As is always the case, I was pleased to receive an email from my good friend and journalist SA Mathieson last week. SA, who I worked with at The Guardian and who now works for EHI Intelligence as an analyst, often has interesting things to say about journalism and we occasionally talk about the industry over a pint or two.

His email was letting me know that he had signed up to Beacon, a US based site where readers can pay a nominal fee to fund and read writers they like. His series, called The Ends of Britain would focus on the big choices that Britain faced, including Scottish independence, whether to leave the EU and HS2, and the implications of them. I liked the idea of someone looking at those decisions holistically and so I backed for just over £3 a month.

I was intrigued about his choice of topic, the medium of crowdsourcing the funds and the process of essentially pitching to the whole of the web and he kindly answered a few of those questions for me.

- how did you find out about Beacon and what attracted you to it?

I saw Beacon mentioned on a blog, but I’d been thinking about how to ask people to fund journalism directly, on an ongoing basis, for a while. It felt like a big ask to charge for my own website, but with Beacon, subscribers pay one writer and get access to more than 60, so there’s plenty to read. Also, Beacon handles the administration, has a nice clean design and has supported me with the marketing.

- why did you come up for the idea for Ends of Britain?

It pulls together most of what I write about, which mostly concerns the workings of Britain’s government and state sector. Beacon is US-based and didn’t have anyone writing about Britain, so I pitched the idea that I would work as a foreign correspondent covering my own country, but with a strong theme – and the fact that Britain might soon cease to exist in its current form felt pretty interesting. I’ve already written a fair bit about Scottish independence, and decided to link the referendum with other big decisions which will define Britain’s future – whether to leave the European Union, build high-speed rail and airport runways, encourage or reduce immigration. It does feel like Britain is trying to work out what sort of country it wants to be at the moment.

– how did you feel essentially pitching to everyone in the web? What did you think about in that process?

Apart from realising how difficult it is to deliver a piece to camera without an autocue… I enjoyed it. I think there are interesting stories on Britain that either aren’t being told, or could be told more interestingly, so I focused on getting that across. Beacon is a US-based site with great international coverage – it even has contributions from North Korea – so I tried to aim at both Americans (or indeed anyone outside the UK) interested in what is happening to this country, and also internationally-minded Britons.

– why do it this way rather than pitching it to a magazine as a series of features? Do you not want more people to read what you write?

This project would be a tough sell. Freelancers are usually commissioned to write individual articles rather than a series – it makes more sense to get staff to write regular material. And I’m best-known for writing about specific topics such as healthcare and IT, rather than something broader.

Also, in many ways I would rather have relatively few committed readers, who have a stake through paying for access and who will therefore tell me what they think and want, than lots of casual, anonymous ones.

- what’s your schedule for publishing these pieces and how do you intend to stick to it?

I plan to publish an article every Friday. I am used to writing something weekly for my blog and have got used to planning ahead so I always have material in hand. The fact that people have stumped up real money to read what I write – including family and friends – provides a fairly strong incentive: I’ve said I’ll do it if we get to the target, so I had better deliver.

- where are you planning to go and why do you choose those places?

I’m planning to visit places about which I can write something original, and which tell a story about Britain. Some will be well-known locations where I think I can provide a fresh angle – Stratford-upon-Avon is high on the list – and some will be little-known. Not every article will be about a specific place, but I’ve found that the journalism I most enjoy writing and of which I am most proud usually involves me getting out of the office.

– you’ve created and published an ebook – what is it you like about self publishing? And what are the downsides?

The great thing about self-publishing is that your readers are your clients – the relationship is a direct one, and it leads to much more interaction than writing for a publication. Writing and publishing Card declined,  on the story of Britain and ID cards, led to some great email conversations and an evening discussing the issue with 40 digital rights activists crammed into the upstairs room of pub.

It also means you can write about what you’re passionate about, rather than what you can get commissioned. Sometimes these overlap – I’m fortunate to know great editors who love to commission a good story – but I always have more ideas than I can possibly sell.

The downside is, of course, that you don’t know how much money you will make from a project, if anything. That makes self-publishing a good thing to do alongside more steady work, which is what I do.

- as someone who has been a freelancer in the past, how useful is beacon as a way of supplementing (often unreliable) income via traditional publications?

Beacon should work as a source of steady income, in that each month it passes on the great majority of the subscription income that’s come in through that writer. Initially it’s not going to be a lot of money for the work involved, although I hope to have a lot of fun with it, but it will be dependable – and it’s up to me to develop the number of subscribers.

– in your beacon blurb, you put that backers would get exclusive interactions in beacon discussions – what’s your thinking behind that? Why is it a selling point?

It’s useful both ways, hopefully. It’s good to be able to ask questions after hearing something – Q&As are often the best parts of conference sessions. And that goes for the speaker, or the writer, as well, as it provides a good idea of what was interesting. Andrew Sullivan recently described his blog The Dish, which has raised around $850,000 in subscriptions in the last year, as an “ongoing conversation”, and that seems like something to aspire to.

Also, as far as I’m concerned, my backers are my clients on this project – they are deserve decent customer service.

Fundraising for The Ends of Britain project ends at midnight on Monday 20 January. You can back it for either $5 a month (about £3.10, which can be cancelled at any time) or for a one-off payment, starting from $15. It needs 9 backers to reach the 25 it requires to go ahead.

 

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  1. [...] more explanation of my plans in previous posts on this site, here and here. I also provided some answers to questions from my old friend Ben Whitelaw last week. One answer, which he pulled out in a headline, sums up why this project excites [...]