Can Inkshares be the Consumer Reports of long-form journalism?

My friend Paul Spinrad has an article proposal up on the interesting new site Inkshares. The idea is that if enough people contribute funding, Paul will write a long-form piece on messianic Judaism, a topic that, as you’ll see from his proposal, has interested him for some time. He’s a talented writer with tons of experience and I’m sure would produce a great piece. What interests me more, though, is the Inkshares model. To Paul’s mind, it’s one that could enable great journalism to continue to flourish, i.e. enable journalists to have both the funding and the freedom to write engaging longer-form pieces on all manner of topics, of the sort that used to be commissioned by more than the handful of remaining upmarket general-interest magazines.

Is Paul right? The idea is appealing. Journalism, now, may flourish on the web, often in the form of blogging, but long-form pieces seem much less common than they used to be. It takes time and money to write the sort of stuff Paul’s proposing to write, and if crowdfunding takes off in this area, he and other journalists would have both in spades. Time is the key here, I think – time free from having to crank out short pieces to pay the bills while working on a longer one on the side. Also important, I think, to Paul and other Inkshares writers, is the perceived freedom from editorial pressure, from advertisers and publishers looking to please advertisers.

I wonder, though, if this is really the way forward for journalism. One potential problem is getting funding. Readers can get, at quite low cost and often for free, all manner of great writing now, on all manner of topics. And while few web writers produce work of the length of the typical Maciej Cegłowski essay, long-form stuff is out there, and plenty of the short stuff is of excellent quality. Moreover, plenty of the most talented web writers are willing to write for free, either as a hobby or because their jobs enable them to do this – Cegłowski is one, I’d also nominate, off the top of my head, Robin Hanson here. Other writers support themselves through ads on their sites, or by writing for free-to-the-user, ad-supported sites run by others.

In all these cases, moreover, the writers go ahead and write, without waiting for funding. And there are, they’ve shown, all manner of ways to do this and make a dime. Sure, these writers, when working on a topic that would traditionally have been tackled in a long-form piece, may have, for economic reasons, to break it into smaller chunks, and put them out intermittently. But I don’t see evidence that the rise of the web, and decline of magazines, has meant the decline of serious, insightful writing on weighty topics, or the narrowing of the range of opinions on those topics. If anything, the opposite would seem to be the case. Not writing, until you get funding, strikes me as ignoring all the other options for getting great serious work out there.

I should add that I could see Inkshares succeeding not as the Kickstarter, but rather the Consumer Reports of journalism. CR doesn’t take ads, and while plenty of other publications put out very good product reviews, it’s done very well by positioning itself as the most serious, reliable, and independent source for this content. For its readers, myself included, it’s this unique combination that makes CR their go-to source for buying advice, when they’re buying a fridge, a car, or insurance. Inkshares could do this too, I think, charging a yearly subscription fee, and positioning itself as a cut above Slate, Salon, HuffPo, et al, and perhaps even the New Yorker and the Atlantic, or at least competing with them, by hewing close to the standard of the best long pieces that run in those latter two publications. Staying online would keep costs low, and cultivating their relationships both with readers and great writers would enable them better to connect the two, by commissioning the right work from the right people, and presenting it in the right way. Of course this would be a tough task, but if its editors love journalism as much as I think they do, this could be a path to success.

Death of the mid-list bookstore

Just as print publishing’s decline has hit mid-list authors particularly hard, so too is Barnes and Noble suffering.  Why do I equate the two? I think the same factors are at work in both cases. Both provided an o.k. experience—reading, in the former case, browsing and buying, in the latter—when other options weren’t available. You’d buy and read any old novel you were on vacation in a seaside town with one tiny bookstore, and it was the only novel you could find that you hadn’t read. Now you can download a movie or play an online game, or download an e-book, from almost anywhere, so that book doesn’t compel you to buy it, unless you’re fairly sure that reading it will afford you a great experience. Going to a Barnes and Noble is o.k., but only if there’s no local bookstore with more character—and apparently those bookstores, against all expectations are doing just fine. And if it’s variety and price you’re after, everything’s online.  I’ll miss Barnes and Noble, if it disappears, if only because when I was in school in New York, I always loved browsing the stacks at its flagship 5th Avenue store, which wasn’t much on charm, but had a hell of a lot of books. That Union Store megastore is pretty cool too.  But I see that like the mid-list author, B+N, as a chain, doesn’t offer anything you can’t get elsewhere.

The continued decline of the Times, or…

That’s one possible takeaway from this story, reporting that the Times company’s market cap is down so much, it’s now the smallest corporation in the S+P 500. And certainly, as I’ve noted, the Times is having a lot of problem, like every other big media company, adapting to the ongoing electronicization of publishing. But I think that this might not be the best takeaway. Rather, we should see this development as evidence that media is becoming so fragmented that even the best, traditionally most influential media organizations can no longer dominate the field – either as a business, or as an opinion-shaper. And whatever we think of the Times, that can’t possibly be bad.

The race is on: Will the New York
Times go all-digital before
it runs out of money?

I’ve speculated before that the NYT will, sooner rather than later, have to radically restructure its organization – that is, fire a lot of people, and cut a lot of other costs too – in order to survive as a news-gathering and -dissemination operation. I didn’t expect that the Times’s leadership would come so quickly to the realization that one good way to do this would be to go all-digital. But now Arthur Sulzberger has broached the idea. If he’s saying this in public, and deliberately so, how much longer can it be, before this happens? Soon, I hope – the Times will be in much better shape, the quicker it goes this route, perhaps preserving, say, the Sunday Magazine and a few other sections, as regular, though not daily, printed products, for a boutique audience.

Could online brand ad revenue save the
New York Times?

I’ve written a number of times that the New York Times can succeed as a business only if it radically cuts costs, to the point where it can survive on online ad revenue. I haven’t written about how it can get more such revenue, because I don’t know anything about advertising. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry does, and he has an interesting idea for how the Times could pull this off. He argues that because the Times brand is so strong, advertisers will pay a premium to have their products associated with it – that is, they’ll pay much more than they do now, for ads on the Times site.

Gobry is talking about so-called brand ads, those aimed not at getting users to click through to a page where they can buy something, but at establishing the personality of a product or product line, and getting consumers to feel an emotional connection to it. Once this connection’s in place, they’ll spend freely on the product or products later – note in this context Apple’s enormously effective print, outdoor, and online ads. Gobry suggests that the Times should raise its online ad rates significantly, on the theory that no one will pass up advertising on the Times site, if this means giving up the chance to associate their brand with that of the Times. Would it work? Who can say? But as Gobry points out, given the financial state of the Times, it doesn’t have much to lose by trying.

Periodicals’ iPad apps should be
more like websites

That’s my takeaway from Joe Wikert’s review of iPad apps that deliver content from newspaper and magazine publishers. These apps are designed to evoke those publishers’ print products, in the hope that readers share the publishing industry’s nostalgia for an age when physical newspapers and magazines were the primary source of news and related feature content. But readers, Wikert included, understand that they can now get the same content, or its equivalent, for free, on the Web – and so see no reason iPad apps shouldn’t be more like websites. And be free, natch.

Which begs the question, which publishers will develop innovative – and free – websites, optimized for iPad, making maximum use of, say, its multitouch capabilities? Whoever does this may not make a mint off the ad revenue – but they’ll make way more than Time and the New York Times will ever make from selling their iPad apps.

An Apple tax on bestsellers?

The “Apple tax” is the price premium on computers with basically the same power and functionality as less-expensive PCs. Most consumers don’t want to pay it. But Apple’s made plenty of money on those who will, catering to the five to ten percent of computer buyers who either need a Mac for some specific reason, have become too attached to switch to a Dell, or like to tote their white laptops to Starbuck’s, to let everyone know they “think different.”

Will ebook buyers fall into any of these categories? Apple seems to think so. At Silicon Alley Insider, Dan Frommer reports that in a series of “iPad tour” videos, major bestsellers are shown priced a few dollars higher than what Amazon charges for Kindle versions.

I wonder if this will work, for ebooks with no value-added content – books that are essentially the same as their paper counterparts. There will, after all, be a Kindle app for iPad. Will the iBooks reading interface, or buying experience, really be that much better, to justify paying twenty-plus percent more for high-demand titles? I can’t imagine so. My bet is that these videos show these prices to keep publishers thinking that Apple will cave to their demands to charge more for such titles – all the better to convince them to sign sweetheart ebook distribution deals, in order to get a leg up on Amazon, and then, sooner rather than later, drive ebook prices lower than Amazon would dare.

If content is called an “app,”
will users pay more for it?

Yes, says Joe Wikert, discussing how much iPad content will sell for. His model is iPhone apps that give users content they could easily get in a browser, but format this content in a way that’s particularly iPhone friendly, and allow them to access it by clicking on a dedicated button, rather than having to load a browser bookmark. He also cites Pop-up Videos, saying that successful iPad apps could feature existing content tarted up and re-sold as something new.

Will this stuff really sell to iPad users? Perhaps. But I wonder, for how long, and how much. The web’s rise has shown us that there is a huge number of content providers and repackagers who’ll give the stuff away, for fun, or in exchange for a pittance in ad revenue. Often this content is not as high-quality, according to traditional standards, as for-pay versions – but most users don’t care. The iPad includes a browser, and I’d bet that if there is an initial boom, in content-as-app sales, web publishers will quickly move in, to undercut content-as-app providers, with free or nearly free websites that give iPad users comparable content, wrapped in a comparable experience.

What does “overhead”
mean in the book industry, and
how can it be cut?

Motoko Rich is very sharp, but in this article, on how the move to ebooks will change publishers’ revenue streams, misses the most important questions – the ones in the title of this post. She shows that publishers can indeed sell ebooks for less than print versions of the same title, but takes them at their word that they can’t drop those prices much below the low two digits – i.e. the $12.99 to $14.99 that iPad versions of new titles will (supposedly) cost.

Yet the accompanying graph belies this, or at least shows that she needs to provide more detail. “Overhead costs [would] decrease final profit,” the caption notes, and boy is this an understatement. (Let’s not even talk about other factors impacting profits, such as good or poor choice of titles, leading to better- or worse-than-expected sales; returns of large numbers of physical books, on all but the best-selling titles, necessitating refunds to retailers; and so forth.)

What are book publishers paying in overhead? If you were an investor, looking to buy shares in a publicly traded book publisher, wouldn’t you want to know, are its top execs crying about losing money, while renting large amounts of office space in one of the most expensive rental areas in the world – midtown/downtown Manhattan? Is it overstaffed? After moving offices and cutting staff, how else could overhead be cut, while maintaining necessary capacity? And would making these changes, and otherwise cutting overhead, be enough to enable book publishers to compete?