Writing for Exposure: What Publishers Should Promise When They Aren’t Paying

It’s been almost a week and Twitter is still abuzz over the issue of publishers not paying writers, but instead promising “exposure” to their audience. (If you haven’t been following, google “Nate Thayer The Atlantic” — I won’t waste anyone’s time recapping it here.)

I’ve written for exposure a lot over the last two years. I write for free to gain exposure for Now I Know, and more specifically, for subscribers. Most of that “writing” is just me letting other places republish my work, but sometimes there’s a bit of editing involved, reworking, or combining of things.

My goal is to gain subscribers for my Now I Know email newsletter. I’ve come up with a series of requests I make of the publisher, which began with the awesome people at mental_floss, who understood that goal when I first wrote for them and helped me come up with ways to maximize that. What do I ask for? (a) A series of clear, call-to-action language, explaining why the publisher’s readers should subscribe to Now I Know; and (b) a promise/explanation of how the publisher focus their audience on my article.

Most of the places I’ve written for have done both of those, but in two cases — Business Insider and Huffington Post — they haven’t, really. I knew that going in and I do not want to cast aspersions here. Both were entirely professional and forthcoming about how they intended to promote my piece (i.e. give me exposure beyond the resume line) and even though it didn’t meet my normal requests, I chose to experiment. Both experiments went as well as you’d expect, which is to say not well at all.

GOOD vs. Business Insider

About a year ago, GOOD republished five articles of mine. That relationship was the product of a healthy back and forth between me and an editor there, describing how they’d promote the article and how the links to Now I Know would look. The first article, here, has sent over about 1,200 visitors since, as evidenced below.

Screen shot 2013-03-10 at 11.52.49 AM

After that article ran, Business Insider approached me and asked if me for permission to republish the same article. I tried to get them to engage on the same questions I asked of GOOD, but it wasn’t happening. I figured I’d say yes as a test. They have a much larger audience than GOOD, and if they could drive traffic, great. But I realized that was very unlikely, as their audience is fragmented across their site and unless I received prominent placement, it wouldn’t be worth it for me.

A year later, the results proved that BI wasn’t worth my time at all:

Screen shot 2013-03-10 at 11.54.06 AM

That’s 115 visits. About 100 of them are from this article, which is the same as the GOOD one (and incorrectly states that the article originally appeared at GOOD).

Smithsonian Magazine v. Huffington Post

In January, Smithsonian Magazine republished an article of mine about Kraft’s use of patents to protect their mac and cheese shapes. This wasn’t the first piece I’ve had there, but it did well, sending 1,000 or so readers to my landing page:

Screen shot 2013-03-10 at 12.05.45 PM

The Smithsonian relationship developed the same way as the mental_floss and GOOD one, and works similarly.

A day or so later a HuffPo editor approached me about republishing that article. HuffPo and BI’s business models are similar, and I approached the conversation with the HuffPo editor like I did the BI one. In the end, the article ran, again as an experiment in my eyes.

The results:

Screen shot 2013-03-10 at 12.15.30 PM

Not terrible, honestly, but not really great. And not really worth the work to get another one in the system, especially because I don’t have much if anything of a relationship with an editor there, so I don’t know if my next piece will get anywhere near that much (“much”) exposure.

“Exposure” is an amorphous, oddly-defined or undefined term. It probably makes very little sense for a full-time freelancer to give the Atlantic a 1,200 word cutdown of a longer piece for free, as a one-time exposure to a subset of their audience is not very valuable to the writer. On the other hand, if the Atlantic were to offer a freelancer a week-long stint blogging for one of its more visible areas, that sounds good.

In my case? If HuffPo or BI were to come back to me and ask for another piece, I’d say yes — but I’d condition it on them providing the article the traffic I know they can provide if they choose to. If they ask why, I’ll send them here. And if they so no to that condition, they won’t get my permission. It can be worth it for me to write for them, but by default, isn’t.

Originally published on March 10, 2013

Did NASCAR Admit to a Flagrant Violation the DMCA? I Say No

Background:

  • NASCAR had a bad accident this weekend where a car exploded and stuff — tires, metal, etc. — went flying into the stands. People got hurt, some very badly.
  • A fan took a video of the accident and posted it to YouTube.
  • NASCAR used the DMCA to take down the video.

NASCAR explained what happened to the Washington Post, here. What they said is a bit contradictory, but here are the two parts I want to focus on.

