illustration: ed tucker

Why we made Bad Blood free

The people and the paywall.

Bobbie Johnson
Aug 28, 2013 · 3 min read

Last week, we asked our Editorial Board a question: Which MATTER story should we release for free?

Usually our long form journalism costs money to read — a 99c monthly subscription gets you one of our stories, which average out at 7,500 words, as well as a panoply of other services. Why do we charge? Well, we’ve never been wedded to paywalls, but we do know that it is important to find ways to get deep, expensive journalism to pay for itself: one reason we began back in 2012 with a Kickstarter campaign.

Anyway, the tension around paywalls is pretty clear — you get the possibility of revenue, but you lose visibility.

Some people have leaky walls or viewing caps, but since we publish a small number of stories, that isn’t really a fit for us. Instead, we’ve added a series of tools, such as our sharing options, as we try to solve this conundrum.

Another, simpler way to avoid the problem: to not be behind a paywall at all.

We’ve already tried this experiment before, when we decided to release our launch piece, Do No Harm, for free earlier this year. We knew it was a great read (it subsequently won a major award) and we wanted to share it with people as widely as possible. Making it free to read has turned the piece into a strong ambassador for our journalism.

So what if we did it again? What could we learn this time?

Every MATTER subscriber, and most of our Kickstarter supporters, gets a seat on our Editorial Board — a kind of crowdsourced decision-making group. We’ve already asked the board for story ideas, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to get readers involved in our decisions.

So we emailed board members to see what they thought we should do, and while not all of them voted, this is what MATTER’s readers said.

That bottom left quadrant presents a narrow but convincing victory for Bad Blood, a riveting piece on the life and death of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. The story details how Litvinenko fled Russia to escape Vladimir Putin and political corruption, ended up being targeted in a complex murder plot, and looks at how science has now identify his killers.

Written by Will Storr and edited by Deborah Blum, it’s personally one of my favourite MATTER pieces — and so I was glad to see it hit the top.

And what’s been the impact? We’ll check back in when we have some clear data.

In the meantime, anyone can now read Bad Blood for free. Why not give it a go?

    Bobbie Johnson

    Written by

    Causing trouble since 1978. Former lives at Medium, Matter, the Guardian.