While newspapers everywhere are doing their best to emulate the New York Times by erecting a one-size-fits-all paywall around their content, some individual writers like Andrew Sullivan are trying to create their own personal sites where readers can subscribe to their content. And then there’s a startup called Beacon: it wants to find a middle way between those two approaches — a site that has multiple authors, with a paywall can be unlocked by subscribing to any of them individually, and a pool of revenue that all the writers share in.
Each of the site’s journalists (there are currently about 50) has a page where their content lives, and a discussion forum. When someone subscribes to them for $5 a month, Beacon takes a cut — the amount is in flux, but writers keep around 60 percent on average — and then the reader gets access to all of the site’s other writers. Some of the proceeds from each subscription also go into a pool that is shared by all of the journalists on the platform.
The site, which launched about a month and a half ago, was started by a team of three: Adrian Sanders and his partner Dmitri Cherniak, and former Facebook managing editor and Bloomberg social-media guy Dan Fletcher. Beacon actually grew out of an earlier project that Sanders and Cherniak had worked on called Backspaces, an iPhone app that was designed to help users upload multiple photos and use them to tell stories.
Connecting with fans instead of ads
In an interview earlier this week, Sanders said that the Backspaces app didn’t really take off — and didn’t have much of a business model — but he and Cherniak noticed that some of the writers and photographers using the service had created incredible stories, and that some had thousands of followers who came back repeatedly to see what they had uploaded. If only there was a way for them to make a living while doing that, he thought.
“There were a few who were getting 10,000 unique views every time they posted something, and it was the same 10,000 people — but every time I ran the numbers on trying to monetize it through display ads or whatever, it came down to pennies.”
So Sanders and Cherniak (who handles the technical side of Beacon) decided that connecting with those 10,000 fans was the only way that writers could ever make any money — a variation on former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly’s theory that all an artist needs is “a thousand true fans.” Sanders contacted Fletcher, who had just left his post as Facebook’s managing editor, and the three started what would become Beacon.
In a nutshell, Sanders said, the idea was to help bring the Andrew Sullivan model within the reach of other writers and journalists who might not be able to command the same type of audience — and might not want to take on the challenge of building a business around themselves, as Sullivan has done — but who still have readers who want to help them.
“We looked at Sullivan as sort of the model coming into it. But when we talked to writers, there was so much hesitancy — if you don’t have that platform to begin with, and don’t have that following that he has, to sort of go it alone and set all that up, that’s a really intimidating notion. Constructing this kind of collective on the writer’s side took some of the fear out of the equation.”
Journalists want to go direct
Fletcher, for his part, says that working at Facebook was interesting but he was primarily helping to produce branded content through the company’s “Facebook Stories” feature, and wanted to get back to helping journalism survive in a digital age. He said that working at Facebook made him realize that “tech companies aren’t going to invest in the future of editorial.” Using contacts that Fletcher had from his days with Time Inc., the team reached out to about 50 journalists they knew who focused mostly on foreign affairs coverage — in part because that was where they had contacts, and in part because they believed that freelancers writing about those topics are doing something important, but often find it hard to get paid or make a living. Said Sanders:
“We sat down with a guy who commands $3 a word, and he said for one thing it’s increasingly harder to get the rates I used to — in order to create $500 worth of value through my stories, I probably need to shop that idea or article to 15 to 20 editors, and then I might hear back from maybe four of them, and maybe one will convert, and I never know when that is. With Beacon, if I know that every month I’m getting paid and growing subscribers.”
Beacon isn’t trying to replace existing outlets that freelancers like Mujib Mashal might work for, Fletcher said — it’s just trying to supplement that existence with something more regular, and something that involves writers connecting directly with their loyal fans. In a sense, it’s a variation on the “personal paywall” or velvet rope approach to monetization that I’ve promoted in the past, only it’s a startup instead of a newspaper.
Like Kickstarter, but more dependable
For journalists who don’t have the clout or the entrepreneurial spirit that Andrew Sullivan has, and who either don’t want or can’t get a staff job at the New York Times or some other mainstream publication, a Beacon-style model seems like a viable alternative that allows them to tap into their existing fan base and set up their own mini-paywall (and they still own the rights to all of their content).
In a sense, Beacon is like Kickstarter for journalists, but instead of having to come up with a new project each time they want to go to their readers for funding, writers can attract more regular ongoing support (the platform is currently invitation only, although would-be members can submit an application).
Can Beacon find enough readers who are willing to pay, when every other site seems to want to put up paywalls as well — and some of those cost less than $5 a month? And even if it succeeds, will it be enough to make a difference for the journalists involved? That remains to be seen, but it’s a fascinating experiment regardless. As Sanders put it:
“Dan’s not Glenn Greenwald and I’m not Pierre Omidyar sitting here with $250 million dollars in cash. We’re saying let’s see if this model makes sense and grows — you’re always going to have billionaires with some new project, but those don’t necessarily define a new economic model. We are here to facilitate the relationship between the reader and the writer in a way that’s economically viable for the writer and creates value for the reader.”