One:

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, NASCAR Vice President of Digital Media Marc Jenkins made clear one point: “This was never a copyright issue for us,” he said. Nor was it a censorship issue. The matter related to the fans involved in the incident. “We blocked it out of respect for those injured,” says Jenkins.

And two:

As Jenkins explained, NASCAR owns the rights to video shot at the track but “we don’t enforce the guidelines unless the content is used commercially. … We do proactively go after pirated video of the television broadcast, but that’s the only time we use it.”

Dan Gillmor and I conversed on Twitter. He thinks that NASCAR, given the above (and the rest of the stuff I omitted — I don’t know exactly what sentences he’s relying on), “admits flagrantly violated the law” in taking down the video. I disagree. I don’t see an admission here. 1

Taking the second quote first, NASCAR believes it owns the rights to the fan’s video. They used their copyright of the video, as stated in the first quote, to require YouTube to remove the video. Their reasons for doing so — censorship, economic, because a Martian told them too, or to protect the privacy of potential victims — are irrelevant to their power to do so. The DMCA only requires that your takedown notice swear under penalty of perjury that you own the rights to the content; it doesn’t require you to explain why you want that particular piece of allegedly copyrighted content removed from the third party’s service.

While Jenkins also says (in the first quote) that “this was never a copyright issue for us,” I think he means to say that “this was never an economic issue for us.” In other words, NASCAR wasn’t trying to take down the video so they could sell their own crash footage. The other interpretation — one which suggests that NASCAR couldn’t lawfully remove the video — is entirely inconsistent with the second other quote. On the other hand, the rest of the first quote is consistent with the second. NASCAR believes they could have taken the video down for any reason or no reason at all.

If you credit NASCAR’s words here as honest — and I am doing that, but again, solely for the purposes of determining whether there’s an “admission” here — NASCAR didn’t violate any laws here. Rather, they’re claiming that they used their copyright to achieve a non-traditional goal.

Notes:

  1. To be clear, I think that the fan video was a fair use of NASCAR’s copyrighted content, assuming, that is, that NASCAR actually actually owns the copyright to the fan video in the first place. (And I think that’s unclear.) That’s another story. I’m focusing on whether NASCAR admitted to a violation here, not whether NASCAR actually overstepped its bounds. They probably did.
Originally published on February 26, 2013

Testing Polls. Vote If You Want To.

[socialpoll id=”4846″]

Originally published on February 15, 2013

How I Found a Neat Story About an Island Nation Which Ran Out of Bird Poop

Today’s Now I Know is about a tiny island in the Pacific called Nauru. You should read it, here.

One of the questions I get most often about Now I Know is how I find all these stories. The answer is … long. I read a lot, people send me things, and I have a good eye for the obscure yet interesting things that I share (I hope), but that doesn’t really do the process — or lack thereof — justice. One story (this one) I learned about because it was summarized on the side of a truck I happened to see one day. 1 That’s an outlier, but you hopefully get the point.

Anyway, this Nauru one has a kind of but not really interesting back story. I follow Jeopoardy! champ Ken Jennings on Twitter. A few days ago, he tweeted out this:

I’m going to click that nearly 100% of the time, assuming I notice it (i.e. am looking at Twitter). I clicked, and the country is Nauru. 2 I skimmed the article (I even missed the part about the unemployment and obesity rates until now) but noticed the part about the bird guano. I went to Nauru’s Wikipedia entry, did some Googling for news articles, and came up with all the stuff you read about today.

You’ll note that I didn’t put in the fact that Nauru doesn’t have a capital. I left it out because it wasn’t really relevant to the story I was telling, and while it would have made for a decent bonus fact, the other one was better. At times, I’ll drop a “double bonus” into an email, and I considered it for this one, but I wanted to make sure I credited Ken Jennings for the tip, and figured this would be a good way to do it.


Notes:

  1. Literally, I walked into traffic to read it. Here’s a picture which someone else took of a similar truck.
  2. There’s your bonus, bonus fact. Nauru has no official capital, and is the only country without one. That makes sense. It’s only 8 square miles, which is much less than Manhattan at 22 square miles. And Manhattan isn’t a country. It isn’t even a city! So how could it have a capital city?
Originally published on February 11, 2013

555 95472

555 95472 [dancing left, above], usually referred to as “5”, is a character in the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz.

