Post-Journal Journalism (Part 1)
Deca’s independent experiment in global reporting
Deca is a new model for what self-publishing can offer established writers. In their own words “Deca is a global journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices.” The group of nine will put out a long-form (20,000 words or so) story every month via Kindle and an app, with proceeds distributed among the whole group.
They’re coming off the back of a Kickstarter which met a $15,000 target in less than a week. Their first story has been sitting high on the Kindle singles chart since release. It’s starting to look like this might actually work.
We interviewed Marc Herman, one of the founding members of Deca. Our conversation with Marc ran pretty long, too long for a single post. Despite valiant attempts at editing, there was too much great stuff to justify cutting. Instead, we’ll be posting favourite excerpts throughout the week, with Marc talking us through Deca’s origins, the long-term goals for the project, and how they’re going to pull it off.
In this first part Marc talks about the transition from established magazines, with all the resources you’d expect that to entail, to a place somewhere between freelancing and publishing, and how far sensible budgeting can take you working on independent international journalism.
What seemed like it would be the biggest change in moving to a self-published model? Do you still have to pitch stories to one another?
I guess the element of pitching stories is changed. I’m not sure if it’ll be easier or harder, I just feel like it’ll be better.
Very early on we gave up idea of figuring out what readers would like because that seems like an inexact science. Anyway, we’re all working in an area that’s kind of a niche thing, at least in the anglophone press — things in the international realm are not the easiest to sell in the first place.
To pitch something in New York is reaching ridiculous levels of needle-threading at this point. The number of titles is very very small and the number of pitches available in those titles is also very small. If you go to the digital side the budgets are so small that you can’t actually realistically expect to do a story for what’s being paid. That’s a generalisation, but if I were to pitch them something, they would be offering from nothing to maybe four or five hundred dollars with no expenses. You can’t realistically pitch things to digital titles. Then on the print side it’s such a small number of editors who have the budget to listen to these kind of pitches.
I don’t want to say there are no other options, because there are, but it’s hard to look three, four, or five years in the future and think those options are going to be greater.
It seems like a necessary consequence of a change in the way journalism operates. Budgets shrink when there’s less money to throw around.
I’m not sure those budgets are necessary. I’ve been doing this for quite a while on a freelancer’s budget. When I hear that some magazine dropped, you know, $50,000 or $80,000 on a story, I’m sure it’s a fantastic story but I do kind of wonder where that money went.
We’ve all done dignified work for large titles, and we’ve done it for four figures with expenses, so I question whether those institutions are as efficient as they could be, and maybe we could be a little bit more so. I mean, we have very low overhead — if you’re in a forty-story building in midtown Manhattan, your overhead is significantly higher.
Is $50-80,000 a ballpark for how much a magazine might invest in this sort of story?
I don’t think that’s necessarily common. If you’re talking about photography and all the rest of it, it gets pretty expensive pretty fast, but I honestly don’t know where all that money goes. I know the expense reports that I tend to file for magazine work aren’t close to as high as what I could conceivably be asking for from a lot of these titles.
I think that in the past there were bureaus and staff writers and these kinds of things, so they would have fixed expenses. Once it became more of a freelancing system, because they laid everybody off, they started devoting more money to those budgets. But I still don’t get it. They still put people up in pretty nice hotels, and they do all of these things that are probably not terribly necessary in an industry that’s contracting so much. But again, that’s not our problem with them.
Do you feel like if you had more money you’d be able to do more? What makes the difference between a $15,000 story and a $50,000 one? Where does the money go?
Plane tickets and translators are the things that cost money, typically. If you want to fly somewhere obscure and far away, it’s going to cost money. And if when you get there the language is not a language that someone from outside the region typically speaks, that’s going to cost you $100 a day. If you stay somewhere for a month, that starts looking like real money.
If you’ve spent $3,000 on a fixer and you presumably have to sleep somewhere, and you presumably have to transport yourself around the place, and you have to get there and back, maybe that costs $1,000 or $2,000 — that adds up. Suddenly it’s five, six, seven, eight, ten. What it isn’t is twenty, thirty, fifty, sixty. I think that probably comes from things like art — if you’re sending a photographer along, take all of those expenses and double them. You’re adding a $1,000-a-day professional photographer, and that person has to sleep somewhere too, and that person also needs to get on an airplane to get to and from the place… So we’re not doing that.
Will our budgets get more expensive over time? I don’t necessarily think so. We’re not cutting corners, we’re just not blowing out budgets with crazy expenditures. We already live where we’re writing about. Mara flew to Canada and back from her home in Shanghai to do the reporting on the Canadian side of the story, but she also speaks Chinese. I know she hired a couple of researchers, but again she was hiring in China — I don’t know what she paid for that but I suspect it wasn’t as much as you would see in the US or Europe. I know that working in Spain my expenses are lower than when I lived in California. So, you know, the old bureau system actually works — there was a reason that they had people stationed in places. They would learn languages and do things way more efficiently and cheaply because you know your way around.
Why did the bureau model fall apart? Was it a question of expense, falling budgets?
Everybody seems to have a different opinion about what happened precisely in the 90's to put us in this situation. It does seem like a lot of the technological advances that we’re blaming for the downsize of the media right now are actually making a lot of what we’re doing possible and a lot less expensive. We do editing online with each other from different continents, and it’s really easy. That wasn’t possible ten years ago. That kind of stuff isn’t a barrier anymore.
What I imagine happened with the downfall of a lot of these places which had to call back their correspondents and cut their budgets was nothing to do with technology. They all went public and had to compete on Wall Street. It’s very hard for the news business or books or any kind of product like that to compete with every other business activity in the world for some investment banker who really just wants everything to go up by 1% every quarter. I don’t think there was anything in the media world that caused these changes, it was just straight dollars and cents — they needed to cut somewhere, the Cold War was over, history had ended so they said ‘OK, I guess we don’t need anybody in Cairo anymore.’ *laughs* Joke’s on us!
This was part one of our interview with Marc. Keep going with part two.