“I don’t know what we were thinking.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“You tell me. I have no idea.”
When Aleksandr Gorbachev decided to research the business models of digital longform publications for his master’s thesis at the University of Missouri, he wanted to find out how all these websites could actually afford to do this kind of resource-heavy reporting. (Lovers of longform with delicate sensibilities, you might want to prepare yourself for the results of his research.)
Gorbachev, a self-acknowledged fan of the genre, spent months studying 10 websites — Aeon, the Atavist, the Big Roundtable, Byliner, Epic, Compass Cultura, Deca, Latterly, Longreads and Matter – and interviewing their founders and executives.
His conclusion? Most of them, while doing good work journalistically, appear, as he puts it, “to operate outside the general logic of business.”
Here’s a brief passage from his conclusion:
“The results show that the success and the potential impact of this new type of journalistic enterprise might not be as significant as the press covering it would like it to be. Even though the executives of digital longform publications consider what they do an important and daring experiment in the media industry, only a few have actually come up with economic strategies that can truly be called experimental and innovative.”
Perhaps tellingly, while writing this I received an emailed plea for donations to the Longreads story fund that opened with, “We need your help.”
I talked to Gorbachev about his research via email as he moved back to his native Russia to start a new job at Meduza, a prominent Russian independent news outlet based in Latvia. The answers have been edited slightly for length and flow. (For the record: I may have to rename this category 5(ish) Questions. Let’s not accept limits!)
First off, tell me in layman’s terms how you approached your subject: the business models of digital longform.
I actually was a bit of a layman here myself when I came up with the idea of my thesis. I got a Fulbright fellowship and arrived to the University of Missouri from Russia in August 2014 in order to kind of reinvent my journalistic career and acquire new skills. Of course, I read American press before that, but only occasionally and without any particular approach. Almost immediately I discovered the great tradition of narrative/literary/longform journalism and fell in love with it, not least because we don’t really have a tradition like that in Russia, unfortunately.
Their primary ambition is to tell great stories, and many were guided by the same old logic of “if we build it, they will come;” i.e., if we publish truly great journalism, people will pay for it in one form or another. Unfortunately, in most cases it doesn’t work like that at all.
I started reading such stories voraciously, and learned about all those new fancy digital longform websites that focused on narrative journalism, and then I was, like, wait a minute: Isn’t longform supposed to be expensive and resource-demanding, and thus almost unattainable in our troubled times? I could theoretically understand, from the economic standpoint, how The New Yorker, or the Atlantic or other established and/or incorporated media outlets do it, but with all those new projects that concentrated on longform, I was completely baffled.
So I decided to find out what the business models of those publications are. The most natural way of doing it, it seemed, was to ask, and that’s what I did—I just sent a dozen interview requests to the executives of digital longform publications. Fortunately for me, the overwhelming majority responded, and agreed to talk to me, and in many cases were much more frank than I had expected. I want to thank them for that.
Tell us what you found. Be gentle.
Well, if you want me to be gentle, then… Let’s put it that way: It doesn’t appear that the business model is the first thing that people think about when they start a digital longform publication. Which is, of course, completely understandable if you take into account the fact that almost all those publications were created by journalists, not entrepreneurs. Their primary ambition is to tell great stories, and many were guided by the same old logic of “if we build it, they will come;” i.e., if we publish truly great journalism, people will pay for it in one form or another. Unfortunately, in most cases it doesn’t work like that at all.
More specifically, I found out that most publications rely on pretty traditional revenue streams when it comes to making money. Since ads don’t make financial sense for such websites (they simply don’t have enough content and page views to make it sustainable), customers become the most important income source, be it in the form of subscriptions, or payments for individual stories or soliciting donations. Some publications also seek venture funding, which can be a tricky path, if the investors’ expectations are not met. Many also partner with other publications, in the U.S. and abroad, getting some income from that. Finally, for those who are lucky enough to have it, the most reliable source of income are actually subsidies from a different, more profitable branch of the same company.
I was a bit startled that the people behind some of these sites would answer your questions with remarks like: “I don’t know what we were thinking.” “Well, what do you think?” “You tell me. I have no idea.” Were you?
In a way, yeah. At the same time, I appreciated the honesty. And what I would like to reiterate here is that those answers are not necessarily final. Most people I talked to describe what is happening to digital longform now as an experiment, and it truly is, and it is unclear what the result of this experiment will be. We are still in the process of finding answers. If anything, I hope that the work I did might help someone to formulate the questions they need to answer in order to succeed more clearly.
