Why There Can Be No Business Model for Slow News
So, two questions from Rafat Ali:
1) What would a “slow news movement” look like?
2) What would a “slow news” business model look like? (How could you make a *profit* producing slow news?)
My response, in three parts: there is already “slow news” out there, there could be more of it, but it cannot, by its very nature, be profitable.
Why? Because what makes something slow news is an incredibly imbalanced ratio between the resources devoted to reporting the story and the amount of content you publish in the end. That ratio means the economics will always be out of whack.
What’s slow news? It’s people writing about what’s happen in a thoughtful, measured, context-rich way. It’s information that delivers the big picture, with lots of analysis. The opposite of Demand Media, the opposite of (some of) Politico–no empty calories, no sensationalized headlines, just careful, nutritious, substantive information. A slow look at what’s really going on in the world and what it means. On the side of the journalist, that means months, maybe years, of research. On the side of the audience, that means a full-length film, or, you know, LongReads. This stuff takes time. It is slow. You cannot write it or read it in two stressed-out minutes while eating Skittles at your office monitor. (Maybe we could also call it “commitment journalism.” )
Does this exist? Sure–think about The New York Times Magazine, or The New Yorker, or This American Life, or (focused purely on the investigative stuff) California Watch or ProPublica. Much of what these organizations do is slow journalism–deeply and carefully researched stories. Some of them are also beautifully written, but that is, perhaps, a bonus. Two of the best recent examples of “slow journalism” are George Packer’s New Yorker article on what’s wrong with the Senate (the classic hang-around-a-place-and-ask-obvious-questions-that-turn-out-to-be-profound-reportage) and Sheri Fink’s NYT/ProPublica joint effort on patients being wrongfully euthanized at a New Orleans hospital in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (It won a Pulitzer).
People love long form, “slow” journalism. They love it on the radio, they love it on the web, they even love it on their little phones–as editors at NYT Magazine and Slate keep saying, and saying again, even as otherwise intelligent editors continue to lament that people won’t read long things on the web, and there should be a 600/800/1,000-word limit for web stories. (Editors who have told me versions of this: Charles Sennott, Peter Kaplan, Jonathan Weber.)
But people love slow news and they will even pay for it–they donate to This American Life, they buy subscriptions to the New Yorker. But I do not think that they will–that they can–pay enough to make slow news profitable.
In the Twitter conversation that sparked this post, we’ve been talking about the ways that cheap, popular content subsidizes slow journalism. It happens at BoingBoing, @maggiekb1 said:
A similar balance is struck at Wired.com, @dylan20 noted–although he was talking about a balance between quick/ short and long/ slow, not cheap’n'shoddy vs. nutritious. And I certainly know that your local alt weekly is not only supporting its public interest print reporting with massage parlor ads–it’s supporting its public interest web reporting with slideshows of scantily-clad partygoers and the annual pageview cashcow that is the Masturbate-a-thon 2009. (Don’t click on link that at work.)
The essential problem with trying to monetize “slow news” is that what makes it appealing is insight, and insight is extremely expensive. Unlike your normal “fast news,” this kind of journalism doesn’t just provide a “he-said/she-said” or give you a run-down of “the facts”–it tells you how things really are. And for a human reporter, being able to say how things really are, with confidence and clarity, takes a lot of time. Not just days, not just a month (although a month’s not bad), but years.
The “slow news” reporting that’s really worth reading–(that people will *actually* read all the way through) comes when a reporter has been covering a subject for a long time, and finally sits down and distills all of that knowledge into deliberate run-down of what’s most important.
A lot of readers (myself included) don’t really want to read all the reporting that the journalist has completed over the past year or two–the reporting that they had to do in order to write the one, big, definitive story. They just want to read the brilliant summary. And that makes a lot of sense from a reader’s (or listener’s) perspective. With a limited amount of time to read things or watch things or listen to things, it would be great if everything you read or watched or listened to was the rich fruits of long labor.
How does any news organization support this kind of journalism? Where do they get the money to pay a reporter to learn about something for a year and then write just one really kick-ass story that many people will read?
We can get technical with this: Sheri Fink’s Pulitzer-Prize winning story, The Deadly Choices at Memorial?
Estimated cost, according to editors at ProPublica/NYT: $200,000. And that’s a lowball, down from an original estimated cost of $400,000.
The story was well-read and got a Pultizer, but there’s just no way that it made that much money in advertising or subscriptions. It was subsidized by other stuff, including the donations of two rich people, Herb and Marion Sandler.
And that’s the essence of the slow news business model question: the greatness-and-slowness-must-be-subsidized problem.
Does the New Yorker make money? My guess is: no, not at all. But when the scary McKinsey analysts came to crunch the numbers at Conde Nast, The New Yorker, its sacred cow, was spared. Meanwhile, over at The Atlantic, they’re super excited about possibly breaking even. How excited? “It may make only a penny, but after the millions and millions we have lost, I will celebrate that penny,” publisher David Bradley said.
