April 18, 2013

Splashing in the waves on our 1st birthday!

Posted by WARREN PERLEY – Editor, BestStory.ca
Writing from Montreal

It’s exactly one year ago today that we launched our ad-free, long-form journalism site, BestStory.ca, based in Montreal. Due to its being different than existing online journalism sites, many freelancers were confused as to how it worked. Some were, and are, dubious as to whether the public will support such a site, which charges 40 cents per story to individual readers, with journalists earning 25 percent of the gross.

We currently have hundreds of registered readers, many of whom have purchased more than the minimum number of story points, which we take as a sign of support. Analytics tell us that readers spend an average of six minutes in the public area of our site, compared with an average of less than 30 seconds on most media sites. Our bounce rate is below 20 percent, meaning most people who land on our home page check out other sections in our public area.

The path to profitability is clear: many more readers are needed and eventually a higher price could be charged for our articles, which are currently less than half the amount and, in some cases, 700 percent less than the price of individual stories sold on other pay-as-you-go sites.

Why do we persist? The answer is because we think a “pure” ad-free media site, such as ours, helps empower freelance journalists and provides readers with original, in-depth pieces they won’t find elsewhere. If the quality is maintained, we believe that the readers will come and, with them, the revenues.

In fact, one of the questions put to me in November 2012 by Ryerson journalism student Zakiya Kassam was: “Why do you think there is a need for a site like BestStory.ca to exist?”

Her question was in preparation for an article she was writing about BestStory.ca for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, a print and online publication put out by one of Canada’s oldest journalism faculties located at Ryerson University in Toronto. It appeared on their blog on March 21, 2013: http://www.rrj.ca/b27498/

The Ryerson article never really got into the details of editorial quality and integrity, which I emphasized in my interview with Kassam. Instead, it morphed into a discussion of whether ad-free journalism is a viable business model.

Mike Karapita, who is the journalism program coordinator at Humber College in Toronto, was quoted in the article as saying he didn’t think many people would be willing to pay anything, even 40 cents, for online stories such as those offered by BestStory.ca.

I would have thought that someone in a position of responsibility, such as Karapita, would have taken the time to read a few of our stories so that he might judge their quality and possible value. At the very least, shouldn’t he as a journalism program coordinator make it his business to know whether BestStory.ca might be a reputable publishing venue for some of his graduating students?

Instead Karapita opted to make his negative comments without buying even one story. He seemed more interested in predicting that an ad-free site such as BestStory.ca could never succeed on a commercial level rather than judging the quality of the research, writing and layouts on our site.

But for journalism students everywhere, including those at Humber and Ryerson, the primary issue should not be whether BestStory.ca and other ad-free sites can eventually become commercially viable. Nobody knows for sure at this point because all such sites are in their early development.

What graduating students should be concerned about is how they can continue to hone their craft by working with experienced, competent editors and whether articles appearing on a site such as BestStory.ca could help further their careers, perhaps leading to recognition of their skills and other writing contracts.

Obviously all writers would like to be compensated adequately for their efforts. And our model offers that possibility by putting decision-making on possible story purchases in the hands of millions of potential readers. But before a site can succeed financially, it has to have enough good content to attract those new readers, who in turn will tell others about the site. How fast such content is produced is in the hands of the freelance journalists.

I’ve had journalists tell me: “Oh, I’ll come back and write for your site when it is better known and has more readers so that I can earn more money.” Well I can tell you, as someone who has spent half his adult life in full-time journalism and half in business, that no enterprise and no productive working relationship was ever built on such passivity.

If you, as a freelancer, share with us the conviction that our new journalism model presents interesting possibilities, then you should join us as an occasional contributor. Or if you don’t have the time or inclination to write a story for our site, how about joining our Facebook Page and following us on Twitter to help get word out to other potential readers and writers.

There is a lot of upside to getting involved. BestStory.ca has been built to give maximum freedom in terms of story selection and writing style to serious freelance journalists who care about quality and accuracy. Here are some of the elements that set us apart in what we offer to writers:

  • Freelancers make their own story selections; they are not imposed by an editor.
  • There are no deadlines, which removes a stressor.
  • Freelancers maintain copyright and moral rights over all their original material.
  • All stories are carefully and thoughtfully edited in close collaboration with writers.
  • Layouts are done by professional graphic designers using multiple photos.
  • Freelancers can track their story sales 24/7 based on geography and chronology, with any royalties due paid monthly via PayPal.
  • Contributors have a 400-word profile which can link back to their website or blog.
  • Stories can be updated at any time by writers in order to keep their stories fresh.
  • As the experienced Editor of the site, I am available seven days a week to discuss with contributors their story ideas and how best to implement them.

The empowerment of freelance journalists, as outlined above, is part of the answer to the question asked of me by journalism student Zakiya Kassam as to why I think there is a need for an ad-free journalism site such as BestStory.ca.

The other part of the answer is that there has been a gradual blurring — both online and in print — of the lines between editorial and advertising over the last few years so that it sometimes becomes difficult, if not impossible, for a reader to know whether she is perusing impartial editorial content or marketing material disguised as editorial.

As part of my emphasis on the potential for editorial matter to be tainted by advertising, I referred Kassam in February 2013 to an excellent article by Jonathan Sas published in the B.C. weekly The Tyee on January 28, 2013:


In the article, Sas spoke about how major media organizations such as the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and the National Post are now selling marketing features, known as “custom content”, written by their journalists without telling readers that the piece has been paid for by an advertiser.

In the “old days”, before newspapers became desperate for ad revenue now gobbled up by online search engines and social media sites, such as Facebook, all marketing material written in journalism style was clearly delineated as such. That is no longer the case.

I am not saying that all advertising is bad; but the reader deserves to know what is impartial journalism, compared with branded marketing content disguised as impartial journalism.

In her article in the Ryerson Review of Journalism (first link above), Kassam quoted Max Linsky, one of the founders of U.S.-based longform.org — which has ads — as questioning why a site such as BestStory.ca would refuse to run ads, saying he didn’t think charging for stories could work for smaller media organizations.

My answer to Linsky and others is that BestStory.ca refuses all ads because:

  • We consider online advertising to be intrusive on the literary experience and on the privacy of our readers.
  • Ads would detract from our layouts which now have access to our total image area for text, photos and other graphics which enhance reading pleasure.
  • We want our site to promote only writers, photographers and illustrators; not rotating ads over whose content we have no control.

All those who think that online advertising is the answer to financial stability for digital media should read a March 29, 2013 article in Ad Age with the headline: “As Ad Rates Sink, More Websites Explore Ad-Free Business: Why jump on a failing model? Andrew Sullivan asks.”

The entire article can be found at: http://adage.com/article/media/online-ad-rates-falling-sites-explore-ad-free-business/240620/

Here is an extract:

This is web publishing in 2013, when declining ad rates and the sense that each buck is harder to get than the last is leading increasing numbers of publishers to strip out the ads and ask readers to pony up. Even The New York Times has at least contemplated the idea of an ad-free version, asking readers about it in a recent survey about potential new products…. But ad-free experiments are taking root faster among smaller publishers and blogs, for whom the economics of digital advertising can be particularly punishing. You wouldn't call it a sea change, but there is a lot of splashing in the waves.

Well, I’m proud to say that BestStory.ca, the only ad-free, long-form journalism site in Canada, has been one of the first such media companies in the world to “splash in the waves,” experimenting with a new model of journalism which caters solely to readers and writers.

Please join us on Facebook and Twitter on this our 1st anniversary to continue spreading the word to others who might appreciate a journalism model predicated on first-rate editorial content and integrity.