I saw some sad news today on Mediagazer: Byliner, the longform publisher co-founded by John Tayman, might be folding.
For those not familiar with it, Byliner is a publisher of bite-sized fiction and non-fiction. When I met Tayman in San Francisco a couple of years ago, he talked about realising there was a sweet spot in between a magazine article and a book – a story that was neither too short nor too long. We’ve come to know these stories as ‘longform’. Generally 3,000-30,000 words in length, they even have their own site and Twitter hashtag.
The company wanted to be like Netflix, charging a monthly “all you can eat” type subscription.
Since the industry’s implosion post-2005, many of us have spent hours wondering what the next business model is. Whole conferences have been dedicated to answering that question: how will journalism make money in the Internet age?
For enterprise/investigative/longform journalism, the answers are already here – but they’re not what we want them to be.
A comforting idea but not a great idea
Byliner’s key proposition was that it could be the Netflix or Spotify of longform. Yet words do not have the star/pulling power of film. The attraction to that particular revenue model wasn’t that it could work but what it represented: a monthly pay check. In an industry beset by economic stability, the thought that readers would want to contribute a monthly sum is nice. It symbolises stability.
Therein lies the problem. The search for business models has not been dictated by what the market wants but a yearning for the old days, when you did your job and collected your salary at the end of every month.
It doesn’t work like that anymore. Across the creative industries – film, journalism, music – practitioners are living from project to project.
I call this the Project Economy. You make as much money as your latest project does. When the project ends, you move on to the next one and hope people find it interesting and will pay you to do it.
Example: my latest investigative project, The Last Story of Robert Bradford. Using Beacon Reader, I raised nearly $6,000 through a crowdfunding campaign – nearly $1500 of which is recurring in monthly subscriptions. After Beacon takes its 30% cut (which it shares around writers whose stories have done particularly well, a monthly bonus) and the exchange rate, it works out at about £330 a month. Not to be sniffed at.
However, I’m aware that I’ll probably have, at most, a year’s mileage out of the project. Then there’ll – most likely – be a year where I make no income from it whilst writing the final edition, finish up research and shop for a publisher. To prepare for that eventuality – should it come to pass – I’m squirrelling away as much money as I can from freelance assignments.
This is the reality of living in the Project Economy. As a filmmaker friend remarked, when times are good, they’re really good – but money management is key to survival. A % of every commission needs to be saved to see you through the times when no money is coming in.
There is no stability in this industry anymore. Being a journalist is now like being an actor: unless you have a huge hit, you’re going to struggle.
The search for business models needs to reflect this. “The good old days” aren’t coming back. It’s a different world. And it’s scary. Staying focused enough to follow your heart instead of the pay check is tough. But there has to be a way.