Few things remain more challenging, and require more experimentation, than finding a way to fund new visual stories. It has never been easy to sustain documentary work, but now we have a new development that is worth watching. MediaStorm have built an enviable reputation as the leading multimedia production studio, and their launch of “Pay Per Story” with the release of “A Shadow Remains” by Philip Toledano and “Rite of Passage” by Maggie Steber, is an important moment for this issue.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Brian Storm since we taught together for a week in China in 2008, and I’ve continued to benefit from his advice on projects and insights on the industry. I’ve visited MediaStorm a number of times, most recently in April, when I got a behind the scenes look at the player that powers PPS. For this post I checked a number of factual details with Brian this week while writing this post.
Here are a few thoughts on what MediaStorm is doing. In particular, I want to call attention to the need to frame our discussion of this development in a particular way if this is going to be a productive step.
Pay Per Story means you pay $1.99 to access feature length stories and support material, and that access is on-going, so it’s not pay per view. As is standard for MediaStorm, revenue is being shared 50:50 with the photographers whose stories are being produced. PPS is also being applied only to the new editorial work MediaStorm does, so access to client projects and workshop stories is not being monetized through individual payment. The player for the stories is HTML5 meaning it can be viewed on phones and tablets as well as computers,
though whether it can be viewed on a device different from the one it was purchased on is not clear to me, and something I would still like to check, because ease of access and use is one of the key conditions for success. (Update: MediaStorm confirm that once purchased you can log in on other devices to view, which is an important feature).
In the PDN report on PPS, Brian noted that the majority of the 30 plus stories they have produced since 2005 have had million or more views. Because they are “non-perishable” – that is, they are not time specific, with sell by dates – it is possible that revenue from new stories will be accrued over a long period of time.
Given the vast investment MediaStorm makes in its stories, they would need to turn 10% of viewers into paying consumers to full cover the cost of production. That’s a very high proportion when you consider most media companies count it as a success if they turn 2-3% of their audience into payers.
This means we need a sense of perspective on this development. Pay Per Story is not a silver bullet strategy. It’s not a self-contained, all encompassing business model that’s going to right all that’s wrong with the editorial sector. And Brian seems sanguine about it being another source of revenue rather than immediately a replacement for the client work or training they undertake.
That said, in announcing the move, Brian was keen to highlight the wider implications of what they are doing:
…the reality is, no company or industry can sustain itself for long without producing a product for which people are willing to pay.
At MediaStorm we think it’s time for us, as content producers and publishers, to bring this conversation into the limelight. Frankly, our long-term survival as an industry depends on it.
We believe that our industry is in need of a sustainable business model that will allow us to continue to report and produce compelling stories. While Pay Per Story may not be the definitive answer, we believe that it can be a step to getting us there.
As one of the experiments that could really help, there is no doubt PPS is significant. But it’s more than a question of whether individuals will pay. I think Time overstated the case when they said the video player that makes PPS possible was a “game changer” – there are no single things that will by themselves change the game in my view – but licensing the rich functionality in the player, which effectively makes MediaStorm also a software company, is a major part of this development.
While many are wishing MediaStorm well, some of the immediate reaction to MediaStorm’s introduction of Pay Per Story has been quite silly. Many of the comments on PDN talked of the problems with paywalls. If we were talking about daily, general news – content that is dated within minutes if not seconds, and can be sourced from credible sources elsewhere – then the paywall analogy might be relevant. I’ve certainly been very sceptical of paywalls for organisations like The New York Times, even though I am a digital subscriber.
What MediaStorm is doing is not building a paywall. It’s offering unique stories, rich accounts with lasting value, to which people can purchase on-going access. From iTunes to Louis CK we have plenty of examples now to show that people are willing to pay for content they want and which can be accessed easily. Those instances are often dismissed by those who say they don’t scale easily for something like photojournalism and documentary, and that’s true in one sense.
However, it overlooks the lessons we can learn about how people value things in the digital world and are willing to pay and pay often. We are now witnessing photographers releasing book-like apps that cost much more than the MediaStorm stories, though I’m not aware of an analysis of their prospects. But if you want an example of an individual pay per story experiment that was quite successful, think about Nick Turpin’s 38 minute In-Sight film, which he sold via Distrify for two or three times the amount MediaStorm are charging, and which earnt him a not insignificant amount of money. What Nick had was a community who were interested in his work, and that is something, with an engaging social media strategy, MediaStorm have perfected too.
My one concern about the debate over PPS as it moves forward is we have to be careful about how it is framed, at least in so far as it allocates responsibility for success or failure. Maggie Steber wrote a tough response to some critics who obviously dismissed the idea of paying for her story. I can appreciate her frustration, but in the end if potential customers choose to behave in certain ways there is not much producers can do about it.
And the least productive thing is to turn any resistance into a moral rebuke. We might think people who readily pay three bucks for a coffee but bemoan $1.99 for a visual story are “mistaken and shortsighted.” In the end, however, it is the producers not the consumers who are responsible for getting people to part with their money. I think if the stories are engaging and easily accessed – as they are – then a paying clientele will be found. The issue will be the size of the paying community.
Finally, let’s not turn this into a debate over free versus paid, as though those two things are unrelated. MediaStorm is in part successful because they employed the idea of free to leverage the web over some years, building a great portfolio and an engaged community around their work. We have to work with the open dynamic of the web, not against it, and Pay Per Story is consistent with that logic by focusing on particular kinds of projects.
Let’s hope it succeeds within those terms, and whatever its course, MediaStorm keeps us posted about what it learns from the experience as it goes along.