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Beacon: a new approach to journalism

7 February 2014

beirutgraffitiFriends and followers: I’m trying something new. This is a pitch for money.

I first heard about Beacon when Iona Craig, a freelance journalist for the Times in Yemen, tweeted that she had joined it. Then I saw that Gaar Adams, a UAE-based freelancer, was on it too. Gaar put me in touch with Dan Fletcher, one of Beacon’s founders, who encouraged me to join. I hesitated (I always do). I read more about Beacon.

Now I’m increasingly convinced Beacon is heading in the right direction. I’m joining to see how it works.

Three things are clear.

1 – There’s a massive amount of travel ‘content’ out there, but most of it is either dull as ditchwater or thinly-disguised advertorial (or both). Writing in 2011, travel writer Michael Jacobs (who died last month) found it hardly surprising that the genre has come to be seen as ‘banal, patronising and lightweight’. Too right.

2 – Media organisations – if they have any space for travel at all – have begun to see travel merely as a way to leverage advertising revenue, forcing an ever-greater emphasis on advertorial and practical advice. At one global news operation based in London, I hear, travel is the only part of the newspaper that makes any money – which is ironic, considering how bad that particular travel section is. I’m not the only one to bemoan this. Here is how one seasoned newspaper travel journalist, Michael Kerr of the Telegraph, is responding (brilliantly).

3 – Opportunities for making a living as a travel writer – or, frankly, any kind of writer – are shrinking dramatically. Of the dwindling amount of money sloshing around journalism, proportionally less and less is making its way into writers’ pockets. It’s a pretty simple equation: if readers don’t pay (and assuming no fairy godmother materialises), writers don’t get paid. And if writers don’t get paid, they can’t afford to write. Or, at least, they can’t afford to write anything good.

I think people would pay, if paying were easy. At the moment, paywalls are expensive. They are impersonal: if you want to read Max Rodenbeck, you have to have pockets deep enough to subscribe to the whole of the Economist. They’re also unresponsive: you can’t subscribe just to the FT’s travel section. (Both these offer a few free articles if you sign up by registering. Big deal.)

This smart discussion on paywalls at Jeremy Head’s Travelblather site prompted much thought, and only confirmed what I already suspected. I’d urge you to read it. Paywalls matter, because without them travel writing will become PR. But they’re not serving publishers or writers or readers at the moment.

Micropayments are the future. Until we get there, direct funding is a viable alternative, even if it can only operate on a fairly small scale.

Contributoria is an interesting example, but it’s pretty complicated, requiring membership, points equivalents, and a pitching system: the whole thing is focused around reading a pitch and then deciding whether or not to pay for that individual story to get written. It’s clever, but it’s ultimately just a series of one-offs for both writer and reader. Neither is invested in the creative process for the long term. It feels unsustainable.

To me, Beacon sounds different. There, the idea is you subscribe to a person. You’re backing a writer – in this case, me – for a year, on a rolling subscription of, at most, £3 a month (less if you subscribe for a year). For that, you get first read of my new stuff, plus access to dozens of other writers across the whole Beacon site, everything from politics to start-ups to sport. Minus Beacon’s cut, I get some money each month, a supportive and engaged readership and – at least as important in all this – an incentive to write things that might otherwise never get written and a platform on which to shape some new ideas. The reader feels connected. The writer feels committed. There’s a real, ongoing, tangible exchange of (not much) cash for (quite a lot of) output.

I think that’s worth a try. I hope you do, too.

Click: Restoring a Sense of Place

 

 

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 February 2014 9.17pm

    Hi Matthew
    Hope you’re successful. Wanted to to just point out http://outbounding.org/ – a simliar idea to Michael Kerr’s project you reference above. Using a team of editors to surface and sift quality travel writing. It’s run on a bootstrap and needs better functionality – but it’s a good idea with some smart people working on it.
    Keep us posted on how it all goes with Beacon!
    J

  2. 8 February 2014 10.18am

    Very good and interesting article ! Greetings

  3. 8 February 2014 4.21pm

    Thanks Jeremy. Thanks for pointing out Outbounding – heard about it, haven’t really explored it properly yet. Watch this space :)

  4. 9 February 2014 7.05am

    Reblogged this on hostgator.

  5. 11 February 2014 7.46pm

    Thanks for this article and the others on your blog – interesting, and nice to read.

  6. 13 February 2014 9.55am

    Interesting. Curious to see what develops.

  7. 27 February 2014 9.47pm

    Very interesting article, indeed. I’ll have a closer look at Beacon.

  8. 2 March 2014 8.44am

    Really honest and interesting article!

  9. 4 March 2014 7.26am

    Reblogged this on sueshan123blog.

  10. 14 March 2014 5.53pm

    Reblogged this on Walkfordays.

  11. 25 March 2014 1.08pm

    I’m not going to douse cold water on any new idea that might help writers earn more money. If Beacon looks interesting to you, I say go for it! am not too keen on it just yet.

  12. 26 March 2014 8.26am

    Fair enough, Hamish. Thanks for the comment. You can check out my Beacon page here, if you fancy…

  13. 26 March 2014 8.31am

    Thanks, Ben.

  14. 26 March 2014 8.32am

    Thanks, Jean-Pierre. My Beacon page is up and running here.

  15. 27 March 2014 2.19am

    Wow…very cool Matthew! I remember reading about those reed houses in The Ra Expeditions!! Amazing!

  16. 27 March 2014 9.11am

    Thank you. I think you replied to the wrong post – you’re talking about the Iraq story here – but thanks anyway!

  17. 28 June 2014 3.51pm

    Thanks Matthew. Great article. Do you have any advice for anyone who’s thinking of moving into journalism? Maybe even “don’t do it?”. I’ve been writing articles in-house for a global company for a while now, but a lot of the stuff I’m reading suggests there’s not much of a future in traditional journalism.

  18. 3 August 2014 12.07pm

    That’s too big a topic to go into right here, but times are certainly tough. Opportunities abound – there’s no shortage of places to get your work published – but fees are pitiful or non-existent: it’s very hard to make a living. If you have a day job, keep it!

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