Boy oh boy, the Bay Citizen sure has put online writers in an interesting position.
Here’s the abbreviated version: BC is a non-profit news startup, flush with a $5 million investment from fiscal celebrity Warren Hellman. They’re launching a Bay-Area-wide news site on May 26th, and they need content. So they held a meeting last Friday where they told the roughly 40 assembled independent writers that any time those writers write something on their sites that catches the eye of BC, BC may offer to them $25 in exchange for a non-exclusive license to republish.
So, in other words: keep doing what you’re doing, and if you do something we like, we’ll reheat your copypasta. Oh, here’s $25. Don’t spend it all at Little Star.
One one hand: $25 for a post that you were going to write anyway is $25 more than you had before. And it’s a big deal for a blogger to demonstrate that they’re bringing in cash, even if it’s less than they’d make as a busker. Also: it may not be much–but some websites pay even less than that.
But. Other websites pay more. I won’t name names, but in general, I’ve seen aggregators pay in the range of $10 to $15 per post for a roundup; whereas news sites start at around $50 to $100 for a little original reporting. So, if you’re just sifting a bunch of links, you can expect to make less than $25; and if you’re interviewing sources, you can expect to make more.
The Bay Citizen wants original reporting, so the money they’re offering isn’t going to make anyone’s eyes turn into dollar signs. And the Editor in Chief, Jonathan Weber, acknowledged as much during Friday’s meeting: “There are lots of challenges on the business side,” he said, “we can help out a little in the margins. … We don’t pretend that this is a magic business solution for every site.”
And Weber’s no stranger to challenges on the business side! The last time he ran a publication in San Francisco, back in 2001, it filed bankruptcy with $9.1 million in liabilities, unable to pay severance.
Plenty of questions remain. Money for partners won’t be predictable, and BC still hasn’t publicly explained how the pay structure for their freelancers, such as Scott James, who will be writing a regular column for the site, according to Weber.
It’s also unclear if they’ll simply trust their partners to present the news factually, as other news orgs do wire reports; or if they reserve the right to edit their partners’ content before posting it on their own site.
One more unanswered question: how exactly will they be finding and evaluating this partner content? For now, Weber asked the assembled writers to just email pitches directly to him, the Editor in Chief. Of course, once the site launches, we can probably assume that he won’t have time to handle daily sifting responsibilities.
And then there’s another less obvious question to consider: the impact that striking a deal like this could have on your reputation.
“Ahoy, readers,” this Bay Citizen calls out, “no need to go messing around with all those various blogs and things! Just come to the Bay Citizen, we have all best highlights! One look at us and you won’t need to read anyone else!”
I gave a presentation at the Journalism Innovations III conference a few weeks ago entitled “Fourteen Things Bloggers and Broadcasters Have to Learn from Each Other,” in which I touched upon the importance of reputation–or, if you’re one of those people, “branding.”
Now, more than ever before, it’s completely mandatory for journalists to have a unique reputation. You can’t survive on bland fishwrap. Every article you write (or blog post or tweet) has to be an investment in a larger body of work or in your own self-promotion. If your identity becomes decoupled from your content, then suddenly your content is doing a lot less work on your behalf.
Let’s look at Haighteration as an example. (To be clear, I’m not in touch with them, and they weren’t at the Bay Citizen meeting on Friday.)
Haighteration’s the best source for hyperlocal Lower Haight news. If they post something awesome–like their “Lower Haight of Yesteryear” series–they’ll get a ton of incoming links that may convert into new readers. Yay.
But if they cross-post to Bay Citizen, would as many readers hop on over to Haighteration? Why would they, after all? There reportedly won’t be a link to their story on BC (After publication, Weber commented on the Appeal, saying “If partners prefer that the link go to the story page and not the front page we could certainly do that”) and readers just read the whole article, anyway. For content partners, a link from a high-traffic site might be more valuable than a cross-post.
While nobody can predict whether BC will become a high-traffic site, I think it’s a safe bet that they won’t be heavy linkers. Editor in Chief Jonathan Weber told the assembled writers, “The link economy breaks down online … the experience can be disconnected.”
“You’re in one place and then you in a different place,” he went on. “It can be a very frustrating experience.”
That might come as a surprise to a site like Curbed, which built a reputation as one of the most diligent linkers around. (Disclosure: I wrote for Curbed, and I’m on friendly terms with the folks who run the site currently.) The quality of Curbed’s links is high, and readers know it; if Curbed links to your site, you enjoy a healthy boost.
