustained by a strong base of subscribers.

The silver lining to these ups and downs in traffic is that they do not really have an impact on our finances — because, unlike almost everyone else in online journalism, we’re completely subscription based. That guides us away from the sirens of clickbait, and allows us to provide content that we think matters — even though we know it won’t rack up pageviews.

Meanwhile, back in November 2013, a group of Dutch journalists raised $1.7 million in a crowd funding campaign to create a platform that “focuses on background, analysis, investigative reporting, and the kinds of stories that tend to escape the radar of mainstream media because they do not conform to what is normally understood to be ‘news.’”

In other words, the opposite of popular ad-supported sites.

Like Sullivan, they keep their readers up to date on how the site is doing financially. In fact, they see explanations of how they spend their members’ money to be one of the keys to their success. Their latest report says the publication now has a sustainable membership of 28,000 members who pay €60 ($76 ) a year.

Among their innovations is the strategy of reaching out to the people who “like” them on Facebook. They figure those people are good prospects for memberships, and in many cases this turns out to be true.

The Internet has become so dominated by the likes of Google and Facebook — and their attempts to ram ads down our throats — that it’s hard to imagine even a small corner of it free of hucksterism.

Of all the business models I’ve seen for online journalism, the concept of readers paying to keep out ads is the most promising. Journalists working at these sites can exercise independence and respond to the needs of their readers — even build a relationship with them. And editors won’t have to worry about finding pictures of kittens to suck people into their site, only to leave them with the empty feeling that they’ve once again wasted their time.

OK, so De Correspondent did post one picture of a kitten. (See above.) But it was a good one, and they only did it once.