He debuted in 1963, and continued to appear on and off in the strip until 1981. “5” has spiky hair and sometimes wears a shirt with the number five on it. 95472 is the family’s “last name”, or more specifically their ZIP code. In reality, it is the ZIP code for Sebastopol, California, where Charles M. Schulz was living at the time the character was introduced. “5” has to keep telling his teacher that the accent is on the 4 in his surname. Snoopy is confused as to whether the boy’s name is spelled 5 or as the Roman numeral V.

As “5” once explained to Charlie Brown, his father, morose and hysterical over the preponderance of numbers in people’s lives, had changed all of his family’s names to numbers. Asked by Lucy if it was Mr. 95472’s way of protesting, “5” replied that this was actually his father’s way of “giving in.” “5” also has two sisters named “3” and “4”. (“Nice feminine names,” in Charlie Brown’s sarcastic assessment.) It can be assumed that their parents are named “1” and “2”.

from Wikia’s Peanuts Wiki

Fantastic.

Originally published on February 3, 2013

Teaching Square Roots to a Five Year Old

A week or so ago, we gave my five year old son a little solar powered pocket calculator to play with. He explored the key pad and it didn’t take long before he had a question we didn’t really know how to answer. He saw the square root symbol and wanted to know what it was.

We — adults, generally — understand them, at least in a cursory way. The square root of 4 is 2, or 9 is 3, of 16 is 4, etc. until probably 100 or 144. But we learned it a long time ago, and we probably can’t remember how we learned it. And almost certainly, we learned the concept well after preschool. So not only do we not know how to teach the concept generally, but we certainly aren’t good at teaching it to people who are much, much younger than typically learn it.

But five year olds can be persistent so I gave it a go. I don’t know how much he understands the concept, but my son definitely gets some of it.

I started off by drawing a row of five “blocks,” careful not to call them squares. Then we counted them together. (Being very deliberate in each step seemed to help a lot.)

Picture1

After that, I drew a row of five more blocks (well, four more, double-counting the corner) across.

Picture2

And then, we counted and labeled the sides.

Picture3

I then took a bit of a leap, and explained that these two sets of five blocks were the “roots” of a square, kind of like how a tree has roots. And a really big square can grow from the “roots.” We just needed to fill in the rest of the square with more boxes. So we did.

Picture4

We then counted the boxes and, of course, ended up with 25.  Our 25-box square had a root of 5. And to demonstrate we were right, I asked him to put the number 25 into his calculator and hit the square root button. When the five popped up, he screamed “WE’RE RIGHT! IT’S FIVE!”

I repeated this whole thing for 4, 3, 2, and then 1. And then I asked him to explain it back. He was so excited he ended up telling his preschool teachers about what he “learned”… and hopefully, understood.

 

Originally published on January 31, 2013

The Case for Jack Morris, Hall of Famer

A few weeks ago, I took an hour and a half and watched 12 Angry Men. The whole move — all one hour, 36 minutes, and 14 seconds of it — is up on YouTube, and having seen it a few times before, I wanted to experience it again.

The movie is fiction but that doesn’t make it untrue. Of particular note is how bad the eyewitness testimony is — not one but two eyewitnesses, under penalty of perjury, recite memories which are closer to fantasy than reality. Reality echoes this, and that shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Our minds of a way of fitting our memories to a narrative all while convincing us that we’ve actually fit the narrative to our memories.

The strange debate over Jack Morris’s Hall of Fame credential is, to a large degree, this type of battle. (Sure, there are many other factors in play, some perhaps more nefarious than Morris’ supporters would otherwise admit.) Guys like Jon Heyman — who I’m assuming have supported Morris’ candidacy from the first time he could vote for him — believe that their memories of Morris’s career trump any further analysis, and if the stats say otherwise, the stats are flawed.

I disagree with Heyman et al, but that’s besides the point. Let’s look at their memories.

First, some context. Morris’ career began in 1977 and ended in 1994. The media landscape during the majority, if not all, of Morris’s career is foreign to what is available today. (To put that in perspective, ESPN debuted in 1979 and didn’t have Major League Baseball games until 1990; New York’s flagship sports radio station WFAN first broadcast in 1987; and Google didn’t incorporate until 1998.) Most of Morris’s games were on local broadcast television, with highlights few and far between — and, even then, just that: highlights. On the other hand, Morris, unlike most pitchers of his era, had a lot of national TV exposure. He was selected to five All-Star Games. He pitched in four post-seasons, including in the World Series three times. He threw a no-hitter on live, national TV.

