One Journalist’s Guilt About Not Paying for the Journalism She Consumes

I await the inevitable transition to paid online content* with optimism and a bit of impatience. I'm continuously frustrated by the guilt I feel in not paying for the very valuable journalism I consume. The New York Times and Washington Post, for example, are crucial professional tools for me, without which I would not be able to function as a magazine writer. I don't subscribe to their print editions, but it's not because I'm cheap; it's because print newspapers don't fit into my lifestyle.

With the exceptions of books and long-form articles, I read on my Android phone, my laptop, or my office desktop. I begin my day by downloading the morning Times onto my Motorola Droid 2 and then reading through it while I either eat breakfast or commute. For me, this is far easier and more natural than struggling with a sheaf of newsprint. I would read many more publications this way if they would simply develop a workable Android app.

I know I'm a rare media consumer because I'm a journalist and therefore understand how much labor goes into these products. But I, for one, would love to pay for my Times app. Instead, they are giving it to me for free–and ad-free, too!

(I do subscribe to several magazines I love and read them during my 1.5 hour commute from Brooklyn to Morningside Heights. I subscribe because their longer form articles lend themselves to print in a way breaking news or short opinion columns don't–and because I want to support their work.)

Given all this guilt, I'm excited to see that my friend Reihan Salam–a writer you should read–is launching a subscription-based email list for $2.50 per month. There's a neat webservice, letter.ly, that allows writers to do this. Sam Lessin, another writer who launched a letter.ly subscriber email, described his motivation this way: "F*ck blogging." He writes, "Because I control distribution I can give people content that I want to give content to. Anyone I don't know is free to signal real commitment to think about/comment back by paying. No slackers allowed."

I'm not about to say the same, because at this stage in my career, blogging publicly is still a very effective way for me to get new eyes on my writing, solicit feedback from readers (many of whom have more expertise in the topics I cover than I do!), and hopefully increase the number of editors who'd like to pay me to write now or in the future. But what do you all think of the idea of a cheap subscription letter? Would you pay to read a monthly update from me in that format, if it contained original content you couldn't access elsewhere?

I'm endlessly interested in creative ideas about how to make writing about important, serious topics financially sustainable for those of us who do it.

*Not to say that the advertiser-based revenue model, free for consumers, will necessarily die out in favor of micro-payments or the subscriber model. Rather, online advertising may become more profitable as more print publications die out and websites become more locally-targeted.

8 thoughts on “One Journalist’s Guilt About Not Paying for the Journalism She Consumes

  1. Jenny

    I think this is a horrible direction. I currently read the Times and the Post, plus my hometown paper, plus a multitude of blogs and magazines. If you start charging me for any of them, I’ll have to pick and choose – and they all have to switch to pay at the same time, otherwise the pay ones are dead instantly.

    I wouldn’t pay for both the Times and the Post. I prefer the news stories of the Times, but the blogs of the Post – I’d probably go with the Post because I live in DC, but I’d miss the national political coverage in the Times. I wouldn’t pay to read my hometown paper because I don’t live there anymore and my friends will tell me any important local news. I’d probably pick one magazine to subscribe to, and then maybe I’d buy an issue or two a year of other magazines to read on my iPad on a trip or if there was an article I HAD to read, like Jon Cohn’s long post mortem about the health care reform process. But those would not be frequent purchases, especially without access to something like Ezra’s blogging urging everyone to read the Cohn article – literally the only magazine I’ve bought in the past year because it contained a particular article.

    I understand journalists’ frustration with this issue. (I’m a government employee, I can empathize with the feeling that your profession is being devalued.) But people have lots and lots of things to spend their time and money on, and I think you’re overestimating folks’ willingness to sort out confusing payment systems and to spend $20 and $30 per month on media. And while Reihan’s newsletter at $2.50 certainly isn’t expensive, $2.50 to him and each of several other journalists plus $10 for the Times plus $10 for a magazine plus $5 for a local paper…it all adds up quickly – obviously just speculating on those prices, but hopefully you understand my point.

    The only type of pay model I see as viable would be based on “channels” that pull in all the news, from all sources, into one central location. A political channel, a lifestyle channel, a local channel, a sports channel (where you get to pick and choose your teams, please)…you get the idea. And make it so you can put together a well-rounded media diet for $15 or so per month at the most. Remember, my Netflix subscription costs a little more than half that.

