A la carte journalism: can CrowdNe.ws be the iTunes of articles?

ala carte journalismNewspaper paywalls have gotten a lot of attention recently, with The New York Times tweaking its paywall and others, including the Seattle Times and Washington Post, jumping on the bandwagon. But it’s not the only way that publications can charge readers for online content. If digital subscriptions are the news equivalents of Pandora or Spotify, then the alternative (often called a la carte journalism) is analogous to buying a song or two on iTunes.

The startup approach

One experiment in a la carte journalism wants to be just that, the iTunes of news. Salem, Mass.-based CrowdNe.ws is now in beta and offers a marketplace for journalists to sell directly to readers on a per-article basis. “We are flooded with so much information that we don’t really want or need,” says CrowdNe.ws founder and CEO J. Michael Wheeler. “I spend a lot of time on my RSS feeds saying ‘No, I don’t want to read that.’ People do that in traditional media. You open up The New York Times and thumb through 5-6 pages before you pick a story to read.”

Wheeler is a serial entrepreneur who taught the first multimedia course at Parsons Paris School of Art and Design in the mid-1990s. The fledgling site’s prototype includes an essay written by current freelancer and former Inc. magazine contributor Alessandra Bianchi and is available for whatever readers want to pay via PayPal.

How much will each story cost when the site actually launches? CrowdNe.ws is still experimenting with pricing. Wheeler says they may allow journalists to set their own price or use market pricing where “the more popular the article is, the more expensive it is when you purchase it.” He believes that if a story covers a topic that readers find valuable, they will pay for it. For instance, coverage of a local high school sports team or a journalist covering the tech world from Paris.

The mainstream media approach

Several more established media outlets have also dabbled in selling stories a la carte rather than by subscription. In November, Wired Magazine released its first WIRED Single. John McAfee’s Last Stand sells for $.99 through the Wired tablet app or on the NOOK or Kindle platforms.

The Wall Street Journal sells ebooks (some of them earlier stories on the same theme packaged together) and premium videos through iamplify, a web-based content publisher and syndication network. WSJ’s products range in price from about $3.99 for an ebook to $34.99 for a video in its Executive Leadership Series.

As we’ve previously mentioned, Gothamist published a 13,000-word feature article and sells it as a Kindle Single, iBook, ePub, or PDF for $1.99. Individual journalists like former NYT contributor Mike Albo have also used the Kindle Single platform to sell longer-form single stories directly to readers.

The challenges

Alan D. Mutter, a newspaper consultant who writes the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur, says the a la carte model has potential, especially if content producers adopt an aggregated payment system like the Slovakia-based Piano Media or U.S.-based Press+. That way users don’t have to set up several different accounts and open up their wallet each time. “For me individually, having to get out of my credit card to pay 23 cents, is not a great business model,” he says.

But for nascent startups selling a la carte journalism as CrowdNe.ws plans to do, Mutter sees bigger challenges. “It’s certainly a noble goal, but the problem is for a startup is to both aggregate the content and aggregate the audience and bring things to some scale,” he says.

Whether indie publisher or massive media conglomerate, metered paywall or a la carte, content is still king. “At the end of the day, it’s about the caliber of the content,” says Mutter. “We know people will pay for content that they value but they need to attract new readers, not just the people who already love them.”

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About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MediaBistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.