In April last year, the team behind the Journal launched an experimental side project: Noteworthy. The aim is to trial a model of funding journalism.
I am always on the lookout for this kind of experiment, hoping there’s an easier, better path than the one we’ve taken at Dublin Inquirer. (If I find one, maybe we’ll, err, borrow it.)
So I’ve been watching Noteworthy fairly closely since its launch. It’s been the better part of a year now, and my curiosity got the best of me – so I got in touch with the team.
On a recent Monday, in a glass-walled conference room at Journal HQ, a couple of floors up over the south inner-city, I spoke with Journal Media Chief Executive Adrian Acosta and Journal Media Managing Editor Susan Daly.
There’s a ways to go yet on Noteworthy’s initial, two-year experimental stage, so Acosta and Daly aren’t ready to give a final judgment. “Basically, we haven’t reached our deadline yet so I wouldn’t declare anything a success or a failure,” Daly says.
But they were willing to discuss how it’s going and what they’ve learned so far. They can point to some achievements, but there have also been some difficulties.
“There are no guarantees. Like with anything that is innovative, by its own definition you cannot have certainty that it’s going to work,” says Acosta.
A news organisation’s business model fundamentally shapes its journalism. The Journal is online-only, and advertising-funded, and that affects the kinds of things it publishes.
“I don’t know the exact percentage but 80, 90 percent of our business is through advertising,” says Acosta, and most of what it publishes is available to readers for free – with just a bit of “exclusive content for paying members”.
When the Journal started up back in 2010/11, most articles published by newspapers in Ireland appeared online after the paper was published, in the same form as they had appeared in print, Acosta says. “As a result, our opportunity was to publish news for digital consumption (ie. fast/as news happened or developed; and most likely for reading on a smartphone),” he says.
Since then things have changed. Most major newsrooms publish online fast now, or even online first.
And much of the stream of advertising money that once flowed into news organisations has been diverted to Facebook, Google, and other destinations. So news organisations have for years been looking for other ways to bring in money to pay for what they want to do.
The Journal, meanwhile, has been evolving. These days, on its website, alongside the quick-hit breaking-news pieces that might do a good job of generating the clicks that make advertisers happy, there’s also some in-depth, original reporting, which maybe isn’t as easy to fund through advertising sales.
“Advertising has its limits when it comes to what you can pay for in that realm,” Acosta says.
Seeking a New Model
“The predominant business models that emerged in digital news publishing are not conducive to fund investigations,” the Journal team argued in its pitch for funding to launch Noteworthy.
But there’s a newsroom full of reporters just a few feet away from where we are speaking, sitting at rows of desks covered with computers, documents, notebooks. Can’t the editors just assign some of them to investigations?
Well, says Acosta, there are some types of stories that advertisers aren’t as keen to have their ads placed next to – very gloomy or very contentious ones – so if the Journal wants to do those, it probably has to do them at a financial loss.
Other types of stories might not be gloomy or contentious. They might be very worthy, but might not attract enough readers to bring in enough eyeballs and advertising money to pay for themselves, says Daly.
The longer-term, more in-depth a story is, the more money the Journal has to spend to produce it (mostly by paying someone to spend time on it), the more of a drag it is on the business if it isn’t the type of thing that can attract advertising money for one of those two reasons.
When the editors assign someone to work on this kind of story, “effectively you’re putting all your resources into doing some work that goes against your business”, Acosta says.
So the team behind the Journal decided to look for another business model that they could use to fund these more resource-intensive, less advertising-friendly stories.
Like so many other news organisations in this position, they decided to look to readers. But they didn’t take the traditional route of just putting up a paywall. They settled on a different strategy.
After much planning, they won a €380,000 grant from the Google Digital News Initiative. The deal was that they would “more or less, over time” match that Google funding, Acosta says.
The Google money doesn’t come all at once. It’s dependent on meeting milestones and contributing matching funds, Acosta says. Says Daly: “There’s no big lottery cheque.”
