Does it Matter?

There has been much discussion over the last couple of days regarding Matter; the new long-form journalism experiment by Jim Giles and Bobby Johnson. The main news is that they made, virtually instantly, their $50,000 funding goal on Kickstarter and are still going. That tells us that there are 787 people out there who would like to see this happen.

And what is this precisely? Well, it is targeted journalism (focussing on science and technology). So that makes me, and likely the readers of this blog, likely targets. Second, it is looking to monetise their reports with micro-payments — the iTunes model — $0.99 a piece probably mostly through Kindle Singles but also perhaps through in-app purchases on an iPad app. That’s good news because they are making it transactionally easy.

But there is nothing really innovative in the business model. Not that there has to be. But we have to ask ourselves whether it will work? The answer to this is partly independent of the enthusiasm from a relatively small group of people who have backed it. When it comes down to it, I suspect stories will have to be getting 100,000+ paying reads to be properly funded.

Is the willingness to pay there in the market for that? It is hard to say. Let’s take a the prime example of what people might pay for: the NYT’s pieces on Apple suppliers in China. I think we can agree that these types of pieces are what we would be after. Would enough people have paid (assuming that there were no NYT subscribers) for this? Possibly. But we have to take into account that it wasn’t just for the information. There was plenty of discussion about the issue out there. The NYT won out in the ‘free’ competition for attention because of its reputation and because it would likely summarise the issue fairly for many. But add a price to that and the marginal advantage the NYT may have had over substitute options would dissipate. Put simply, $0.99 makes sense in the world of $0.99 but it is less clear it will carry the weight in the would of free.

This small but significant difference also comes to play when we consider social media’s role in all this. The NYT story was, in part, significant because there were referrals to it from social media — in all its forms. But would people be as willing to link to it if it came with a price? If you fashion yourself as curating news for your friends, with a little bit of effort, you can find something free to talk about on the same issue. I know that if would crimp my incentive to blog about something if the only way my readers could get context is by paying $0.99 then and there.

Perhaps the alternative is something less newsy but still of interest. Take this Popular Science piece on a boy who created fusion in his backyard. For that, it is unlikely to find the story elsewhere although my guess is that if you wait a month it will be on 60 Minutes. That story could possibly command the $0.99. But it would still run into the issue of how it might be discussed in social media.

I’ll come back to a theme I have mentioned before. The problem with Matter is that it is trying to sell the content it produces. However, when it comes to long-form journalism, the big barrier is not the $0.99 but the fact that many people will worry that the $0.99 is a waste if they don’t have time to read the entire piece. For that reason, it would be better to think about making your money from things that complement the attention cost. One suggestion is to charge for the ‘read it later’ or ‘save it to an iPad app to read on plane’ options but otherwise allow people to read the story on a web page — perhaps alongside the usual ads. Long-form journalism is a complement to ‘reading it later’ which means you can charge for the latter rather than the matter.

3 Replies to “Does it Matter?”

  1. Another option is to charge for the privilege of making comments and socially interacting with others. Content is free, reading comments is free, but opining costs. With a focused publication there will be plenty of people who have opinions on topics and are willing to pay a small amount to share them.

  2. I would gladly pay 99c for a well-written piece. In this scenario, the NYT times piece reference wouldn’t be worth it. But an Economist-style special report (with some nifty tables and graphs), and I’m in!

    Is there really no market for research on the individual consumer side? It seems that most research pieces are too costly like myself to buy, and probably too lengthy for most people to read.

  3. I really don’t understand what the fuss is about concerning the .99 cents per piece. iTunes store/kindle all work on the same premise and that works.

    However,your point on the how other bloggers and social media can write about an article for which they need to pay is another matter, sorry for the pun.

    But even there you brought up some interesting business model concerning ‘reading it later’ etc. And there are surely other business models that can work.

    the heart of the matter, this time intendend, is that there is a clear demand for this type of journalism. That was the lithmus test kickstarter facilitated in, crowd funding is the democratization of ‘demand’ and “matter” obviously passed it. the business model is important but in the end secondary, actual demand is primary.

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