By and large — the 1993 World Series aside — his appearances before the nation as a whole reflected positively on his abilities and fame. Of the five All-Star Games he played in, he started three and was the second pitcher out of the gate the other two times. He was the MVP of the 1991 World Series, having pitched one of the greatest games in Major League history, and threw two complete games in the 1984 Series. (He won the Baseball Writers’ Association’s version of the World Series MVP, the Babe Ruth Award, in both 1984 and 1991.)

And when he appeared in headlines or highlight shows, those, too, were by and large positive. All those Opening Day starts bandied about suggest that he was looked at by his team as the ace of the staff, whether it be in Detroit, Minnesota, or Toronto. Similarly his two 20-win seasons and his status as the highest-paid AL pitcher in four different seasons certainly made headlines.

Taken together and it’s easy to see why guys like Heyman believe Morris is a no-brainer Hall of Famer. The writers had lots of exposure to his league-leading 14 wins in the strike-shortened 1981 season, his league-leading 293 strikeouts in 1983, his no-hitter and World Series title in 1984, his second All-Star start in 1985, his 21-win season in 1986, and his 18-win season leading the Tigers to the AL East pennant in 1987. Many memories of his greatness — or very-good-plus-ness — were formed during that period in the minds of BBWAA members near and far.

Memories also have a habit of ignoring the bad stuff. Morris was mediocre at best for the next three years, sure. But 1991 and 1992 allow our minds to pave over that.

And then comes the peculiarity of the ballot. When Morris first became eligible in 2000, he only received 22.2% of the vote, and stayed in the 20s (dipping into the teens even) until 2005, when he hit 33.3%. Since then, he’s been mostly climbing, breaking 50% in 2010 and two-thirds in 2012.

I think a major cause of this is, again, our memory’s fragile grasp of reality, and inability to confess to that flaw.

Ask most current BBWAA voters about Jim Kaat, Tommy John, and Jack Morris, and by and large, they’ll tell you that Morris had something special, even though it’s hard to see in the stats. But they finished 11th through 13th, respectively, on the 2003 ballot. Kaat, in his final year of eligibility, received 130 votes; John 116, Morris 113. (The only starting pitcher above them was Bert Blyleven, which I’ll get to in a second.) The 2004 season took care of that narrative issue — Morris picked up 20 votes while John actually lost five, and Kaat was off the ballot. In 2005, John rebounded slightly, picking up 11 votes. But Morris separated from him, and for good. Morris had established himself to be the best of the three.

Emerging from this triumvirate of very good pitchers isn’t immaterial, either.  From 2000 — Morris’ first eligible year — until 2011, no other starting pitcher made it to the third year on the ballot. Morris had established himself, somehow, as the clear second-best pitcher of these Hall of Fame ballot classes. (The fact that that group is, in and of itself, not cohesive really doesn’t matter, because it lends itself to the narrative created by selective memories.) Not a single starting pitcher was inducted from 2000 to 2010, inclusive. And the only starting pitcher thus far inducted to the Hall during Morris’ 14 years on the ballot is Blyleven, who doesn’t have the Camelot-esque career highlights that Morris does. The end result is that each of these four pitchers helps further Morris’ case, because it’s easy for our faulty memories to insist that Morris was simply better — much better — than John or Kaat or Blyleven.

And, unfortunately, that’s how guys like Jon Heyman define “fame.” A decade and a half full of memories of triumphs, with failures unseen or ignored. Another decade compared to guys who simply weren’t as triumphant, with objective measures unimportant. It’s not hard to see how this happened.

But it’s very hard to see how it could be avoided. We’re human, all of us, and we have tendencies to favor our guts even in spite of evidence to the contrary. We let our biases override reason and create legends which defy reality. We testify against teenage Hispanic kids on trial for murder because somehow, we become convinced that’s what happened, and 11 of us assume that we’re telling the truth even when Henry Fonda suggests otherwise — at least at first.

The problem is that the voting rules and, more importantly, the voting pool, are constructed in such a way that this outcome is too likely. The voters, by and large, share the same experiences, same backgrounds, and same biases. They all define “fame” in a very similar way — by relying on their memories even though memories are unreliable.  So long as the Hall of Fame gives the BBWAA dominion over that definition, Jack Morris is a border-line Hall of Famer. Even though he shouldn’t be.

