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.