Why independent premium a la carte content could be a big part of journalism's future

Cable is awful. Quality content is scarce. The ads are obnoxious. And it costs a fortune if you're only using it to watch sports that you can't online because of blackouts. Oh and if you're not using it watch sports? God, you are getting ripped off.

For these reasons and more, most experts believe the traditional television model will soon die, to be replaced by an unbundled a la carte offering. While these same people portray written content—particularly print media—with the same dire tone, I rarely hear the a la carte premium model that will supposedly save television referenced as a solution for print. "Niche," sure. But they're not quite the same thing.

As an example of the a la carte premium model I'm referencing, Andrew Sullivan decided to free his blog, The Dish, from the umbrella of The Daily Beast. He's asking pre-subscribers for a minimum of $19.99 per month, but left the price box open so readers can pay more if they feel the site's worth it to them.

He describes his team's conclusion to go this route as such:

...as we debated and discussed that unknowable future, we felt more and more that getting readers to pay a small amount for content was the only truly solid future for online journalism. And since the Dish has, from its beginnings, attempted to pioneer exactly such a solid future for web journalism, we also felt we almost had a duty to try and see if we could help break some new ground.

 

The only completely clear and transparent way to do this, we concluded, was to become totally independent of other media entities and rely entirely on you for our salaries, health insurance, and legal, technological and accounting expenses.

In a piece providing commentary on the move, the New York Observer's Ryan Holiday sums up why the model works, not just for Sullivan's publication, but journalism as a whole:

Because publishers who deliver a product to paying customers every day need to care about quality and truth. If they don’t, subscriptions dry up.

Flash forward to recent times and we get the same old naivete: new technology makes mass distribution cheaper and easier. The internet discards subscription and paid models to embrace the one-off visitors from search engines, social media and web surfers. The news is free, and to survive, each story must get many pageviews and earn advertising revenue. The result: celebrity slideshows, trolling, linkbait, pseudo-news, conflicts of interest and whatever will get you to click the headline.

It is going to be very interesting to see if Sullivan and his team can serve as a bellwether for online journalism, akin to what Louis C.K. and his $5 comedy special did for standup.

It's worth noting though that, in sports journalism, models like this already exist. As a Seattle Mariners fan, I can say with a high level of confidence that the most plugged-in reporter on the M's beat doesn't work for any of the local mainstream outlets, he doesn't work for any outlet—he runs his own. That'd be Jason Churchill of Prospect Insider.Though a great deal of the site's content does focus on the M's prospects, Churchill seems to have a good stable of sources and provides reporting work not found in the Seattle Times or the Tacoma News-Tribune (at least not yet, for the latter).

Prospect Insider has been around for awhile, indicating the model has worked for Churchill—but that makes sense considering it is a major league team and the site offers reporting (the prospect content, especially) that cannot be found elsewhere.

Another existing venture I've found that's similar to Sullivan's is one from Bozeman, MT's Colter Nuanez, though the circumstances for its birth are slightly different. Nuanez was fired from his job as beat writer for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle—where he primarily covered the Montana State Bobcats—after taking to a message board to explain that though he probably cares too damn much about his beat, the current state of the newspaper industry is such that a decline in quality coverage is inevitable.

Upon his termination, he partnered the aforementioned message board, Bobcat Nation, to provide passionate fans with premium content at the cost of $8.00/month. Now, honestly, I don't know how it's going thus far but I do know, as odd as it may sound, Montanans are absurdly passionate about their college athletics. For "smaller" beats with a dearth of quality coverage but a great deal of interest, this model could work quite well.

After all, who wants to pay for the door through a full newspaper's paywall when you only want to access to a single beat? Why pay to support a full newspaper—a struggling newspaper—when its resources (and reporters) are severely strained, possibly to the detriment of the beat you're most interested in?

It's inevitable that a few of these type of ventures will fail as they strive to work out the kinks, but there are a number of things working this model's favor: a generation that has never paid for a newspaper but does for Netflix and Spotify, the continued evolution of online publishing platforms, easier-to-come-by quality web design, the growth of the tablet as a media consumption device and the growing—more balanced—skill-set of the modern reporter.

This may not be thee model of journalism's future, but I'd bet now it's going to be a large part of it. There will always be free analysis supported by advertising, but when it comes to gritty reporting and old-school journalism, there isn't a better model than a direct connection between a reader and the writer they pay to support.

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