A new online model for long-form journalism

This October, Montreal-based career journalist and businessman Warren Perley is launching a new online business model, beststory.ca, for freelance journalists who love the written word and wish to indulge that passion to the exclusion of video. He tells J-Source the genesis and rationale of this new business model.

My passenger, the doctor, unburdened his soul as I drove with him from a coroner’s inquest into the drug overdose of a teenager, in which he had appeared as an expert witness.

This October, Montreal-based career journalist and businessman Warren Perley is launching a new online business model, beststory.ca, for freelance journalists who love the written word and wish to indulge that passion to the exclusion of video. He tells J-Source the genesis and rationale of this new business model.

My passenger, the doctor, unburdened his soul as I drove with him from a coroner’s inquest into the drug overdose of a teenager, in which he had appeared as an expert witness.

It was a chilling tale he told of a few supposedly well-meaning doctors playing God in the delivery room of a Montreal hospital as they took decisions which facilitated the deaths of certain premature babies born with serious congenital defects.

It was the early 1980s. I don’t remember the doctor’s name and I don’t know the hospital to which he was referring. What I do remember was that I was a reporter at The Gazette in Montreal and that I was shocked and horrified by what I heard in the car.

The doctor, who did not want to be named in any story that might be done, told me that he thought that his colleagues took such unusual actions because they wanted to spare the families of such premature babies the lifelong burden and heartbreak of caring for a child with extreme special needs. But he could not abide the immorality of such a practice and told me that he hoped that a story on the subject would end it without his being named as the whistle-blower.

I was breathless as I entered The Gazette newsroom to share these allegations with my editor, expecting him to throw the newspaper’s resources behind my request to chase down this lead. Instead, this individual, who at the time had in excess of two decades of experience as an editor, told me this was not a story.

Everyone knew that such things took place in hospitals, he told me. The story he wanted me to write was based on finding a family that had a child with cognitive or physical challenges, but which had decided through religious conviction to keep the child, rather than to put him or her into an institute.

I agreed that his idea might be a story, but first I wanted to pursue the angle of doctors playing God in the delivery room to determine whether it was true. The editor refused my request. I declined his command. It was obvious that my career at The Gazette was running out of road.

I tell this anecdote as a prelude to explaining how it is that I am now in the process of launching beststory.ca, a new online business model which will not accept advertising and which will empower freelance journalists to write and sell stories of their choice directly to individual readers for cents each.

In all, I worked for five major media companies in the 70s and 80s — about half the time as an editor and half the time as a reporter — seeking an environment where quality of content and journalistic independence would be of paramount value. The closest I came to finding such an environment was The Montreal Star, which eventually succumbed to internal office politics and bad business decisions involving negotiations with its unions.  It closed its doors in September 1979 after returning briefly from a prolonged strike.

What I discovered between 1972 and 1988 while working at those five organizations — The Canadian Press, The Montreal Star, The Gazette, United Press Canada and United Press International — was that editorial departments are often run by journalists with inadequate training and aptitude as managers.  What that meant was that working journalists did not always receive the support or understanding which they needed or deserved.

So in 1988-89, I threw myself into the launch of The Weekly Herald, an upscale community newspaper in the wealthy Anglophone areas of west-end Montreal. I recruited another journalist, sports writer Wesley Goldstein of CP who is now with CBS, to join me in this endeavour to create a product with interesting content and graphics.

As much as we knew about journalism, we discovered we knew little about business. After two years of losing money, we concluded that it was an artistic success but a financial failure.

A readership survey told us that our weekly newspaper, which relied heavily on freelancers, was better read than competing newspapers.  But our financial statements told us that our ad revenues were not following our readership numbers, partially because a competitor was giving away some ads and selling others for below market value.

The vagaries of ad revenue was a lesson that legacy media were to learn 10 years later when ads on the Internet ended up garnering between 80 percent and 90 percent less revenue than those same ads in print editions because of the competitive online pricing from major competitors, including search engines.

For the last 20 years I have been the president of a graphic design and marketing company I founded, which has been involved with the design concepts of numerous media projects on behalf of clients.

