Writing For Money: Talking About Beacon Reader with Jack Moore and Brian Blickenstaff

Two friends of The Classical have joined up with a very promising and mildly revolutionary new online publishing concern.
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So, I'm out, then.

The Classical has changed identities several times, without ever quite meaning to do so. Most of this, as with most changes in life, had to do with the inescapable and broad and not at all euphemistic Circumstances Beyond Our Control. The whole world operates like this, and smallish and brilliant and devastatingly good-looking startup sports websites are not an exception.

This is worth mentioning only because one of those circumstances, which we might have guessed before we started the site but quickly learned for sure upon doing so, is that it's very difficult to make money as a website while giving things away for free. It can be done, sort of and with a very narrow margin, but we had neither the (practical, emotional, human, possibly also literal internet) bandwith nor the inclination to become the sort of site that can do that. So we became this, and we started the magazine because it was a good idea and because, if we are to pay our writers and artists what we know they're worth, we will need to make enough money to do that. There are new buzzwords and new models and new ideas surrounding this sort of thing, but this is fundamentally the way it works, and has always worked, and must always work. This is not just an abstract concern, either: if you like to read good things, you have a vested interest in the people that create those things being able to afford to do so.

That is what is so promising about Beacon Reader, a new online publication that allows readers to purchase subscriptions to various writers' work, and so sort of endow or fund or otherwise make it possible for those writers to continue their work. Two friends of and contributors to The Classical, and veterans of both the website and the magazine, have signed on with Beacon. I talked to Jack Moore and Brian K. Blickenstaff about their experience there, what Beacon does and could do, and the freelance struggle in general. To subscribe to their writing on Beacon, go here and here, respectively.

You're both pretty busy, and write a lot for various different places. What led you to decide to add Beacon Reader to what's already a pretty full slate?

JACK: The freedom, for sure. The freelance process can feel grating at times when you feel like you need to react to news within a second. So many times I've had ideas that I didn't feel I could sell because they didn't match up with the current sporting events, or I felt like I needed significantly more time to parse a story than the news cycle typically allows. (This phenomenon may be better known to some as the #ClassicalPitch.) And so those pieces end up either dying in the brain or in a notepad file within a week of having the idea.

At Beacon, I'm able to hone in on a few sports topics that I think are fascinating: the intersection of sports with culture and the intersection of sports with politics, and the use of history to tell both types of stories. There are a few sports writers doing this kind of work—the Nation's Dave Zirin is the first to come to mind—but sport has so rich a history and is so ubiquitous in today's culture that there will always be material to cover. It's not the kind of stuff that screams virality, and so it's tough to place on bigger websites (with bigger paychecks). But it's worth doing and Beacon gives an opportunity to make it happen.

BRIAN: Dan Fletcher, one of the Beacon founders, was a big reason I got involved. He approached me last year and said he wanted me to write about German sports and culture. I thought it sounded cool, but it also seemed niche and a little experimental. But it was that experimental, entrepreneurial spirit that ultimately got me excited about Beacon. I've been freelancing for a few years now, and as you know, it's tough. So exploring a new revenue model for online writing seemed like a worthwhile thing to do, regardless of whether I earned any money in the short term. Also, Dan and his team seemed really sharp. 

The basic idea of Beacon Reader is new, if not entirely revolutionary—Andrew Sullivan, who is a considerably bigger figure than any of the people involved in this Q&A, is doing something similar with his new site. What about the idea of Beacon, and of getting readers to subscribe to you individually, did you find most appealing? What are the benefits for the writer where Beacon Reader is concerned?

BRIAN: Without a doubt the best part is the feeling of support. There are people out there, people I've never met in person, people I've never even exchanged Tweets with, who believe in what I'm doing enough to support me for $5/month. Maybe that doesn't sound like much, but to me, knowing that people care is everything. And $5/month is a humbling show of support when you consider a year-long subscription to Esquire is like $8 now. It's my responsibility not to squander that support, and that motivates me to do good work more than the deposit in my bank account each month does. I think the general benefit to the writer is similar: Writing on the Internet can be a pretty lonely game, but knowing we're connecting with people helps mitigate that loneliness.  

