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.