Kickstarter-funded Read Matter finding subs do better than singles

Bobbie Johnson by Jeremy Keith from Flickr, Some Rights Reserved

Bobbie Johnson by Jeremy Keith from Flickr, Some Rights Reserved

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.

Hacks-Hackers London: Coder-journalists or hybrid teams?

Finally, after months of being busy and missing Hacks/Hackers, I was thrilled to make it to last Wednesday’s instalment, which focused on Big Data in Financial Journalism. Congratulations to Jo Geary of The Guardian for organising another great event and Marianne Bouchart of Bloomberg for being such a great host. 

Emily Cadman, the head of interactive at the Financial Times, had a great presentation, along with her colleague and my friend, Martin Stabe. Emily also had one of the best provocations of the evening. She challenged the idea that journalists should become coders. Instead of journalists learning how to code, she suggested that news organisations should build hybrid teams of crack coders and journalists and editors who can work with and speak to coders. That being said, she said that if you do find a coder who values journalism and can think editorially, then do everything you can to hold onto them. For organisations the size of the Financial Times or even for small and medium-size papers part of a larger group, I couldn’t agree more.

It reminds me of my early days in digital journalism, back in the mid-90s. I was working at a regional news website on special projects. I spent about an hour editing an image. One of my graphic design colleagues said that while she appreciated my initiative that what took me an hour would have taken her minutes. I still have picked up a range of skills, but I have tried to focus on things where I can really add value and not areas where a specialist like a designer or a developer has spent as much time building their expertise in their work as I have in journalism. 

Cadman said that it took time and effort, and I’m sure a fair bit of astute application of political capital, to build her team. These types of hybrid teams don’t get created overnight. I am not familiar with the history of the team at the FT, but I know that Aron Pilhofer at the New York Times has spent years building up his team and figuring how the best composition and organisational positioning of his team. 

Data and visual journalism on a shoestring budget

The FT, the New York Times and the BBC have all developed hybrid teams like this, and I’m sure that for a lot of smaller news organisations having the resources for such a team seems simply unattainable especially for regional publishers in the UK or metro publishers in the US reeling under economic pressures. However, I would say two things, there is a lot that can be done at a group level, creating projects that can easily be replicated across markets and use local data. Good designers can create projects that can easily reflect the style of individual local sites. 

There is another way to develop great interactive data projects and that is to rely on the myriad of web services that exist. At’s last news:rewired conference Paul Rowland, deputy head of online content at Media Wales, had a great presentation on how Wales Online does data-driven visual journalism facing the same challenges that almost all regional publisher does in the UK. He outlined the challenges as:

• limited resources.
• a lack of cash.
• no dedicated developers.
• a hefty newspaper legacy.

He gave a rundown of his favourite services that should be in every digital editor’s toolkit no matter how small your organisation. As I always say when I work with news organisations and MDLF’s clients, interactive journalism is a lot like the iPhone. If there is a story-telling technique that you want to try, there’s a web app for that. 

I am more technical than most journalists but I’ve never learned how to code. Instead, I’ve always referred to myself as a “cut-and-paste” coder. I have always tried to keep on top of the kind of services that Rowland highlighted, and cutting-and-pasting an embed code from a third-party service is something that almost anyone who has embedded a YouTube video can do. 

Last Wednesday was really inspiring, and I think that Cadman showed that we’re not just breaking new ground in terms of using data in journalism, but we’re finally starting to get a handle on the best ways to organise the new news room that doesn’t look to everyone to be a jack-of-all trades but realises the role of specialisation and editors who have the digital and traditional experience to work with these kinds of digital teams.