99 Cents and the Future of Journalism

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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.

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LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

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