“The actual number of readers, at this stage, is kind of irrelevant, as long as the writers are like, ‘This is worth it for me.'”
The new website, which Sanders cofounded with former Facebook managing editor Dan Fletcher and developer Dmitri Cherniak, is based on the idea that loyal readers will pay to read the writers they like. Specifically, Beacon readers will pay five dollars a month for access to all of the content produced by the writers Fletcher has assembled — with the largest share (about 60% of that money) will go to a single, “favorite” writer, with the remainder to be split among the rest.
This is, of course, not the first such experiment that follows the line of Sullivanesque reasoning that a single journalist can build a personal brand that people will pay for. In April, we wrote about Dutch writer subscription experiment De Nieuwe Pers; it has since been purchased by The Post Online, which continues offering that model to readers, but with the addition of core news which is free. Through Twitter, I also learned of another Dutch experiment called Tone which is structurally even more similar to Beacon — 23 high-profile writers produce current affairs content for a totally open platform, and then share in the “operational result, which means,” its founder Arno Laeven wrote in an email, “the more we sell the more they can earn.” Other projects to which Beacon has been compared include Tugboat Yards, a yet-to-be-launched startup somewhat more narrowly aimed at helping writers with preexisting followers monetize their popularity.
“When we first started out, I think the dream was that someone could make rent doing this,” says Sanders. But the plan was never that salaried writers would be leaving their jobs to write for Beacon. Their core team of 28 writers is made up mostly of freelancers who live and work abroad, with bylines from outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC, CNN, Time, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, and more.
As seasoned freelancers, they see Beacon as merely one revenue-generating tool in their diversified toolbox. That’s why even though it’s the subscriber base that will determine how much money Beacon makes, for Sanders, it’s the satisfaction of the writers that will determine success or failure.
“People are in different situations looking for different things,” says Fletcher. “Some folks are really happy just to have a place to tell the types of stories they can’t tell anywhere else, and that as much of the money is a part of the value proposition. Other people really want to hustle and get to a number of subscribers so they can spend less time pitching other places and more time writing for their most engaged audience.”
Beacon does not currently provide editorial support for its writers; the readers are the quality control, Fletcher and Sanders said. As much as possible, they want their writers — already accustomed to a degree of independence — to view Beacon as a platform they can use, not as a publication with any kind of overriding editorial goals.
“I don’t think Beacon having a centralized pool of editors makes as much sense,” says Fletcher. “In some of the conversations we’ve had with writers, it’s, ‘I have this editor I really love to work with because they challenge me and they push my work and they know what they’re talking about — is there a way we can bring them on to Beacon and I can work with them and split some of the money back and forth?’ To me, that’s a really interesting idea and eventually we’d like to, I think, explore some stuff like that.”
Still, outside of the people that they bring aboard, that gives Beacon’s founders very little control over the content they’re publishing — which could eventually sit uneasily with the site’s central proposition that readers are willing to pay for high-quality journalism.
Beacon’s writers do get some structural support. In one of the half-dozen mysterious blog posts that preceded Beacon’s launch, Fletcher writes about the importance of a small but loyal audience — the people who want to pay for your work. “The pitch that I make to writers when we talk to them and tell them about Beacon is, ‘You’re already doing this anyway — why don’t you do it in a way that benefits you directly?'” says Fletcher. Learning how to build, engage, and grow that following — your 1,000 true fans — into something that is profitable for the producer is what Beacon is all about. He sees Beacon as an educational opportunity, to help them understand how to find that loyal audience, and turn them into profit.
“What’s interesting to me about launch is, right now we have 28 different people doing 28 different experiments about how they identify their readership,” says Fletcher. “I think we’re going to learn really quickly where these people are.”
And it doesn’t hurt, Sanders added, that they have the capacity to build their own technologies — be it in analytics or tools for broadcasting — from the ground up. For a time, De Nieuwe Pers subsidized the early revenue lag for their project by selling some of their software, but Beacon says they currently have no plans to do that. The site itself is clean, simple, and responsive; you can browse writer bios, scan the headlines, and enjoy their work.
At Time, a big part of Fletcher’s job was convincing traditional journalists to make audience building via social media part of their jobs, but at Facebook he realized that social platforms themselves didn’t need journalism’s content to thrive.
“Good storytelling can be costly and time-consuming, while status updates and photo uploads are cheap, quick, and plentiful,” he says. “That’s not a knock on Facebook — it just means that I don’t think they’re really focused on ways to sustain important reporting.” Beacon is essentially Fletcher’s attempt to take what Facebook is focused on, targeting an audience, and using it to support journalism.
“What we really believe is that writers and journalists and storytellers, the things that they produce, which are the stories, have an inherent value that is worth paying for,” say Sanders. “We think this sort of model — which is kind of a Kickstarter-plus-Netflix for the reader — is a great way to go for that, because you get everything on the platform but you have a direct say in the stories that you want to see.”
From the eyes of the consumer, Sanders says, its unreasonable that 10 dollars a month gets you all the music you want from Spotify, 8 dollars a month gets you endless movies and TV from Netflix, but signing on to even a few high quality news outlets — the Times, the Journal, the Post and The New Yorker, say — means paying almost 100 dollars a month: “It’s ridiculous that there’s that big of a disparity.”
What’s not totally clear is how Beacon helps mediate that problem. For $5 a month, you get access to a dozen or so stories a week, which is nice, but that obviously doesn’t even scratch the surface of the best journalism out there — even if your favorite writer is on Beacon’s staff, the chances of which are slim.
One strength of Beacon’s current model is their willingness to fluctuate and respond as early data comes in. For now, the “referrer” gets around 60 percent of each subscription, but that could change. “Some people are going to have more of a reach right away, and they’re going to bring a larger subscriber base to the platform,” says Sanders. “Other people are going to bring on less, but that doesn’t mean that the work that they provide into the Beacon platform is less valuable. If someone brings in 10,000 subscribers and someone else brings in 100, but the person who produced 100 subscribers writes an amazing piece and everyone reads it on the platform, they should be rewarded for that.”
But as Hamish McKenzie wrote for PandoDaily, the greatest challenge Beacon faces will be the sustainability of its business model, as it tries to prove itself as more than a nice way to funnel some money to journalists to something that consumers judge on value: “For longterm success, Beacon needs to host content that people feel they simply must have access to,” he writes.
Sanders disagrees, saying the basis of Beacon is far from what we typically think of as crowdfunding. “It’s not, ‘Hey, I’m asking for this money, help me out as a charitable thing.’ It’s like, ‘You value these stories, you value the work that I do, and you’re going to pay for it.'”
But with so much content already available — consider the archives of Longform alone — it seems unlikely that many readers will feel they’re missing out without a subscription to Beacon. That doesn’t mean Beacon is doomed — but it might mean that the founders aren’t as close to unraveling the mysteries of the future of journalism as some of their rhetoric suggests. The project is probably most interesting as an experiment around readership; as Fletcher says, they’ll learn a lot from watching this first batch of writers try to grow this very specific type of audience. Still, it’s when they’re at their most modest that their plan seems most viable:
“Maybe a freelancer uses Beacon to cover their car payments. I’m from Oregon, so anything about salmon or trees is near and dear to my heart. If there’s a woman who wants to cover that and she’s able to pay her car payment and I get to read that stuff,” says Sanders, “I think that’s a win-win.”