    And here’s another thing: I sit at my desk all day and I need to read the news for my job so my employer would probably pay for it even in a potential future non-government job. What if employer-paid subscriptions become the norm? Will newspapers feel pressured to focus more on the kinds of things people need to know for their jobs and even less on other kinds of things, like crime? If it’s employers paying the bills through these subscriptions, how much emphasis will a paper like the Post be able to put on something like the people who were shot and killed coming out of a funeral on U St in DC a few weeks ago? That was a very important story, but not one that affected my work in any way.

    I agree that the news industry needs better ways of making money, I just don’t see micropayments being a very viable model – especially if they’re not truly “micro” but $2.50 apiece.

    Reply
  2. FGS

    I don’t know, Dana. A lot of people fork out $70 a month for cable TV, when it would be far cheaper to get an antenna for free TV and a couple dozen iTunes season passes to the cable shows they actually watch. So I’d say digital media have a lot more catching on to do.

    Reply
  3. Tony

    I feel the same way, but have reservations about content provided for a fee – not concerning the fee, but the way content for money has a way of suiting the message to the revenue stream, and writing to the choir, so to speak. I can almost hear the attempt in much writing for free (or for advertising revenue) to impress whoever’s reading, and I like that aggressive kind of underlying premise. I’m afraid the fee-based model will produce the awful newsletters for investors that I’ve seen (like end-of-year family newsletters, somehow). So I’m hoping you become wealthy in some way that’s orthogonal to your writing (or gain the power of invisibility or X-ray vision or some other valuable capacity – it doesn’t have to be just money), because I like the combination of needy, but chip on the shoulder manner of so much web writing.
    On the practical side, could there be a paid aggregator? Someone who provides some content and also bundles the major outlets and provides some revenue to them also? I think Jenny is right and also a few people have done the experiment, and fee for content by one player just removes them from the conversation.

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  4. Daniel Rabeiga

    Just remember that if you start charging for your content you go from being a news source to an entertainment source.

    If people want to know what is happening then they can find that for free. It will always be this way. You can control access to your actual writing, but not to the stories themselves.

    The good news is that people are willing to pay for entertainment. As long as your understand where you fit in and work with it you shouldn’t have a problem.

    Reply
  5. jason

    Work should be cheap–cheaper in most cases, I think, than $2.50 per month for a single writer, and content producers should hope that their work (or most of it) is interesting and topical enough to attract a broad readership if they want it to be profitable. The habit of reading widely should not be affordable only to the upper-middle class. It would be a bitter irony if, after a mere ten or twelve years, the advent of mass Internet usage saw hopes for democratized access to information give way to renewed barriers to education, networking, and social mobility–if online writing began to squeeze out readers and reinforce existing class hierarchies. There ought to be more creative mechanisms available to writers to allow them to seek healthy remuneration; for instance, in addition to the option of charging smaller fees, what if a diverse assortment of writers concentrating some of their work on a common theme–baseball, food, literary criticism, economic trends, fashion, whatever–decided to pool their work on the given topic at a common paid blog whose profits they would split mostly in proportion to the amount of its content each produced, allowing readers to gain access to a wide variety of writers on topics of interest rather than paying for each writer and soon accumulating forbidding costs in the mere attempt to remain well informed and well rounded in their reading? Writers could join multiple such group blogs and have access to multiple income streams and communities of fellow writers. Highly specialized content could still be paid for on a per-article or per-writer basis, but the presumption in such a system would be to make staying up to date and engaged easy for readers who read a lot rather than to bleed them dry for the privilege.

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  6. jason

    Another option would be for writers of letter.ly-type content to find a way to reproduce what magazine subscription departments have long done–allow readers discounts for extended subscriptions. If you’re willing to pay for a year’s content all at once, for instance, you might get a ten percent discount, or a 30 percent discount if you pay for two years up front. This sort of thing helps both reader and writer.

    Reply
  7. max

    [Late, linked from Yggles]

    Would you pay to read a monthly update from me in that format, if it contained original content you couldn’t access elsewhere?

    I don’t think I could. Unfortunately 30 bucks a year is pretty expensive for one writer. Especially if I’m trying to pay for a subscription to the NYT (or other newspapers) at the same time.

    It seems quite like the paperback book market. At some point I would expect them to stop charging for the dead trees, but apparently that just went to the profit margin instead, which is great if you’re a publisher, not so hot if you’re a reader.

    OTOH, if you can get a subscriber base of a thousand, that’s 30k a year, which might well be worthwhile doing.

    I guess that’s the model of the future: thousands of tiny walled gardens and lots of weedy open fields, as writers trying to survive cater to a shrunken audience. Kind of bad for public discourse though.

    max
    ['There's too much to read.']

    Reply

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