With funding available, if not in hand, they set out to build a website and team to crowdsource story ideas, shape these into more concrete and specific story proposals, and then crowdfund the money to report, edit and publish each one.
Right now, they’re testing the idea on a relatively small scale, but trying to develop a model that can be scaled way up to producing funding for a constant stream of great investigative journalism.
The team has involved a full-time developer, a designer, and two journalists at any given time, “And possibly a third between you and I,” Daly says to Acosta.
Between Noteworthy’s public launch in April of last year and a progress update on 6 January, the project had published 62 articles. Since then, they’ve published two more articles – on the reasons local councils cut down trees.
These grew from a proposal titled “Cut down to size: why are Ireland’s local authorities so keen to chop down trees?”, on the basis of which 47 backers gave a combined €1,100, according to Noteworthy. That’s an average of €23.40 each these people paid for these two articles.
That’s a lot for someone to pay for two articles. Many monthly news subscriptions cost less. It makes me wonder whether people are willing to pay more for specific stories they know they’re interested in, than for a subscription they hope will bring them stories that would interest them.
In any case, it was these donations that funded these articles, and Acosta says there was no advertising run next to them. Why not? I ask.
“It’s not too contentious – possibly local authorities wouldn’t want to give any public-service ads around it,” Daly says.
“Or insurance, or cars,” Acosta says.
But that’s not the point, really, they say.
It’s not about whether the Journal could have declared this one project worthwhile and just taken the loss of €1,100 or whatever it cost to produce it, with no income to offset that.
“Like, we have the skill and the talent,” says Daly. “Yes we could do that. But we could do that for maybe one every few months.”
“What this [Noteworthy] is trying to do is find a way that that becomes the actual norm for this platform and that’s why the business model is different because it’s clear that the other business model can’t sustain it at scale,” she says.
So is the experiment working?
The idea of Noteworthy is: 1) to get people to submit ideas; 2) to have the Noteworthy team craft these into proposals they publish; 3) to have people donate to fund those proposals; and 4) to have journalists report, write and publish articles based on those proposals.
The first stage of the process is to get what the team call “submissions”: ideas or topics or fragments of ideas. Before the launch in April, they put out a call on Boards.ie asking for submissions; since the launch, they’ve been asking through Noteworthy itself.
“A news room has certain processes and those processes in general come from an editor down,” Acosta says. “In this case that process is completely upside down. So the first thing that happens is … you have to get ideas from the general public …”
Wait, it’s unusual in this newsroom to get ideas from the public? I ask. Where do they normally get their ideas from?
“Well in the newsroom it’s a mix of the public who are sending things in, and it is also obviously editorial decisions on, why aren’t we covering this angle? Why did we let this drop? Why is nobody focusing on this?” Daly says.
“It’s not that we don’t have lots of good ideas for investigations internally. It’s that the whole point of this is to give people a platform to tell us what we’re missing, what we’re dropping the ball on,” she says.
The second stage is for the team to assess these submissions to see if they’re a good fit for Noteworthy, whether there’s a story there, and whether the story’s already been done. That behind-the-scenes process takes a lot of time and resources, Daly says.
The third stage is getting funding. The team put their finished proposals up on the website and ask readers to pitch in whatever they can towards the estimated cost of producing the story.
This is where the team seem to have made their own lives quite difficult, and their funding uncertain. Most news organisations that get money from readers rely on recurring weekly or monthly payments from subscribers.
Noteworthy is, in a sense, starting from scratch building a small group of subscribers for each one. Although, they are trying to build a community of supporters who will come back again and again and fund multiple proposals over time.
As of 25 January, they had published 68 proposals, asking for €86,600. So far, they’ve had 377 donations for these proposals, for a total of €19,479.
“How long am I? Twenty? Twenty-odd years in journalism? And most of that in newsrooms … And to see the stuff that people fund versus what I thought they would fund! It’s like, ‘How could you not care about that?’” Daly says.
The majority of proposals remain unfunded, so far. Donors have fully funded only 18. That includes “Price of Beauty: Are people taking a risk when they opt for dermal fillers?”, which was fully funded with a single €900 donation.