Originally published on January 14, 2013

Thinking about Paywalls and Writing

I’ve been thinking a lot about Andrew Sullivan’s new venture (still) and wanted to get some thoughts down. These may be disjointed — I’m using this post as a scrapbook of sorts.

In general, writers probably want to spread their ideas as much as they want to make money.

Books do both, but online, the expected cost for the reader is $0. If you charge, you lost the vast majority of that audience — like the penny gap, but for content.

The default rule should, therefore, be that you don’t want to charge people to read. Forget the business model for a moment — if your goal is to influence or something similar, it makes a lot more sense to keep (most of?) the content free.

This isn’t absolute, even if the given is true. Gated content at a top publication (e.g. ESPN’s Insider) is probably better than ungated content at a much smaller one, but that’s an ever-thinning exception outside of sports (where ESPN is the clear market leader). Part of the value comes from the size of the publication, as your reach is larger even with the paywall; part comes from the reputational value of the larger pub (which is probably why books are still awesome for spreading ideas).

Reader-experience aside, where the money comes from shouldn’t really matter much.

This isn’t an observation about ads. Let’s assume you solicit donations to support your writing. $100,000 from one person is the same as $10 from 10,000 people each. Assuming that there’s no expectations on behalf of the donor, the two should be identical to the writer.

There are some exceptions to this, too. Some people believe that if you don’t pay for content, you shouldn’t be entitled to it; or, perhaps, that if some people pay, others shouldn’t be entitled to it.

There may be more money in ex post donations than ex ante purchases.

This is rank speculation on my part. But: are people buying access to future Andrew Sullivan content, or donating in thanks of past content? I think there’s a good case to be made that it’s more the latter than the former:

I’m eyeballing this, and, treating the $20 buyers as the same as $19.99 buyers, it looks like about 60% of his day-one buyers spent the minimum. I think it’s fair to say that the other 40% are as much donors as they are purchasers — and obviously, some (I’d say the 10% who paid $50 or more) are clearly donors over purchasers.

Originally published on January 8, 2013

In Defense of Murray Chass

In the summer of 1989, I think — give or take a year — my sleepaway camp bunkmates and I got to do something special: watch the All-Star Game.

On tape. A few days after the game.

My camp experience was one low on media usage. We had radios, but you couldn’t use them in the bunk at night (when most baseball games were played) as it’d disturb others, and there were few TVs available to campers, and certainly not on a regular basis. In order to watch the All-Star Game, a bunkmate’s family had to literally mail us a VHS of it, and even then, it wasn’t clear that we’d get to watch it. The camp wasn’t anti-TV as much as it was just scheduled and set up for other stuff — you know, like swimming and boating and actually playing sports — and the counselors had to find a time for us to watch, as well as find a time that a VCR was free.

But my friends and I were still huge baseball fans, and we were set on following the Mets. One of the buildings on camp — the name and purpose escape me — had newspapers, and we made a point of checking the box scores each day and reading the various game reports. It still amazes me how one can get a pretty vivid picture of what happened in a baseball just by perusing a box score, but that’s a story for another day.

I’m pretty sure the counselors had access to more media than we did. In my four summers at camp, I don’t think I made it to the staff lounge more than once, if that; I have absolutely not recollection of what the staff lounge looked like, and only a vague one of where it even is on the campus. I know they had movies available and the movies weren’t terribly old (unless they were classics), and I’m pretty sure they had broadcast TV if not cable. But it was 1988 or so, and while cable TV was pretty common then, it was probably only in about 50-65% of US households.

I don’t know how summer camp is nowadays but I can’t imagine it’s as light on media use. It just can’t be — there’s no way a staff made up of 18- to 30-year-olds is going to give up email, Facebook, etc. — and I’m betting that the campers therefore have a similar increase in allowed media use. They’re probably not allowed to have phones on them, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re allowed tablets (in bunk?), some wifi time, and maybe even a data plan for them. But that’s not why I’m telling the camp story.

One year in middle school — maybe the same one as that camp summer, maybe not, but it doesn’t matter — and two friends had put out a “zine” — Wikipedia defines it as “a small circulation self-published work of original and/or appropriated texts and images usually reproduced via photocopier” — about the upcoming baseball season. They drew pictures of Will Clark, Wally Joyner, and others, and talked about their predictions for the year. I think they sold the zine for a quarter or a dollar or maybe five. It was a great idea and another friend of mine and I copied it and made our own.