As Clay Shirky points out, slow journalism has almost never been profitable:
I think the magazines that we reflectively look at — you know, Atlantic and New Yorker now; there used to be Harper’s and The New Republic, but those have also shrunk — the ones that we most respond to, and the radio we most respond to, has exactly the characteristics of having exited in one way or another the short-term commercial constraints in order to be able to do the kind of work they do, and I think we’re going to see more of that….And it’s a little bit icky and Renaissance to think, ‘Oh yeah, we have these great magazines because they’re being funded by rich people,’ but that’s the fact of their existence. And were they to be remaindered to the commercial market, they would shrink or fold. So that’s — I think that’s really the conundrum.
I think about the economic viability of “slow journalism,” because it’s the kind of journalism that I, as a writer, want to create. And right now, my most optimistic forecast is that, in 15 years, by the time I’m actually good enough to produce high-quality “slow journalism,” there will still be a couple non-profit, rich-people-supported outlets around who will publish slow journalism and pay me enough that I can start working on the next article.
In the same way that each piece of “slow news” requires an investment that’s disproportional to how much even a large number of readers would be willing to pay to read it, a career in “slow news” requires the investment of years of writing and research practice at a low salary, often subsidized by other part-time jobs. I’m still figuring out how to do this. And–before you stop me–this is a privilege! It’s a great and longstanding tradition! I am, in fact, pretty excited about it! But if you ask me about monetary profit–that’s just not how this kind of journalism works, is it? (And don’t forget to factor in the opportunity cost of the salary all of us could have been making if we had decided instead to be McKinsey analysts.)
So where does this leave us?
1) Lois, you’ve got the definition of “slow journalism” wrong! You’re jumping to extremes. Not all “slow journalism” needs to take 14 months and win a Pulitzer. We could create a model for medium-slow journalism and it would work just fine.
My response: The “medium-slow” journalism model is probably equivalent to your local alt weekly newsmagazine. Take VillageVoice Media (where I recently worked) as an example: writers are still doing 5,000-word long form “slow” journalism, but they’re now also required to blog. First it was three times a week. Now they’re expected to blog daily. The need for “fast” journalism to subsidize “slow” journalism is a real economic need, and this takes a substantial toll on the writers’ time and focus, if not on the “slow journalism” itself.
2) Wait–all of your arguments have simply been that “slow news” needs to be subsidized by “fast news” or rich people or deposits of gold discovered underground. That’s a business model! Let’s go out there and put that plan into action!
Fair enough, but that’s just called a “publication,” not a “slow news movement. “
Nonetheless, let us give publication–and new web publications– their due due. Going back to Boing-boing, @xenijardin notes:
@xenijardin yes, kittens & steampunk dildos do put bread on our table. But myth that only lightweight stuff pays bills = myth
@xenijardin BB makes $ on extreme diversity of content. Wide array of ultra-niche stuff that each of us rly care about. Somehow, it works
“Somehow, it works” Yes! Inspiring!
After reading the post (update), @xenijardin (aka Madam Boing) also wanted to emphasize that BoingBong also has not only a variety of niche-stuff by content, but also:
” ‘slow’ superfeatures: long-form reads that take much time, work, heavy design.”
“for us, the diversity isn’t just of tone or subject matter in fast/short blog posts, but the fleeting vs. “slow” superfeature”
This is a good thing to note: there are lots of publications which carve out the resources to do some high-quality, attractive “slow reporting”-style stuff and we should celebrate them. (Not to mention, I think the phrase “slow superfeature” is a keeper.)
3) What if we turn the “slow news” reporting process into “fast” content?
This is a very clever approach that is currently being tested by NPR’s Argo Project. One way of looking at the Argo Project (as one of the strategists behind it, Matt Thompson, does) is to see its topic-based blogs as classic, slow-and-deep investigations into a certain subject–the kind of investigation that might, as Thompson said, produce a whole nonfiction book. But instead of doing that research in private, Argo’s bloggers are doing it in public, and sharing the information that they gather with their readers, iteratively, over time. To me, this is a very clever way of trying to escape that dangerously imbalanced slow news ratio between reporting time and amoutn of final content: turn that quest for information, that slow gathering of information, into content that will attract readers, get clicks, and generate some revenue to subsidize the general endeavor.
It’s no coincidence that Tim Carmody, one of Thompson’s friends, was tweeting out links to Thompson’s advice to Argo bloggers (“win the story, not the morning”/ “own the system, own the story”) during our conversation about slow news earlier today.
Will this work? I certainly hope so. To my mind, Project Argo is the best current “slow news” business model out there–even if its actual goal isn’t producing those big, definitive, delicious articles/books/documentaries, but merely thinking similar big thoughts in an interative way.
But NPR is not a for-profit company, and, at the end of the day, business model means profit–right?
And, so, in conclusion, here’s what I want: I want someone to prove me wrong on this. Really. Please do. Pat me on the head and call me a silly child. Prove me wrong theoretically and then prove me wrong in practice. And then I will–very slowly– send you my resume.
NB: Gina Chen wrote a Nieman Lab post about “Artisanal News” a while back. She has a very different take on the issue, but it’s a good read.