No one in the industry has found the perfect solution to consistently making money from online journalism. It sometimes seems as though we’re trapped in a sci-fi film, waiting for Keanu Reeves to serendipitously stumble upon the secret to ‘journalistic cold fusion’ and then share it with the world. But until that happens, media companies across the industry will have to be satisfied experimenting with a range of possible solutions.
This week, the media’s experimentation has again become a talking point, with three noteworthy—and very different—approaches emerging.
The first comes from The Spinoff, which on Wednesday launched a Pledge Me campaign in a bid to raise funds to do more in-depth coverage of the Unitary Plan.
The campaign goal of $10,000 was reached within 24 hours, and, at the time of publishing, donations exceeded $12,500.
The Spinoff editor Duncan Greive says the motivation behind this campaign arose from his frustration at the situation young Aucklanders find themselves in.
“The idea came out of my feeling shitty, really,” he says.
“I'm 36 years old, and I feel like myself and those of my friends who lucked into buying houses struck this crazy Lotto-sized jackpot that will stay with us the rest of our lives. Whereas the young people who work at The Spinoff, they've got no chance. There's no job in the country that earns as much as an Auckland house.”
In the Pledge Me post, Greive expresses frustration at the fact mainstream media has until now kept the coverage basic, which has contributed to “NIMBYs hamstringing efforts to modernise our city's infrastructure, housing and public transport”. He proposes The Spinoff provide more impactful coverage by paying a host of contributors to get stuck into the big issues at hand.
However, The Spinoff doesn’t have the resources to finance this type of coverage, meaning that he had to go elsewhere to get the funds.
At first, he tried to find a commercial partner to support the series of articles.
“I approached one potential sponsor, a developer of apartments who I really admire,” Greive says.
“They liked the idea, and agreed to give us some money, but at the last minute seemed to get cold feet. Which was a shame – but then, if they hadn't, we wouldn't have done the crowd-funding, and that’s been fucking amazing.”
Greive says that while this crowd-funding approach worked well in this instance, he doesn’t know if it will necessarily become a means by which to support journalism, consistently, in the future.
“It seems vaguely fraught in a way,” he observes.
“Take the incredible reporting Kirsty Johnston and Jess McAllen have been doing on mental health, would that be crowd-funded? You'd hope so, but it's pretty scary to think of it just being in the hands of the crowd. So you wouldn't want to rely on it. But I do like that it's there as a ripcord for us on stories or issues we struggle to get sponsored otherwise.”
For the most part, The Spinoff remains reliant on its sponsors and clients, with Greive saying the publication wouldn’t exist at all without the support of Flight Centre, Barkers, Bigpipe, Callaghan, Unity and Lightbox, in particular.
The Spinoff is, however, an example of a media company that is not quite profitable yet (the Guardian as another example of something that’s extremely popular but not profitable).
“We're still breaking even,” Greive says. “Whatever profit we make we immediately spend on some weird scheme.”
But these schemes do seem to be taking the publication in a good direction, with Greive adding: “We have nearly quadrupled revenues in a year, and have ten full-time staff.”
And if the publication can maintain its popularity while simultaneously continuing to produce strong editorial that’s never dull, then The Spinoff certainly seems to have a bright future.
RNZ and Stuff collaborate
At this year’s Canon Awards, two of the year’s big success stories were The Spinoff and The Wireless. And it’s only fitting that the second example of media experimentation from this week involves RNZ’s youth-focused site.
At this stage, the partnership between the pair is only a three-month trial, giving either party an escape route should things not go according to plan.
RNZ head of digital Glen Scanlon says that Stuff will be permitted to republish 15 pieces of audio or video content from either site on a daily basis.
“It is very similar to our arrangement with MSN, which has been running successfully, in terms of helping grow our audience, for a year,” Scanlon says.
Also similarly to the MSN deal, this partnership will involve a commercial element, with RNZ receiving a share of the revenue from advertising alongside the content.
While this does seem to be a move by RNZ to supplement its government funding, which has been frozen for a number of years, Scanlon says it’s more about increasing its audiences (on a related note, the commercial players are also increasingly applying to NZ On Air for project funding, which in turn could potentially make it more difficult to justify an increase in RNZ's share).
“This is not a money-making venture for us but about reaching a much bigger audience with the great work we do and making more people aware of it,” he says.
“Stuff.co.nz delivers new audiences to RNZ. It has around 2 million unique visitors a month, about five times our current reach … RNZ is committed to making its content available to as many audiences as possible through a wide range of platforms. We will deliver content wherever, however and whenever audiences choose to receive it.”
The scale Stuff offers was also a major incentive behind TVNZ’s decision to strike a partnership with the news site.
However, these partnerships when viewed alongside the potential merger between Fairfax and NZME later this year is starting to big, single shadow over the Kiwi media landscape.
Earlier this week, KPEX chief executive Richard Thompson confirmed that Choice TV, NBR and Tangible Media had also joined the platform, each in a bid to generate income from their unsold web inventory.
While these publishers have made their intentions official, there are also a few others that are trialling KPEX to see if it’s a viable means by which to earn revenue.
Among these is Interest.co.nz, and the website’s publisher David Chaston says he has approached the platform with scepticism.
“We will see if this channel can avoid being just another race-to-the-bottom,” he says.
“I start somewhat sceptical of their ability to pull it off, but completely supportive of the concept, hence the trial … At this point, it is a case of 'watch and see', and trying to get some experience by being inside the tent.”
And with the rate at which the industry is changing, this certainly won’t be the last commercial tent Chaston and his counterparts across the industry walk into as they search for an answer to the question of how to develop a sustainable source of digital revenue to fund journalism. One thing that's certain is that the answer is unlikely to be found in a single place.