Back in 1989, a die-hard baseball fan could have the experiences I just did. But think about how incongruent they are. In the summer — the summer! baseball season! — I happily went away and had virtually no access to baseball for four or eight weeks. (We did go to a game at Fenway once, which was awesome.) And then, a few months later, I was waxing poetic about how David Cone would win a Cy Young and selling that to my friends. It’s crazy…

… for 2013.

For 1989 — especially a pre-teen then — it actually makes a ton of sense. My access to information was in books like the Baseball Encyclopedia (which was the best present my father ever received; it was a gag gift that he had no interested in but I ended up reading probably cover to cover) and the Elias Baseball Analysts I picked up from the used book cart for a dollar. There were no advanced stats available (I hadn’t heard of Bill James, nor had my friends) and it’d be until 1990 before “WAR” got a baseball context — and it was this, not the stat. The truth is that most fans didn’t have a great amount of insight into how good a player was other than what we saw on TV, and we only got to see the players who played for and against our hometown team. For a New York-area kid like me, that was pretty cool, because I got all the Mets games, all the Yankee games, all the Braves games (TBS!), and some of the Red Sox games (at times, our cable carrier had their channel). With that, This Week in Baseball!, and whatever the national games of the week were, I had a chance to watch everyone from Mike Schmidt and George Brett to Nolan Ryan and yes, Wally Joyner.

But really, we got our news from the newspaper. And because of that, we got our opinions from the newspaper. Guys like Murray Chass were the gatekeepers of what we thought about guys like Jack Morris, Bert Blyleven, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, and Dave Concepcion. Sure, I could look up their batting averages and W-L totals, but the story behind the numbers was the newspapers’ for the telling.

When the Hall of Fame decided to let baseball writers decide who should be added to the Hall of Fame, it relied on writers because it had little other choice. No one else really had their pulse on the game — except players, managers, etc., and they were clearly too biased — and no one else was creating memories which, five to 20 years after a player’s retirement, could be used to determine if that player should be forevermore enshrined in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. And by and large, they were already determining what our collective memories were anyway. Case in point: I have almost no memory of Bobby Grich, whose career ended just a few years before my life as a baseball fan began. But I know who Rod Carew, Don Sutton, and Reggie Jackson are — even though all of them retired around the same time and, not coincidentally, all were teammates of Grich in 1985. The latter three are in the Hall of Fame. Grich didn’t even receive 5% of the vote in his first (and therefore only) year on the ballot. (And he should be in the Hall.)

It’s these memories that determine whether a guy like Chass gets your vote. Our brains form a narrative that we just can’t shake, and honestly, why should we? Why should a 50-year veteran of baseball writing, who, for decades, has been charged with trusting his memory and years-formed impressions in casing a Hall of Fame vote, change? It would take an incredibly open-minded and self-confident person to reconsider his vote against Bobby Grich 20 years ago, especially considering Grich hasn’t taken to the field in over 25. Or to doubt his contemporaneously formed belief, however baseless, that Mike Piazza used steroids. Or that Jack Morris was a sure-fire Hall of Famer. The truth is that few of us could decide that the 50 year of our life spent mentally developing a grand theory of everything baseball could be, well, wrong.

Make no mistake about it: Chass is wrong. He’s relying on something terribly faulty — his memory of events from fifteen to twenty years ago. In 1989, Jack Morris went 6-14 with an ERA over 4.86, which isn’t the line one would expect from a 34 year-old pitcher who, now, is on the cusp of entry into the Hall of Fame. Memories have a habit of selecting some things and discarding others. In 1989, my bunkmates and I were going to watch the All-Star Game, on tape, a few days after the game was actually played. But I don’t remember if we watched it. I don’t think we did, and I think it had something to do with rain, a broken VCR, and … actually, I have no idea.

But that doesn’t make my impressions of camp and middle school baseball zines any less valid. Or, at least, I don’t want them to be.

The problem with Murray Chass’ Hall of Fame vote isn’t that it’s wrong — it is — or that it’s based on the romanticized baseball universe he’s created in his own mind. We’re all guilty of that.  Jack Morris wasn’t nearly as good as Chass remembers; the so-called evidence of Piazza’s PED use wasn’t nearly as great as Chass claims.