Has the Journal topped up any proposals that were nearly funded, to get them over the line? “No,” says Acosta. “No,” says Daly.
The articles based on most (15) of the 18 funded proposals were published during the first five months of Noteworthy’s life, from April through August.
However, the Noteworthy team has continued to publish a steady stream of articles, reaching 64 by late January. How can that be?
The General Fund
Most of the 64 articles Noteworthy has published so far apparently have been paid for through its “general fund”.
That’s a combination of start-up funding from Google and the team behind the Journal, as well as a few donations from the public that were earmarked specifically for the general fund.
So what’s happened? Has the team shifted their strategy away from crowdfunding specific individual ideas submitted by the public? No, says Acosta.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” he says. They started with the ideas from Boards.ie, turned those into proposals, and launched. “Suddenly we got a lot of early funding very quickly for about half of our proposals,” he says.
“So we had to shift our focus into, okay, let’s deliver this, and we lost momentum because we didn’t have enough resources to build new proposals,” says Acosta.
There were also some staffing changes and challenges at the small Noteworthy team, including the departure of journalist Peter Bodkin.
Without new proposals going up on the site, the pipeline of funded proposals for the team to work on dried up.
“If I was to do it again. I would do two things: have double the size of the team and have double the amount of proposals,” says Acosta.
Meanwhile, while the team were working on turning submissions into proposals, or were reporting the proposals they’d already had funded, they found unexpected things.
For example, maybe they’d put in an FOI request for documents, and among those they found something worth a story – but not the story that had been funded. They might write and publish that and put it on the general fund’s tab.
Publishing these general-fund stories on the Journal was a good way of keeping Noteworthy in the public eye too. “It’s obviously another form of marketing,” says Daly.
So the Noteworthy project of getting readers to contribute and fund specific projects may have kind of stalled out for a while. But Acosta and Daly say it’s back on track now.
“During the summer we went back into focusing on building new proposals and we’ve been doing that since maybe August and you’re starting to see a regular number of proposals,” Acosta says.
“The more proposals you have of course, when we do get someone to look at it [the Noteworthy website], the more likely that there’s something there that actually appeals to them,” says Daly.
Acosta and Daly are not yet ready to give a verdict on whether this experiment is a success, whether they’ve discovered a business model that will work.
But they’re a big organisation, with a lot of funding, and big ambitions. They’ve run into some difficulties with this project, but rather than retreating, they talk of scaling up.
“We put it out and it worked to a certain degree,” says Acosta. “The question is now how do we make this more known, how do we scale it?”
So are they hiring one or more people, doubling the size of the team? “Certainly one person in the … as soon as I can. We have advertised it but it’s difficult to find suitable candidates,” says Daly.
“I’ve met people, we’ve had a lot of back and forth, and sometimes we’ve had people close to the line and then you know they get a bit nervous about the fact that this is an experiment,” she says. And “there’s a limited pool in Ireland who have experience of being given the leeway to spend a lot of time on an investigation”.
Like Acosta and Daly, I am not ready to pass judgment on the Noteworthy experiment. Maybe it will work – I certainly hope so.
However, as a model it seems overly complicated and risky to try to fund one story at a time. You might put all the work into asking for ideas, sort through 20, find five worth turning into proposals, put those online, and only get enough donations to fund one.
Why not build up trust from a group of readers who believe that if they put you on a monthly retainer by taking out a subscription, you’ll just keep publishing good stuff – with some ideas from them, and some you generate yourself?
Also, if the business model of a news organisation shapes the journalism it does, I wonder what the effects might be of taking this a la carte approach to funding.
Might it lead to a newsroom full of general-assignment reporters who don’t have “beats” or areas of expertise, so they don’t build up the years of knowledge and sources that can help them find and report deeper stories?
Might it mean that people with more money could shape the newsroom’s coverage by putting in hundreds of euro to fund a proposal, giving them more influence than those who only have a fiver to spend?
Might there be other effects?
I guess as the Noteworthy experiment progresses over the coming year, we’ll see.
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