Digital media, live events & sharing: welcome to club journalism

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

The Guardian and its community

Last Wednesday, the editor of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger launched a membership program that allows subscribers to be part of the “club” of the English newspaper (“The Guardian Membership”). The idea is to create an ever more faithful community – concretely cohesive – through a plan that provides for the supply of various activities, including courses and events, hosted in 2016 in the “Guardian Space,” a structure of almost 30,000 square feet that the newspaper is restructuring with the aim of creating a meeting point between the newspaper and readers. It is possible to become part of “The Guardian Membership” for free with the “Friends” formula (which allows one to book live events and keep up to date on the community), with £15 per month with the “Partners” plan (discounts on events and priority over other members) and with £60 for the “Patrons” package (backstage passes and newsroom guided tours).

The Guardian is not new to “external” initiatives, and the very significant finding in terms of attendance has encouraged the company to focus on the brand as a “total” and collective experience. As noted by Ken Doctor, the circulation of the newspaper is at a standstill at 200,000 copies (plus 100,000 digital members), in spite of 105 million unique visitors that the website claims to achieve. According to Doctor, the goal is to try to work on this delta that, in digital and economic terms, appears difficult to fill with classic journalism. Hence the idea, explained by Rusbridger, is to take inspiration from the music industry, which saw the growth of live events and sharing – combined with free use, such as for online news – despite a relentless growth of digital media.”The more digital the world becomes, so the appetite for physical meet-ups and live events grows,” a concept that Jay Rosen summarizes on Twitter in this way:

From community to paywalls

The membership program does not seem to be within the reach of everyone. The Guardian, which has long been called a “liberal sentinel” of British journalism (and more generally, of all English language journalism), is a highly recognizable brand and undisputed news outlet in the most relevant news reports in recent years (from Wikileaks to DataGate), which led it to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. It has long been at work in a project of “territorial expansion” (of which we have already discussed here) that led it to strengthen the US and Australian newsrooms and to compete with the Daily Mail and the New York Times for the primacy of the most widely read website in the world. “The Guardian Membership” is an example that will not remain unnoticed in many other newsrooms. In recent times, the initiatives of the Wall Street Journal (which launched the “WSJ +” plan with newsroom tours, discounts, free ebook) and Slate (with “SlatePlus” which provides special access to some content) were noticed. The question is inescapable: how many other “Guardians” can afford to experiment with such solutions?

It is important to note that the contents of the website will remain free, which implies that journalism, in 2014, is not only the flow of news produced by a newsroom, regardless of the medium on which it arrives (here an interesting analysis by Mike Ananny and Kate Crawford on how the news for mobile is shaped by designers). The ownership of the newspaper, in terms of economic subsistence, has always been against the paywall (revealing some small openings only last year), although this system is still firmly at the center of a large segment of the editorial market.

This week Ken Doctor of NiemanLab analyzes the acquisition of Press+ by PianoMedia. With this move the two, which both build paywalls, become the largest company in the sector (with 645 “walls” around the world). The news – which at first sight seems only technical and of little relevance – shows two signals: the paywall is alive, well and palatable, and its business is not exactly journalistic, demonstrating all the slowness of the media groups in their launch on the market, especially for news companies that have invested much of their future in the paywall. If the revenues from digital music players are really important, Doctor continues, why don’t they build their own paywall?

Personal paywalls

Recently, other companies have chosen to adopt a kind of “personal paywall”. This week, Ricardo Bilton of DigiDay has analyzed the trend with the case of Beacon, a sort of KickStarter for authors and journalists. Beacon allows anyone to propose their own piece and have it financed by crowdfunding – so far there have been 250 registered users, who have collected a total of over 500 thousand dollars. What is new is that Beacon is beginning to work directly with publishers. The Huffington Post – as we reported last week – has used the platform to finance its media coverage on the events in Ferguson, which exceeded $40,000. Techdirt has raised $70,000 for a post on the debate about net neutrality. “Journalism is expensive,” Bilton says, and although it could not work for all (and it is not clear why a media company has to resort to the public in order to pay a reporter), the system can become one of the few viable options.

In the last few days, Esquire – whose online version is free – has relaunched an old article of 2003 on the 11/9 attacks and about the so-called “falling man” photo, putting it behind a paywall. It is another case of a paywall limited to one post (with a cost of $2,99) – which already had a precedent last year (“The Prophet,” $1,99) – that will help the funding of a scholarship of Maquette University dedicated to James Foley, the American correspondent killed by terrorists of the Islamic State this August. Mathew Ingram of GigaOm believes that the initiative – regardless of the specific case – might be a good idea. It is interesting as an editorial experiment and useful as encouragement to donate to good causes.