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January 4, 2013
Can Freemium Models Work for Deep Journalism?
Last week I noted that so-called deep journalism isn't something that we know how to do well
in the 21st century. Investigative reporting - the most common type of deep journalism - requires investments of time (months or years) and resources that are hard to sustain without a regular paycheck. Deep journalism also produces results that aren't easily amenable to summary, nor to the quick-hit forms favored by many social media such as news aggregators, Twitter, etc.
In his Guardian column this week, Dan Gillmor looks at the latest experiment by well-known political blogger Andrew Sullivan, who is building a new model he hopes will be sustainable. The freemium idea (some stuff for free but the best - premium - content for pay) is not new, but so far it's also not been tried in a deeply thoughtful way to my knowledge.
For example, Sullivan is intending to construct his site so that links to it don't ever hit the paywall. Bloggers and aggregators can feel confident pointing their readers over, which is an important step. This makes the paywall portion of their site extremely easy to circumvent - and that's by design. By analogy both NPR and the Times are listed as news entities who take no extraordinary effort to prevent people getting their content for free but instead depend on a combination of big contributors (or advertisers) and people being willing to pay for value.
Gillmor identifies what I see as the biggest problem with this philosophy - no matter how honest or willing any person is, they only have so much cash available. I can easily identify a dozen people whose content I find worthwhile to read pretty much whenever they produce it. However, if I had to pay $20 per year per writer I'd quickly find myself unable to continue. My guess is that this model will work OK for a few people but isn't going to scale.
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