It might be true that BC’s as-yet-unknown readership will find links frustrating, if their demographic ends up like the Chronicle’s — elderly and suburban. (Note: These demographics may not be particularly attractive to your average San Francisco blogger.)
Currently, BC’s links to the media community in the Bay Area are tenuous. There wasn’t much outreach regarding Friday’s meeting, so many well-established writers found out about it last-minute through word of mouth, or not at all. Greg Dewar, one of the city’s most successful bloggers (and, disclosure, my friend), wrote over at SF Weekly, “I didn’t hear about it either. If I had, I might have attended.”
It’s possible that Weber’s attitude reflects the policies at his past projects. After all, his last job, running New West, which covers six entire states, generates only modest traffic, getting about a tenth as many unique visitors as SFist. And although his Industry Standard magazine was a rip-roaring success for a while, a paper magazine in 2001 is a far call from a non-profit general news site of today.
So the question for writers considering this deal is this: is a link more valuable than $25? And unfortunately, that’s hard to answer.
I run Stop8.org, a website that tracks the media for reporting on Prop 8 and gay marriage. Readership is pretty modest. When I get a link from SFist, I get a big traffic spike — much bigger than I would if I’d just let SFist post my content.
But that spike won’t immediately turn into $25 worth of value, since Stop8 isn’t a moneymaker. (I run ads, but they don’t even cover expenses.) So maybe I’m better off taking the money than getting the traffic.
On the other hand, if I was running a site that’s supported by advertising (like the Appeal is) or if I were writing a book about Prop 8 (which I am) then those local eyeballs are suddenly awfully valuable. Not only do people who run websites make immediate money based on their pageviews, but having an established track record of visitors to your site enables you to attract new advertisers.
If your traffic doesn’t grow, neither does your business. And when I self-publish my book and sell a few thousand copies around California in an effort to nail down national distribution, that built-in audience could make the difference between success and failure.
And I’m not alone. All commercially successful writers are working on some larger project that will, at some point, require a big audience. Nowadays, you can’t live on one-off articles alone. You have to be working on something bigger.
So that $25 license looks okay in the short term–but it could cut off a significant long-term advantage.
How could Bay Citizen sweeten the deal? For me, there are four ways that this could turn out to be a satisfying experience:
— I get totally famous for my work through Bay Citizen and gain an enormous following through their site. That, of course, depends on the Bay Citizen having a massive readership, which is a pretty big hypothetical. It’s still unclear what the BC’s traffic building plan is: when asked at Friday’s meeting, Weber wouldn’t go into detail on their social media plan, only saying vaguely, “we’ll be using Twitter in a number of different ways. I don’t want to get into it.”
— BC names me as their regular exclusive content partner on the topics that I write about. They put my brand on their site. They make it clear to readers that when they see really great coverage of the Prop 8 trial, it’s the work of Matt Baume at Stop8, not of The Bay Citizen. SFist, for one, has always been really good about doing this.
— They publish only an excerpt of my article, with a link to the full post on my own site.
— They chip in that $25 towards a Spot.us pitch. (Spot.us is a fundraising platform for journalists; you post a pitch for a story and a reserve price; then readers and publications donate money to your pitch, and when the donations reach the reserve, then you write the article.)
I’m not sure if BC would be up for any of these things. Stuff like that is common practice for blogs, where linking and sharing are a stable currency; but not so much for newspapers.
I asked both Jonathan Weber and David Cohn of Spot.us if their organizations have a relationship with each other. Both answered: “not yet.” For now, they said, it’s entirely possible that BC might chip in some cash to a Spot.us pitch. And of course, that means that it’s entirely possible that they won’t. Here’s hoping that they work out something more specific.
Of course, there’s one big upside to Bay Citizen’s plan: no other local sites are doing it. Sure, SFGate is happy to slurp up content from local blogs — they just don’t pay them. But they do allow partial-posts with a link to the originating article, and they have good traffic and provide visibility. Organizations like Mission Local and The San Francisco Bike Coalition, among others, have cross-posting relationships with SF Gate.
It’s clear that journalism needs a new business model, and experiments like this can only help. But can you consider this a “business model” for anyone other than BC? According to Weber himself, no.
Once it launches, it’ll quickly become clear how successful the idea is–so it’s worth some very careful scrutiny, both before and after the big launch on the 26th.