All Hail King Content! Four Startups On the Vanguard of Paid Digital Content

By Nathaniel Mott , written on September 10, 2012

From The News Desk

It's hard for people to understand why they need to pay for good online content. Because digital content is freely available on numerous pirating sites or services and there are no physical goods involved, a sense of entitlement seems to have kicked in that says "hell, there's nothing in my hand! It should be free!" The music industry has battled this problem for years, as has the film industry. But perhaps the industry that has been most effected by this shift to "but why isn't it free?!" is publishing, which can't rely on theaters (like Hollywood) or concerts (music). The mindset seems to be that since anybody can start a Tumblr blog for free, there's no way creating content should cost money.

And this argument isn't entirely nonsensical. It would cost roughly $10 per month for me to start a new Squarespace blog, and, so long as maintaining the blog were a hobby, would cost nothing to run. The problem arises when one assumes that, because a hobby site run by one person is so cheap, that producing something of worth like the New York Times or the New Yorker must also be cheap. It isn't.

As magazines and newspapers attempt to find a way to make this transition to digital, a few publications are combining the flexibility of digital platforms with the high standard of quality in place at the dead-tree publishing houses. Many aren't raising money in the traditional manner and are instead turning to Kickstarter. Right now, we're going to take a look at four of them: Matter, Narratively, Homicide Watch, and Plympton.

The projects, which have goals ranging from the fairly mundane (producing longform technology journalism) to the slightly macabre (cataloging every homicide in Washington DC) have collectively raised almost $250,000 at the time of writing. Three of these projects – Matter, Homicide Watch, and Narratively – have been successfully funded, while the Plympton project is still in the early stages of Kickstarter-dom.

Matter and Narratively both aim to tell stories at length, and have re-packaged what someone might find in a dedicated magazine or television channel for digital distribution. Both are promising to cover interesting stories that are worth their audience's time, and are willing to meet that audience on the Web. While there are costs involved with running a Web-only publication – there's a reason why Sarah and Paul raised money before starting PandoDaily and NSFWCORP, respectively – the costs are much lower than trying to print a niche magazine. Kickstarter will allow these companies to create their platforms and pay contributors for the work that they produce.

Homicide Watch is a bit different. Instead of breaking everything down into a linear "story," which is what newspapers, magazines, and blogs do, Homicide Watch is a database that catalogs every homicide in Washington DC. It is, at its core, data-driven journalism that offers a glimpse into the dark side of the US capitol. The closest physical analogue to Homicide Watch might be a library or warehouse full of old files. Contents Magazine, another excellent (though un-Kickstarter-ed) online publication, spoke with Homicide Watch founder Laura Amico about the site's mission and methodologies earlier this year.

The project was – and is – on hiatus before the launch of the Kickstarter project. The New York TImes' David Carr reported that Amico and her husband were unable to secure funding for the project through grants, and that the fate of the site was unclear before the Kickstarter project's successful funding on Sunday night. There are still three days left before the project is closed, and the final amount will be used to train journalism students in the use of Homicide Watch as a data platform.

Perhaps the most interesting project, homicides and technology journalism be damned, is Plympton. The company's goal is to resuscitate the serial novel, a form that has been around for decades but has fallen out of style. Plympton partnered with Amazon to release its first three serials via the newly-minted and obviously-named Kindle Serials platform. Instead of purchasing a complete novel, serial readers are given "installments" that add up to create a cohesive whole.

Partnering with Amazon hasn't lined Plympton's pockets with cash, however. Co-founder and editorial director Yael Goldstein Love explains the company's decision to start a KIckstarter project as such: "We need the money!" She says that Plympton can exist as a sort of "third layer" between self-publishing and traditional publishing models, and that in order to do so "we need to pay writers, which we feel very strongly about doing, and our copy editors and our wonderful graphic artists, stuff like that."

We've been fairly outspoken about paying writers at PandoDaily, and it's refreshing to see other publications think of paying their contributors from day one. I'm not quite sure when this became the exception instead of the norm, but the reliance on unpaid contributors has spread through the industry. The Huffington Post is a famous example of this trend (though, apparently they don't pay masseuses either, so that may be less about writing and more about HuffPo). That is, again, why Sarah and Paul have raised money to operate PandoDaily and NSFWCORP, respectively. (Disclosure: As a PandoDaily employee, I am very much biased towards being happy that Sarah is paying me.)

Goldstein Love cited the ability to pay writers and editors as one of the main goals of using Kickstarter to raise funds. "We don't like how it's become accepted among writers that it's a perfectly acceptable format for writers to get paid with 'exposure' for their work," she says.

Watching these projects get funded (and, soon, produce content) is exciting, both as a writer and as a reader. Unlike some of my co-workers, I wasn't around to witness the shift from print to digital (or, rather, to see the beginning of this shift) and have only known one medium. The idea of producing one longform bit of content, as with Matter, or creating a public database, as with Homicide Watch, is interesting, partially because it feels new and unestablished. Knowing that the industry is shifting from compensating writers with "exposure" to paying them cold, hard cash is also professionally satisfying.

As a reader, I would argue that more variety is better for everyone. Some people don't have the time to read a full novel in one pass – in that instance, a serial novel might be ideal. Others may want to slow down and read something of substance, instead of regurgitated press releases or a top-ten list of how millipedes are liars, and will turn to something like Narratively.

Kickstarter serves two functions for these groups: raising money and raising awareness. Instead of turning to investors and convincing them that a market exists based on trend or pattern, project creators can go directly to the masses and determine if there is a real readership ready and willing to support a new media outlet. The founder wins; the writers win; and most importantly, the readers win.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia]