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.