If people are still willing to do all this exhaustive amount of reporting and create complex, in-depth stories despite the fact that the odds are they won’t succeed financially, this tells you something about the resilience and the significance of the genre.
One leitmotif that runs through the thesis is that journalists aren’t traditionally business-minded. In fact, we’ve long been believers of the separation of news-gathering and the business side. Was that the biggest obstacle these sites face? And how can that change? Do journalists have to become savvy businesspeople, or can they just be savvy and hire good businesspeople?
It seems obvious that the most integral part of the business for a digital longform publication should be its marketing strategy; after all, before you can ask your readers for money in form or another, you have to have those readers and make a case for them so that they would invest their time and, ideally, money into your content. However, most people I talked to admitted voluntarily that they are not that good at marketing and don’t really know how to reach and engage readers. That might be the most troubling of my findings to me. As for hire v. become choice, well, I think either option works, really. The most important thing is, you have to do something. You have to think about these things, you cannot ignore them, and if you do, you are bound to fail, pure and simple. Actually, one of the reasons why I came to study in the U.S. was to get this understanding: Before that, I worked for a year as an editor-in-chief of a major arts and culture magazine in Moscow, and I had to admit that I might have been all right as a manager on the editorial side, but I really didn’t do well on the business side; I just hated it and wanted to avoid the meetings about it at all costs. And that was wrong, frankly. So when I came to the University of Missouri, I took several classes about the media business, most of them with my advisor and committee chair, Randall Smith, and they were very valuable. It’s not that I started to like this stuff; I still resent the idea of constant growth and all that. But you don’t have to like it. However, if you are an executive of a publication these days, you have to understand how the business works—or have someone on your staff who does (neither was really the case at the majority of the publications I studied). Among journalists, especially in the U.S. where newsrooms for many years enjoyed the privilege of an impenetrable wall between the business and the content, there is an inherent distrust toward anything that connects journalism and money, as if your reporting is compromised as soon as you let yourself think about how your publication makes money. But this was a privilege we no longer have—and there is a fine line here that you can walk without compromising yourself, and actually a pretty wide one, with many opportunities we still have to explore.
Talk a little about this line from the thesis: “It seems accurate to say that the phenomenon of digital longform publications might exist not because of the new economic environment of the digital media industry, but despite it.”
Well, one could presume that, since all those publications in questions have appeared in recent years, they exist because the digital media economy allowed them too. Apparently not. They exist because the digital media environment allows pretty much anybody to start their own (longform) publication, but it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with business. If anything, the current trends in digital media economy are discouraging, especially when it comes to trying to sustain in-depth reporting that demands a lot of investment both from the producer and the consumer and doesn’t translate into a lot of clicks; it doesn’t appear that enough people are willing to pay for this type of content, especially when it doesn’t come from an established outlet that provides you with information that you might need to make a living. Still, digital longform publications do appear, and actually it gives me some hope. I mean, if people are still willing to do all this exhaustive amount of reporting and create complex, in-depth stories despite the fact that the odds are they won’t succeed financially, this tells you something about the resilience and the significance of the genre.
Were you surprised by any of your findings, or did you always suspect they would be pretty bleak?
Honestly, I didn’t suspect anything. But I allowed myself to think that I would discover that there weren’t that many business models in a strict sense of the world to speak of. However, and I have to mention that again, yes, I was surprised by how consistently my subjects admitted their failures in terms of reaching and engaging the audience, in terms of coming up with a working marketing strategy. I mean, I don’t consider myself that big of an expert, but it seemed obvious to me that if you want to launch a successful media outlet these days, in the era of total information overflow, your first and foremost have to have a clear idea of who your readers are and how you will reach them. Apparently it’s not that obvious.
Were you heartened by any of your findings? What did you see that might give longform fans hope?
What gives me hope is that, despite the fact that the current industry conditions should theoretically warn people against going longform, many publications are still doing it; in fact, there is so much longform journalism these days that some people are writing longform articles about the overabundance of longform articles. So the genre is far from dead, and if it appears to be able to survive and thrive even in contemporary dire conditions, I think we all shouldn’t worry about its future. However, my initial dream about starting a digital longform publication in Russia was kind of shattered by my research—if it can’t really be sustainable in the American media industry, it sure as hell will totally fail here.