I and my colleagues have come to appreciate the importance of eye-catching graphics and clean layout on the Internet, which seems to be of little concern on many websites which cram everything they can, including videos, ads and animations.

The situation for freelancers interested in writing long-form journalism, which was never easy, has become even more difficult since the advent of the Internet  in the early 90s. Since closing The Weekly Herald in 1991, I ghost wrote an art book and in 1998-99 I did a weekly business column for The Gazette.

But I never stopped believing there was a market for long-form, alternate journalism on the Internet. I kept hoping to find a site which would encourage writers, such as myself, to contribute quality pieces of our choice with the idea of making such articles available for purchase by individual readers.

One of the important aspects of such a site must be its independence from government, political parties, big business, unions and religious organizations. A website which refuses ads and sponsorships sends a powerful message of journalistic independence. Let us as journalists depend on our potential audience of millions of readers for their moral and financial support through story sales. Hence, the beststory.ca motto: “For Readers and Writers.”

Well, when nobody stepped up to accept the challenge to build such a website, as they used to say in the Press Club at the end of the evening, it was “final call” for this baby boomer to put my money where my mouth is and to start up such a venture for all freelancers, including myself.

Full details on our project can be gleaned from a web-based, 73-part Q & A that we have put together and which can be obtained by freelance writers who introduce themselves to me by email at warren@beststory.ca.

In a nutshell, here are the main principles and objectives of beststory.ca:

• No advertising is allowed on the website, meaning that we can use the entire screen for text and story graphics to make it a pleasurable literary experience for the reader who will not have to contend with intrusive ads.
• The core market we’re aiming for is the more than 18 million Canadian readers age 40 and over, although due to the vast reach of the Internet, readers outside Canada and those younger than 40 could end up purchasing stories.
• Freelancers choose which stories they wish to write and when they wish to write.
• We’re interested only in alternate long form journalism, analyses and columns; not in daily news coverage or video contributions.
• Freelancers maintain copyright and moral rights, but beststory.ca has exclusive distribution of the story submitted by the freelancer.
•  Either the freelancer or beststory.ca can end this arrangement on 30 days notice via email.
• I, who have extensive editing experience, will edit every story before it is posted.
• Each story is displayed on our website, which was created by professional graphic designers with an emphasis on journalistic content and quality branding.
• Contributors have their biography and photo on the site, where they can promote their own website or blog.
• Every story sells for between 36 cents 40 cents based on a free teaser shown to readers.
• Freelancers receive a 10 cent royalty on every individual story sale.
• Teasers are promoted virally through social networking and through some traditional media.
• No subscriptions, sponsorships, donations or advertisements are accepted.
• Freelancers register to receive a User Name and Password to track royalties 24/7.
• Freelancers can also track the geographic area of their story sales.
• Royalties are paid monthly via PayPal.
Beststory.ca  will support freelance investigative initiatives once the business model is working smoothly.

Contributing to beststory.ca does not prevent you from writing for other media companies or even on your own blog. It simply gives you a venue to try to sell specific stories you wish to write, for which you have no purchaser.

This is not a get-rich-quick scheme, and we’re not going to engage in a numbers game trying to predict how many readers will buy stories each month. That will depend on the quality of the stories, the selection of content available and how quickly readers become aware of our new “destination site.”

The freelance journalists themselves will play a major role in how fast the site grows because they control which stories and when stories are submitted to me for editing, to be followed by posting online. This is a work in progress which, we believe, will grow more popular as the story selection and reader awareness grow over the coming years.

The important principle to remember is that this is the only journalism site in the world, purposely devoid of advertising, which promotes story-by-story sales directly to readers. 

As well, it is the only journalism site in the world which allows writers to garner the entrepreneurial rewards of their competence and initiatives based on their individual story sales to readers, which they can track 24/7.

And, last by not least, it gives readers the freedom to determine which, if any, individual stories they wish to purchase for a small amount of money, rather than trying to force them into paying subscriptions for content which they may not want.

Under the beststory.ca scenario, long form journalism is alive and delivered to readers through various digital platforms. Technology becomes just a tool — not the master —of reputable freelance print journalists!

Montreal-based career journalist and businessman Warren Perley the founder and editor of beststory.ca.