MuckrakerThe Muckraker

Journalism, like music, is now a project economy

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.

Previous Posts


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    In the wake of Gerry Adams arrest, a lot has been written over the past couple of weeks about the Boston College tapes.

    Throughout the furore, one person has been consistently demonised, other than Jean McConville herself: Anthony McIntyre. Anthony was the researcher who interviewed Republican ex-prisoners for the Boston project. He’s been denounced, in various graffiti around Belfast and by Sinn Fein themselves, as a “tout” and an “informer”, a disgruntled ex-Provo motivated by his hatred of the Peace Process and the feeling that Gerry “sold him out”. Read More

  • The growing independent journalism movement in Northern Ireland

     

    Today, I was walking down the Lagan towpath - a path that stretches along miles and miles of canal and river from Belfast to Lisburn - with my friend Barton.  I was venting about the story. Every now and then, I run into a brick wall. I need a document, a phone call, anything to come unstuck. Usually, within a week, I do, but the frustration until then is unbearable.

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  • The Crowdfunder: What happens next

     

    At 20 minutes to 11 on Thursday, I received this message on Facebook:

    “Guess what, you’re fully funded!”

    It was another 10-15 minutes before I stopped crying and started breathing normally again.  Ben, who made the crowdfunding film, was also incredulous: “I thought you’d be right down to the wire!”

    So had I. Yet 3 days ahead of deadline, I cleared my crowdfunding goal – 200 backers in 18 days, contributing nearly $6000 raised ($1,445 in that in recurring monthly subscriptions). 

    While I’ve been working on the book for nearly 2 years, my journey in reporting started long before that. I wrote my first story in 2005. 9 years later, 4 days shy of my 24th birthday, I finally have my first steady reporting gig. 

    So, from the bottom of my heart – thank you to everyone who backed me or helped in some other way. You aren’t just helping me finish this story – you’ve made a dream come true. Journalism is a tough industry to be in right now and if it wasn’t for you wonderful people, I wouldn’t have the resources to keep chasing this story. 

    Some of you have been asking me what happens next:

    • The campaign officially ends at 2:00am GMT on Monday 31st March. On Wednesday April 9th, you’ll receive the first chapter of the book (which I’m currently rewriting in a nervous state of caffeine-induced excitement)

    • All backers and friends  will be invited to a celebratory party. The details are being arranged but it’s most likely going to happen in late April/May. There will be free food and drink (it’s the least I can do)

    • I’m already planning trips to see sources and hunt documents in the National Archives. I will, of course, keep you updated via Beacon

     

    As always, if you have any questions – ping me (lyra at muckraker dot me). Otherwise, I’ll see you over on the Beacon forums (details on this coming soon). 

    I love you all. Night. 

    P.S The reason I’m only writing this post now is because I was in London yesterday and didn’t actually get to bed the night before because of my early flight. 

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    With my crowdfunding campaign, Beacon and I are trying something which – to our knowledge – hasn’t been tried before.

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    Folks, I need your help.

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    “If you haven’t read Hannan’s story yet, you should—I’ll be here when you’re done. In brief, the writer discovered that “Dr. V” was a con artist. She lied about her educational and professional credentials to Hannan and to a man who gave her $60,000—cash that investor never saw again. In the course of his reporting, Hannan also learned that Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt “was born a boy.”

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    The Twittersphere is exploding with reactions to the piece. Some think Hannan did what reporters are supposed to do: expose the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Others take issue with how Hannan seems to suggest that “Dr V” being a con artist and being a trans woman are directly related. They argue he made her status as a transgender woman the subject of the story, as if it was something dirty or shameful.

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  • A journalism qualification will probably not get you a job. It may help you make a living.

     

    When I sit down to write a blog post, I try to make it informative. Sometimes, it’s just an update on the book, but I always try to give something back.

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