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Jill Abramson wants to pay writers $100,000 for a feature. So why am I not excited?

When news started circulating last week that Jill Abramson, former executive editor at The New York Times, is partnering with Steven Brill to launch a start-up that will game-change journalism, twitter lit up with writers who couldn’t believe the kind of coin Abramson and Brill were promising: $100,000 for long-form features. Details about the unnamed venture were (and remain) both vague and vaunted, but here’s the summary, as described by Kelly McBride of Poynter:

“Writers will be paid advances around $100,000 to produce stories that will be longer than long magazine articles but shorter than books, she said. There will be ‘one perfect whale of a story’ each month and it will be available by subscription.”

The news got retweeted thousands of times. Friends and colleagues shared the news enthusiastically on Facebook.

I seemed to be the only person–at least in my orbit–with a dialed-down reaction.

A few thoughts and questions came to mind immediately:

-Abramson intimated that she and Brill “‘have had serious discussions with fewer than five and had serious interest from about 15’ potential investors.” It’s great that investors want to support exceptional journalism with their big bucks, but why funnel so much into this one pot? Rather than a $100,000 jackpot, I’d rather see investors fund an initiative to boost industry-wide compensation for professional journalists and writers. Almost without exception, we are paid terribly. Like teachers, we are told our work is valuable–indeed, essential–to civil society, but our salaries are far from reflecting that. Abramson’s and Brill’s start-up will fund just 12 writers per year. One million might be better applied for a greater financial good than this one.

-Many of the writers in my circle who were thrilled about Abramson’s announcement probably don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being published by her venture. That’s not because they’re not exceptional, skilled reporters. Many of them are. But I’m willing to bet the Abramson-Brill start-up will assign those “perfect whale[s] of a story” to writers who already have pretty high profiles and well-established platforms. And I’m willing to bet that most of those writers will be people who look a lot like Abramson and Brill. Like Tracie Powell of All Digitocracy, I’m hoping that the venture will include writers and journalists of color… and not just the ones who already have a reliable byline.

What is the sustainability of this venture? Sure, it’s great (especially if you’re a beneficiary) to fund writers and journalists through this start-up, but two years from now, will it still be in existence? Will it have grown to a point that it is not just sustainable, but profitable and mature enough for expansion? Pardon my skepticism, but literally every day, I see writers, journalists, and editors launch new projects, most without funding and hardly any without plans for long-term monetization. “We hope to pay able to pay writers” they say. But having worked for one of these start-ups that’s still in start-up mode seven years later, I’ve become a big advocate of coming up with the long-term funding plan first and the content plans second… or at least treating the long-term funding plan as a component that is equally important as the content. And projects that start with massive funding (looking at you, BuzzFeed) rarely seem to give a lot of thought to long-term planning.

What are your thoughts about the Abramson-Brill venture? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


4 responses »

  1. If Jill Abramson’s motive is philanthropic, I would agree with you, Julie. But I suspect not. She has a business plan that involves the elites (e.g. wealth and talent), typical of a capitalistic market. Having said that, it is not all bad. There may be some unintended consequences as results of her effort. You see when one waters the trees instead of the grass, the later gets secondary benefits.

  2. I’m really glad you wrote about this. Thank-you


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