99 Cents and the Future of Journalism

| Wed Mar. 7, 2012 4:42 PM EST

There's a new journalism startup in town called Matter. Their pitch: once a week they're going to publish a stunningly good piece of long-form journalism about issues in technology and science. "That means no cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists. Just one unmissable story." Each one of these unmissable stories will cost an iTunes-like 99 cents.

So: will it work? Matter is raising money on the internet, and they've already blown past their $50,000 goal to get started. But will enough people buy their pieces at 99 cents a pop to keep them going? Felix Salmon and Stephen Morse debate the issue over at Felix's site, but really, I think Felix says all that needs to be said in this short paragraph:

Matter’s Kickstarter campaign proves that people want to give them their money. The task facing Matter is to create material that’s so unique, so great, that readers around the country and the world will be eager to buy subscriptions, or individual issues, in the knowledge that their money is going straight to the creators of that content. It’s an exercise in doing something which has historically been extremely rare, in the world of journalism: selling stories to readers, as opposed to selling readers to advertisers.

Yep. But here's the thing: getting great material is the challenge faced by every single magazine and newspaper in the world. And how do you get great material? Answer: make sure your stories are written by great writers. But there are really only two ways to do this:

  • Hire the best writers and reporters in the business. You do this the old-fashioned way: by paying higher rates than anyone in the business.
  • Find fresh, young writers and reporters who produce great stuff but are relatively unknown. 

But again: these are the options open to every single magazine and newspaper in the world. Option #1 is really expensive, because the top writers are either already on staff somewhere and probably unavailable at all, or else they charge punitively high word rates. Option #2 is great, but everyone in the world is hunting for people like this. If you've figured out a way to find them better than anyone else, then you have a bright future. But it's a future based on your talent scouting ability, not your delivery mechanism.

So we'll see. I don't have much of an opinion about Matter because I suspect their delivery mechanism is beside the point. It does have the benefit of keeping overhead costs low, but that's probably a wash since they also have no advertising revenue. Basically, if they're able to consistently produce spectacular pieces of journalism that generate a lot of online buzz, they'll succeed. If they can't, they won't. But that would probably be true regardless of what kind of delivery model they choose.