We all know that the old business model for newspapers and magazines is dying. Unless you’re going in with a massive platform, getting companies to pay for advertising is difficult–especially in print mediums, where it can be difficult to track results. In general, supporting a business primarily based on advertising is working less and less. But good journalism is expensive. Good writers take time on their work, and they cost a significant amount money to acquire.
Amateur journalism doesn’t work either
At one point, the attitude was that bloggers would save us. Open-source journalism (for lack of a better word), now that everyone has the ability to publish online, would be the solution to the publishing industry’s problem.
While accessibility to technology is a great thing, and it’s not uncommon for writing careers to be jumpstarted by someone taking the reins to publish their own content, this isn’t a wholesale solution either. The vast majority of self-published content has errors in reporting, inconsistent production budget or schedules, bad writing, lack of sources, and little to no accountability.
Not to mention that most of these amateur journalists aren’t getting paid, or are making a small amount of money from ad revenue (which, again, doesn’t look like it will be growing any more sustainable in the future). Basically, everyone loses when we rely on amateur journalism: the readers, seasoned professional journalists, and the amateur journalists, to boot.
Is sponsored content the solution we’re looking for?
“Sponsored content” used to refer to advertorials that nobody wanted to read. Serious journalists and publications have shied away from it for that reason. And fairly recent bungles–including the Atlantic’s mercilessly mocked sponsored content for the Church of Scientology–have helped to cement that in readers’ and journalists’ minds.
It doesn’t have to look like that, though. Sponsored content can be high-quality, informative, and entertaining, while avoiding being a glossed-over advertisement. Even the Atlantic has recovered from the Scientology mess, with a piece of content sponsored by Porsche that was lauded as “smart, data-driven, and visually stunning.”
We only have to look at Medium to see what this could look like implemented on a larger scale. Starting last year, Medium experimented with having corporate sponsors for their collections, with BMW sponsoring a collection of posts about design. The link between sponsor and content there is loose–with the December 2014 debut of “Gone,” it was clearer (the sponsor being Marriott Hotels and the theme being travel).
The “Gone” section will publish 60 stories over four months. Five of the pieces will be published by Marriott; the rest are being produced by Medium, who hired Jamie Pallot (an editor who’s worked with Style.com and Condé Nast Digital) to oversee it. It’s interesting to note that five pieces out of sixty translates to a little over 8% of the content for Gone–which is far less than the ratio of ads to content in many magazines.
Patreon is another example from a different industry, except it’s the readers sponsoring content instead of companies. The way it works is that readers pay a monthly fee (anywhere from $1-100) to help support the artist of their choice and get access to special behind the scenes content and bonuses in the process. Patreon has largely taken hold with art communities, including webcomic creators. The old model for comics was trying to get syndicated in newspapers nationwide; the new model is a hybrid of advertising, merchandising, and reader sponsorship. It’s likely that journalism and writing are headed the same way, even if the model can’t be adapted wholesale (in general, people don’t want to buy “the Atlantic” t-shirts).
There’s plenty to navigate in this new frontier–maintaining professionalism and avoiding a conflict of interest when brands are involved in journalism, for example. But with careful discretion on all sides, it looks like sponsored content may be a way for readers to get high-quality content and for journalists to still get paid.