‘A la carte’ journalism presents alternative to paywalls

With even The Mail Online now implementing paid content, a turning point for paywalls seems imminent. But an emerging alternative, “a la carte journalism,” allows readers pay per article, rather than subscribing to whole publications.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | April 22, 2013

“We are flooded with so much information that we don’t really want or need,” Michael Wheeler, founder of an “a la carte journalism” startup, said in an interview with The News Hook. “I spend a lot of time on my RSS feeds saying, ‘No, I don’t want to read that.’

“People do that in traditional media,” he added. “You open up The New York Times and thumb through 5-6 pages before you pick a story to read.”

Wheeler’s Salem, Massachusetts-based calls itself an “app store for news,” and Susan Johnston of Ebyline compared it to the iTunes of journalism. The “disruptive” startup allows users to make micropayments for individual articles. While still in beta testing, an article by Alessandra Bianchi on helicopter parenting is available on the platform at user-determined prices of US$.05 or more.

Wheeler told The News Hook that has not determined its pricing structure, but it is considering market-determined prices, depending on individual articles’ popularity, and journalist-determined prices. He said he is convinced that readers are willing to pay for articles that interest them.

Wheeler’s conviction is supported by Publishers Association data, which found that e-book sales increased 188 percent in the first half of last year, resulting in €145 million of digital sales. This data is evidence that “there are readers out there who are willing to lay down serious money to fill up their devices,” according to New Model Journalism.

And several publishers are jumping on the opportunity. As The Editor’s Weblog has previously reportedThe Tornoto Star’s Star Dispatches program sells narrative pieces for $2.99 each, with the option of subscribing to all such stories for $1 a week. This model has proven successful for the newspaper, with Paula Todd’s 14,000-word piece on tracking a serial child killer generating more than $200,000 in revenue and 65,000 downloads, Gin Sexton reported.

The Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesWIRED Magazine and The Dallas Morning News are among other publishers that sell staff-written e-books, ranging from long-term investigationscompelling narratives and essay collections to a retirement planner. Prices range from less than a dollar to upwards of $30.

To keep up with this trend, recently-launched Thin Reads keeps track of e-singles as they’re published. The site’s database includes more than 600 e-singles from 2010 to present and more than 150 publishers, including ProPublicaByliner and GQ Magazine, according to paidContent.

But is a la carte journalism truly the “future of news,” as aspires to be? Self-proclaimed “Newsosaur” Alan D. Mutter said’ goal is “noble” and the system has potential. But the system would be more successful if it aggregates content from different publishers in the way Piano Media and Press+ have, he said.

“For me individually, having to get out of my credit card to pay 23 cents, is not a great business model,” he told The News Hook.

The “a la carte” move to simplify the news marketplace is part of a growing trend that has decreased the importance of journalists’ ties to publications. Recently, other startups that created author-specific paywalls and allowed freelancers to name the price of their reporting have increased the power of journalists themselves.

Share via
Copy link