Building sustainable journalism is a topic near and dear to me as it is core to the work that I do now, and Hacks/Hackers London on Wednesday provided one of those rare times when you get to hear someone a real journalism entrepreneur talk about what has worked and what hasn’t with their start-up. Of course, it’s also great to see a former colleague at The Guardian, Bobbie Johnson, find success.
He and co-founder Jim Giles launched Read Matter with a campaign to raise seed capital on crowdfunding site Kickstarter. They set a goal of raising $50,000, but in less than 48 hours, their goal was firmly in the rear view mirror. In the end, they raised almost three times their goal, brining in $140,201. As Bobbie told The Next Web, crowdfunding can be a great bit of market research. It allows you to find out whether there is real demand for your project.
One of the things that I think really helped their Kickstarter campaign was a great video that clearly explained what Read Matter was in a highly engaging way. It was a great bit of marketing, and if you believe in your journalism, I believe that you have to be ready to sell it. It’s not enough to have the conviction that journalism should win in the marketplace of ideas, you do need to work to make sure that it cuts through the overwhelming torrent of things competing for people’s time and attention.
However, taking a step back before the campaign, Bobbie and Jim did business plans. Bobbie quickly flashed the Excel spreadsheets they used to try to figure out if there was an actual business with how they planned to produce one long-form science and technology piece a month. For a lot of journalists trying to do start-ups, I’d strongly suggest speaking with someone with business experience. It’s not something that we were taught in J-school, but in this new world for the brave, this is something you’ll either need to develop or get via a partner in your project.
Bobbie and Jim are learning as they go along, and one of the things that really stood out for me was lessons that surprised them. They had expected most of their sales to be single sales, but they are actually getting more of their revenue from subscriptions. I read Bobbie’s experience that single sales were too high friction. It’s much easier to set up a subscription through iTunes, Amazon or your own payment system than it is to remember to buy something every month when it comes out. I think that has a profound implication for how news groups are packaging up their long-form, high-gloss, high-cost pieces. Does this mean that instead of trying to sell Kindle Singles, that it might be better for news groups to sell subs for long-form journalism? Should they have several packages that target niches? Read Matter covers only science and technology. Would they be as successful if they tried to sell “investigative journalism” rather than a single topic? My gut says that investigative journalism as a class of content might have more value to journalists than it does intrinsically to audiences. What I mean is that audiences are usually interested in topics, not classes of content. That is why I’m sceptical about the sustainability of trying to strip out deep investigative journalism from a broader package of content.
I’m doing a lot of thinking about how to support long-form, often investigative journalism. As another speaker at Hacks/Hackers London on Wednesday – David Leigh of The Guardian – pointed out, the cross-subsidy in journalism businesses, mostly fat advertising returns, are going or gone. To me, the real question is not how to support investigative journalism on its own but how to find new sources of cross-subsidy to support it.
That aside, kudos to Bobbie and Jim. I know that their future success will take a lot of work and more learning, but it is encouraging to see people succeeding with new models to support the real heavy lifting of long-form original content.