The problem is that Murray Chass has a vote for the Hall of Fame. He does so because in 1989 — and for that matter, for decades before and years after — that made the utmost sense. But today? It’s not even close.

Blame Murray Chass for violating Wheaton’s Law — he does so in spades, and at seemingly every opportunity. Blame him for publishing a defamatory screed simply because he has a Hall of Fame vote. Blame him for his ad hominem attacks on the newer members of his hallowed group of baseball writers. Blame him for his faux elitism and insistence that he doesn’t write a blog. I agree wholeheartedly, on all counts.

But don’t blame him for casting a Hall of Fame vote the way he does. Blame the Hall for that.

 

Originally published on January 3, 2013

A Reverse-Kickstarter Content Platform

Today, Andrew Sullivan announced that he’s going to create his own, ad-free, reader-supported publication. Readers will get a metered amount of free content, but for all-you-can-eat access, it’ll cost you $19.99 per year. This sparked a lot of conversations and thoughts, and a few of them seem to be in the same vein: much like we paid for great content in when it was in magazines and newspapers, we’d do so digitally. I generally think that’s correct, and there’s plenty of examples to that point. I subscribe to Joe Sheehan’s baseball newsletter, for example, at the cost of $24.95/year. That’s just one case and it’s on the edges at that.

But for the content creator, the risk to take this step is enormous. Why give up the (ad-driven) revenue, the audience, and the (low barrier to entry-driven) growth of the free offering?

There are a few ways to hedge this risk. The most obvious one is a Kickstarter — ask the audience to fund it to $x amount, and, if it hits that, flip the switch. But that requires the content creator to take the initiative, and, even then, Kickstarter suffers from being a one-size-fits-all platform.

So what if we reversed it and made it specialized? Specifically:

1) Make it so readers initiated the fundraising.

I’m going to focus here on writing, but it obviously applies to a bunch of other things — anything where fans can come together and create a market opportunity for the product. (Like, say, TV shows.) But in part because of specialization point, and because Andrew Sullivan’s move to go indy sparked this, I’m focusing on the written word.

There are plenty of writers who I’d love to read more of. Malcolm Gladwell springs to mind. I’ve read all four of his books, watched his TED Talk on spaghetti sauce a few times, read many of his New Yorker columns, etc. But he hasn’t written much lately. His last book came out in late 2009. His gladwell.com blog hasn’t been updated in two years. He contributed only four pieces to the New Yorker last year.

The list price of his most recent book was $16.99 and had roughly 24 articles. They’re magazine-length ones, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect one of those every two to three weeks. But I’d be happy with shorter articles that came regularly and were, perhaps, more contemporary with what’s going on in the world. Say $20 for a 24 articles — one every two weeks with a couple of breaks here or there, over the course of the year.

Obviously, he’s not going to write that for me — not for $20. But what if a group of Gladwell fans got together and pooled their money? At some point (obvious joke omitted) he’d give in.

But there’s no good platform to do this.

2) The platform needs to be the entire product experience.

I’ve been playing with Medium on and off — here’s one piece I wrote about the Mets — and it’s a clean page with a great WYSIWYG. As a writer, it was a pleasure to use, and as a reader, it’s a great reading experience. I have high hopes for what they’re building because of that.

So what if Medium created the reverse-Kickstarter aspect?

We want writers to focus on writing, not the business operations and technical stuff. (Click on Gladwell’s blog in Chrome — which in his defense didn’t exist when he last wrote there — and you’ll see it’s a mess.) By and large, to have that happen, it means there’s a publisher, and the publisher (typically) monetizes via ads — but in any event, looks to maximize profits over aesthetics and, as Mr. Gartenberg alludes to, quality. Gladwell shouldn’t be expected to write things which necessarily are designed to attract clicks or ad dollars. He should be expected to write things which, like his books, are things people will gladly pay to read.

So the “publisher” here has to be a platform which profits off this model and is agnostic to the rest. Medium seems like a good starting point because it emphasizes the aesthetic and the quality of the content (see, e.g., the hiring of Kate Lee). Imagine if Medium allowed for fans of writers to do this reverse-Kickstarter thing as described in point 1, and, if the writer met some quantitative and perhaps qualitative benchmarks, released the money (minus 5%) to the author along the way.

I’d love to see this combo happen.

Originally published on January 2, 2013