‘I ain’t going to be happy if I’m not making money’: Longform Journalism’s 3 Hottest Startups Talk Shop
“It’s all well and good for me to say I want to make writers happy. I ain’t going to be happy if I’m not making any money,” said Michael Shapiro, founder of the new digital publishing platform The Big Roundtable.
At The Future of Digital Longform Conference at Columbia Journalism School, the publishers and founders of new ventures The Big Roundtable, Narratively, and Epic gathered to chat about what they’ve learned since they’ve launched, which revenue streams exist for digital publishing, and how independent journalists can make money in the digital age.
The Big Roundtable
Shapiro, who has described The Big Roundtable as a Kickstarter for writers, said that his mission is to help writers get read and paid. “It bothered me that the opportunity for discovery for writers was shrinking,” he said, commenting on the exclusivity of legacy magazines. “What I want to do is be a force of disruption.”
Like Kickstarter, The Big Roundtable features creative works – in this case, longform stories – and rely on donations. Readers can chip in as little or as much as they like. “Had we put in a price point, we would have had A. fewer viewers, and B. the contributions would have been less,” Shapiro said. While not every reader donates, those who do contribute an average of ten dollars.
However, he said that it’s not a sustainable model: “It’s a nickel and dime business.” He implied that The Big Roundtable is continuing to iterate and look for additional revenue streams. Upon hearing about the other attendees’ business models, he said, “Whoa! Why didn’t I think of that? I’m a victim of being from the old school.”
Upon hearing about the other attendees’ business models, he said, “Whoa! Why didn’t I think of that? I’m a victim of being from the old school.”
Josh Bearman, publisher and co-founder of Epic, said that his publishing startup institutionalizes the process that he went through in getting his stories optioned by Hollywood. His 2007 Wired story, “The Great Escape,” was adapted for the big screen and became the 2012 film “Argo.”
He said that, as a journalist, he would typically write a 10,000-word story in six months, completely on spec. “I only did it because I knew it was going to be optioned as a movie.” So he and his co-founder Josh Davis decided to scale this process and connect more long-form journalists with Hollywood. “We ended up with a first look deal at a studio, which provided overhead,” he said.
The venture also gets funds from Medium, the new digital publishing platform from Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. Epic plans to pay writers, said Bearman, and the company has already made some money. “Now I realize that there’s a scale way beyond [Hollywood], which is advertising,” said Berman.
Ultimately, Berman said he just wants to find a way to fund quality stories. He said that he’s considering VICE’s business model, which creates editorial as well as advertising content aimed at a specific demographic. But for him, success is gaining a readership for these longform stories. As a writer, “you spend all this time with these characters learning about the human condition,” he said, and now the challenge is “sharing that in a different way.”
As a writer, “you spend all this time with these characters learning about the human condition,” he said, and now the challenge is “sharing that in a different way.”
“When you’re smart about it, there’s an overlap between the creative side, the editorial side, and the business side,” said Narratively founder, publisher, and CEO Noah Rosenberg. His venture, an ambitious publication that focuses on human interest stories, launched in 2012 and is already sustainable.
“We have half a dozen revenue streams right now,” he said. The most lucrative among them is the Narratively content agency. “We have a dynamic group of contributors and have been able to leverage that community. [We] channel higher paying work to contributors and free them up to continue to produce these passion projects for our platform.” However, he doesn’t plan on pivoting Narratively into a content agency, per se. “That’s not why we got into this.”
He said that Narratively has remained independent from investors – bootstrapped – during the year that it took them to build the product and the fourteen months since their launch. “We’re very fortunate to start generating revenue a few months in, from advertising, from content syndication, and from this content agency. We are starting to look for investors.”
Rosenberg said that the venture owes its success to the initial exposure they received from their Kickstarter campaign, as well as their talented, devoted team and their willingness to experiment with the business. Though long-term plans include live events, brand sponsorships, and angel investors, Rosenberg said that his short-term goal is to “pay our contributors and editors what they’re worth.”
So what advice did these journalists turned entrepreneurs offer to new, independent writers? Said Bearman, who got his start about eight years ago contributing to alt-weeklies, “I have no fucking idea how you would get into the magazine business starting now.” Shapiro suggested that anyone who wants to break into a legacy media organization like The Washington Post right out of college might want to learn video or web production skills.
“You just have to do good work. It’ll hopefully somehow rise to the top,” Rosenberg observed, while Berman emphasized the importance of self-marketing. “The people who have their own brand, they’re not just good writers, they’re also self-promoters.”
“Those with an entrepreneurial spirit are not living on Ramen noodles,” Shapiro agreed.
Follow Grace Bello on Twitter at @grace_land.
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