Author-specific paywalls let publications cash in on journalists’ personal brands

News is no longer anonymous — and readers don’t want it to be. In an era where a Google search can instantly connect you to hundreds of articles on the same topic, all reeling off the same facts, readers want — and will pay for — identifiable voices.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | April 9, 2013

With this trend in mind, author-specific paywalls are becoming an increasingly attractive option for news organizations.

“Many readers — particularly younger ones — consume media based not on corporate brands but on individual writers that they feel a connection to, and I would argue that is becoming the norm,” paidContent’s Mathew Ingram recently wrote. “We read the New York Times as much for Tom Friedman or Nick Kristof as we do because it is the NYT.”

Indeed, individual journalists are cultivating followings as large as their own publications’. Ingram himself has over 10 percent more Twitter followers than paidContent’s Twitter account. The Times reporter Caitlin Moran has a Twitter following of just over 393,000, which nearly matches the circulation of her newspaper, 393,814 in February, noted George Pascoe-Watson, former editor of The Sun.

The trend of journalists branding themselves is by no means new — Sree SreenivasanColumbia Journalism School Chief Digital Officer, told Poynter last year that Nellie Bly and Hunter Thompson brought it in fashion, while others say it’s as old as the byline itself. But with the advent of social media, the speed at which journalists can cultivate their brand has rapidly progressed, Sreenivasan said. For instance, film critic Roger Ebert had a loyal audience long before social media, but 840,000 Twitter followers fortified his brand and demonstrated how “a lone journalist can become something much more,” as David Carr recently noted in The New York Times.

Now individual journalists’ brands rival that of their own publications.

“What we believe is that people, journalists, matter more now than media brands,” said Jan-Jaap Heij, CEO of a Dutch startup banking on this trend. “Readers follow journalists, not so much newspapers or media anymore.”

Launched in February, Heij’s De Nieuwe Pers (“The New Press”) allows freelance journalists to become “their own newspaper,” he told Readers can subscribe to individual contributors for €1.79 per month or to the entire platform for €4.49 a month.

While only 40 percent of the site’s 2,000 subscriptions are devoted to individual contributors, according to Nieman Lab, DNP’s pay-by-author model has attracted an audience: The night of its launch, servers crashed due to traffic. The app was downloaded 20,000 times in the first night alone, reported Today: The Newspaper for Country St. Maarten.

And the platform is not only attracting readers but also many potential contributors: Heij told paidContent his mailbox “exploded” with more than 200 inquiries from journalists after the launch. The site currently has 17 contributors, whose thematic focuses range from finance and politics to gaming and gender dynamics, and plans to add at least 30 more by the end of 2013, according to paidContent.

“This really works well for journalists with a distinctive character,” said Arnold Karskens, who posts his war coverage exclusively on the platform. “It’s not for the average desk slave.”

While DNP does not have quotas for its contributors, paidContent reported that their contracts depend on their proven diligence to the site, though that doesn’t necessarily mean producing new content (about half of the posts are re-published, according to The contributors are also responsible for their own marketing, and they have a stake in their success: This year, they get 100 percent of the revenues from subscriptions to their own channels. Next year the platform will start taking a 25 percent cut, according to Nieman Lab.

Ingram has previously advocated for news organizations to adopt similar author-specific paywall models, which he said will allow them to better understand and connect with readers. He offered that newspapers can capitalize on their reporters’ brands by marketing conveniently packaged bundles, each containing all of a contributor’s work, from tweets and video interviews to blog posts and traditional stories. The key is to make it as easy as possible to get all the content in one place, he said.

More people might subscribe to author-specific paywalls if they were “focused on rewards,” Ingram said. He suggested news organizations offer benefits for subscribers including advance access to the author’s content and invitations to events with the contributor. He also suggested creating communities within the author’s paywall, so followers can engage in conversations.

Whether news organizations capitalize on the trend, journalists shouldn’t stop branding themselves, which is now critical for success, according to University of California, Berkeley journalism professor Alan Mutter. But if publications don’t offer author-specific paywalls, journalists themselves might follow Andrew Sullivan’s lead and do so themselves.

Updated 10 April to reflect accurate number of subscriptions to DNP, 2,000.

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