‘Netflix For News’: Can Beacon Help Journalists Create Their Own Paywalls?

By Ella Riley-Adams May 20th, 2014

Tyrel Bernardini hitchhikes from California to somewhere in Africa, his destination unknown. His photographs and stories capture the conservation and the kindness of strangers. Clare Morgana Gillis reports from Cairo as a freelancer, and when she’s not filing copy for USA Today, she’s writing humor pieces about getting detained in Libya. Alexandra Ximenez covers entrepreneurship in South America. Initially, it might seem like the one thing these writers have in common is a love of international reporting. However, they share another similarity: Each writer is funded by Beacon, a San Francisco startup aiming to change the way journalists pitch work and get paid.

Before Beacon, founders Adrian Sanders and Dimitri Cherniak started Backspaces, a photo-heavy storytelling app that encourages users to “tell stories with pictures and words.” Backspaces hosted over 70,000 users, but Sanders and Cherniak struggled to get accomplished photographers to contribute regularly. The solution turned out to be an obvious factor that’s often overlooked: the content creators wanted to get paid.

Sanders and Cherniak were discouraged by digital advertising’s misplaced focus on pageviews, so with the help of Dan Fletcher, formerly managing editor at Facebook and social media director at Bloomberg, they sought alternative means to help writers and photographers make money. Fletcher says he was “really eager to find something different than the pageview game and to find a workable model for journalism.”

Netflix for news

Beacon has been called “Netflix for news,” but it’s far more personal and much less corporate than the metaphor implies. Readers pay $5 per month to subscribe to a particular writer, who will then use the money (after reaching a monetary goal, Kickstarter-style) to fund a specific project. With enough backers, Tyrel Bernardini can feed himself on the road, and Alexandra Ximenez can get from Sao Paolo to Bogota. In return, readers get access to the stories a writer produces on Beacon. In addition, monthly subscribers get unlimited access to all Beacon pieces. The trick to this working? The content needs to be really good.

“People won’t pay for crap,” Fletcher says. “There’s enough free crap on the web that there’s no reason that anyone should pay for something that doesn’t deeply engage them or that they think is awesome.”

Because Beacon doesn’t yet provide editing, writers have teamed up to help each other finalize their pieces. Over time, the site plans to introduce editors into the system, but until then, there will be questions about quality.

The economics of intimacy

To help measure value, Beacon installed a “Worth it” button at the bottom of each article. When a subscriber clicks the button, the article’s author is entered into a bonus pool. The more “Worth it” votes a writer gets, the bigger their bonus. Seventy percent of a reader’s monthly fee goes directly to the writer they sponsor, while the remaining 30 percent goes into the bonus pool.

“People like being along for the ride and feeling like their support has agency in getting it done,” Fletcher adds.

Serial narratives have had the most success on Beacon, and Fletcher says writers tend to gain subscribers when they reach out personally rather than broadly via social media. Most Beacon subscribers come from email or word-of-mouth. “We basically see that the more personal the interaction, the more likely someone is to become a subscriber.”

Traveling writer Tyrel Bernardini agrees. Though Facebook networking is the primary way he’s reached subscribers, “that’s not to say that I don’t pass out business cards in lines at grocery stores, coffee shops, and on the street. Unless someone shares my Beacon link, you have to meet me to get the word.”

Subscribers tell Bernardini his posts are the highlight of their days. In addition to the warm, fuzzy feeling of individual patronage, readers get the satisfaction of varied content. At $5 per month, it’s a good deal for consumers compared to $29 per month for the Wall Street Journal or $35 per month for the New York Times.

“As we explore more subject areas, we’ll unlock even more reasons for people to want to pay,” Fletcher says.

Beacon’s bright future: ‘A narrative of hope’

Beacon is considering expansion into branded content and group-led projects. The site already hosts Climate Confidential, a group of six women reporting on the science and technology surrounding environmental issues. And Time writer Michael A. Lindenberger has used Beacon to gather bourbon-savvy writers and editors from across the country to start a magazine focused on Kentucky’s best export.

Fletcher also foresees Beacon as a support for other creative forms, like comics or serialized fiction: “If it works for journalism, it can become a model that sustains content production very generally on the web.”

For now, Beacon helps writers sustain their unique projects. Tyler Bernardini says the site has opened a new chapter in his life. Now he’s not just a photographer, but a well-fed photojournalist with great expectations. To Bernardini, “Beacon is an amazing means of sharing my narrative of hope with people.”

Image via AMC

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