A marketplace for journalism

One year ago today we published the first community-powered issue of Contributoria.

We’ve now produced 12 issues using the same model but instead of a handful writers we’re now supporting thousands.

There was a particularly interesting team meeting after that first issue went out where we asked ourselves whether Contributoria was a publisher or a marketplace. This critical distinction would determine the shape of everything that we would do subsequently.

The Arguments:

1) Publishers depend on audiences and advertising. Marketplaces grow as supply and demand increase.

Capturing audience attention is getting harder and harder, but demand for journalism is only going to increase over time.

Publisher 0 – Marketplace 1

2) Publishers focus on their own assets. Marketplaces help others develop valuable assets.

Giving is a more interesting strategy than taking, and since we want journalists to be successful in their careers and publishers to be successful in delivering journalism, we figured there must be a way to help both interests.

Publisher 0 – Marketplace 2

The only reason to be a publisher seemed to be to support our marketplace ambitions. Publishing can be a good marketing strategy.

The “Writers first” Mantra

The gap between where we were in March 2014 and where wanted to be was big. We needed principles that would help us achieve marketplace conditions.

We knew the first principle without even thinking – “Writers first“.

We then explored ways to enable commissioning, the demand side of a journalism marketplace.

In discussions with potential media partners we found that this was a much more complicated proposition than we initially imagined.

Media orgs have very closed, bespoke commissioning systems and processes. It’s a market opportunity ready for some fresh thinking, but with our first principle, “Writers first” we knew this would be a distraction.

But how would we unlock the demand side of the market if media orgs were too challenging for a small startup to serve?

It was hard to see at first. The answer eventually found us.

We were talking to many people who wanted to work with writers via Contributoria who were not traditional media orgs. Universities, non-profits, campaigners, foundations, etc. were all crazy about what Contributoria meant as a new way to surface important stories that don’t often grace the home page of a big media site.

We just needed to figure out how to let the demand side of the marketplace express demand.

Pull-style Demand

After starting over on the concept of commissioning our designer Dean Vipond got his ah-hah moment. Instead of replicating what happens in a news room where editors call the shots, Dean came up with the idea of ‘Topic Suggestions’, an invitation to write rather than an assignment – a pull-style model.

The idea began to permeate our thinking in all kinds of ways and resulted in a full-fledged partner program, the realization of our marketplace where supply and demand can negotiate.

The crucial twist is that the marketplace is optimized for the needs of the writer with an additional layer for buyers, not the other way around.

This model requires that we frame the conversation between the seller and the buyer. But that’s easy. That’s where our publishing roots become incredibly useful.

Leading by example

The partners we’ve signed up in the first instance are all people who value journalism. They want quality journalism to spread far and wide. They want it to raise the profile of the issues they are working on every day. These are human rights and free speech organizations including:

Open Society Foundations, Arcus Foundation, Oak Foundation, Equality Now, International Press Institute (IPI), the global free expression network IFEX, Internews, Committee to Protect Journalists, and the World Wide Web Foundation. We’re also working with The Atlantic and PBS Mediashift.

The premise that they could be part of the journalism process rather than bystanders was what captured their imaginations. I’m hopeful we’ve unlocked a lot of useful resources that are willing and eager to support independent journalism in the world.

One step at a time

In March 2014 we produced the first issue powered by the community – articles pitched, selected and edited by the community. A year later we’re opening more elements of the journalism process – commissioning, funding and distribution.

I won’t guess what next year holds in store for us.

We’re just looking ahead to the Spring, and it seems we’ve got a marketplace nearly ready to bloom.