JACK: I think the big question whenever it comes to paid journalism is a simple one: Where does the money go? And at Beacon, I think the answer should be a satisfying one for both sides: 75 percent of the subscription fee goes to the writer (i.e., me or Brian) who is doing the work you pay for, with the rest going to maintain the infrastructure of the site (server costs and what have you).

As a writer (or as a worker of any sort), it's a huge benefit to know that your work is valued. "Exposure" is nice, but I think most humans prefer something a bit more tangible. When there are people willing to put their money where your mouth is, it lets you put concerns over your value out of sight and out of mind and actually focus on the work at hand.

What kind of editorial oversight or dialogue will you have there? Are you pitching pieces, and who are you working with to make the pieces what you want them to be?

JACK: The first couple months here have been a solo venture, but as soon as I come up with the right idea, I'll be teaming up with the site's leaders—Dan Fletcher does most of the contact with the writers—on a thematic project, like one of these. But as far as editing in the red pen sense goes, Beacon is still very much an independent project for me.

BRIAN: It's not like a traditional publication. We're not pitching stories. But there are a lot of back-end incentives for us to do good work. If you write a story that performs well and gets read by a lot of Beacon subscribers (not necessarily your own subscribers) you get a bonus. If you write a minimum of one story a week, you get a bonus. (Consistency is important when building an audience.) I think there's also a fair amount of pressure from the rest of the Beacon community not to just mail it in, because you're basically hurting everybody if you publish crap.

Because this is a new thing that enables a more specific and concrete engagement between reader and writer, and because the freelance economy is so profoundly screwed in so many ways, it's easy to pull for Beacon Reader's success. What would your pitch be to a writer considering being down with it? Or to a reader thinking about subscribing?

BRIAN: For writers, I'd say it's a great opportunity to connect with people (see question 2) and make some money. I started off in October with 0 subscribers. But lately new writers have been launching through a new "projects" page, which is a nice launch pad. A writer the other night just got 150 subscribers or so, and he hasn't written anything yet. In the online freelance world, 150 subscribers equates to a pretty decent monthly payment.

JACK: For the writer, the pitch is simple: it's difficult, almost impossible, to find a place where you can write what you want when you want without having to worry about the economics or institutional hierarchy of the publication impacting your decisions. Beacon offers me that freedom and it's why I'm willing to spend the time to build up a paying audience.

BRIAN: The Beacon creators are doing their best to create a space that works for each writer, and they're in constant dialogue with us to try and make the site better. They're even open to tweaking the business model. Last week, Beacon launched its first team of writers, called Climate Confidential—six women who will be writing about environmental issues and splitting their subscriber revenue.

JACK: We are also looking to launch a group called Beacon Sports (it's a working name, of course) featuring smart sportswriting from an array of different perspectives. We'll be launching and funding the project through a Kickstarter-like feature hosted on Beacon, and it will be like the environmental writing initiative Brian spoke about. People who want to contribute should email me, preferably with a few clips or writing samples. It'll take some work to get funding, but if you're looking for a place to write about sports for cash while still having the freedom to do work that matters, that is what we're trying to do.

BRIAN: What I'd say to readers is this: Beacon is the opposite of BuzzFeed. It's an economy that's not based on clicks and advertising revenue or banking on a story to go viral. It's an economy based on the passion of the writers and their desire to write and research the kind of stories their subscribers (read: you) care about. 

JACK: For the reader, of course it's a tough sell to ask for $60 for a year of writing when you can find a practically infinite amount of writing for free. But the question to ask yourself, if you're balking at the subscription here—or, honestly, for any sort of paid journalism or writing, like the Classical Magazine—is whether or not you see enough variety at the free sites. The free model rejects projects that take time, projects that threaten advertisers, and projects that are new but risky. I think that the only way to break through this model is to take the power away from the moneyed interests and put it into the hands of journalists and writers. Maybe I'm biased. But am I wrong?

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