Digital media is a tough business—as the graveyard of failed news websites over the last decade will attest.
Facebook and Google hoover up 90% of every ad dollar, leaving everyone else to fight over the scraps. That’s especially hard on small and local news organizations, which often struggle to develop business models that remain financially viable over the long haul.
Earlier this week, Automattic—the parent company of WordPress.com—tossed these news sites a possible lifeline: a new “advanced open-source publishing and revenue-generating platform,” designed to assist small- and medium-sized news organizations called Newspack. In other words: here is actually a way for small pubs to make money.
The project offers a kind of Swiss Army knife of revenue-generating possibilities, all turn-key and part of a content-management system, which is of course WordPress’s stock and trade. The system will allow publishers to monetize via subscriptions, advertising, and even blockchain.
Here’s how it works: Newspack will function as a distinct WordPress-based platform (which should be easy enough for any website currently running WordPress to deploy) and come built-in with a suite of tools to help news organizations make money. How each website makes use of these tools will depend, but Automattic is open to exploring all options and is taking a bold leap into the world of decentralized technologies by including blockchain features right out of the box.
Every website that uses Newspack will be integrated with the blockchain-based journalism network Civil. Matt Coolidge, Civil’s cofounder, tells Decrypt that the “Civil Publisher” tool will appear as a “native plugin on the toolbar” on Newspack, which will enable these news organizations to do two things: permanently archive their content to either the Ethereum blockchain or IPFS network; and—if they choose—apply to join the Civil Registry and opt to use the CVL token as a potential monetization strategy.
Use of Civil will be completely optional, but it gives prospective Newspack websites yet another tool at their disposal to grow their readership, generate revenue and survive in an ultra-competitive industry.
“It’s still early in the process, but we do expect to work closely with the Civil team on this and will be looking for integration opportunities,” says Mark Armstrong, Automattic’s editor and founder of Longreads. “The WordPress-based platform will be flexible in a way that lets us work with individual news organizations in this pilot program to integrate services (whether that’s with subscription and ecommerce, advertising, or blockchain) that make the most sense for their business and editorial needs,” he says.
For now, it’s all being paid for through initial funding by the Google News Initiative, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the Knight Foundation, and blockchain incubator ConsenSys (which also funds Civil and Decrypt).
Coolidge considers Civil’s integration with Newspack to be a significant move toward broader adoption and growth of the Civil Registry. “This is a major step forward for Civil, as this native integration is going to introduce our approach to exponentially more newsrooms in the short run,” he says.
“It's intentionally designed to be a mutually inclusive process, and all aimed at giving newsrooms—especially those smaller [and] medium-sized newsrooms that can't afford their own custom CMS—opportunities to experiment with new sustainability and reader engagement strategies.”
Automattic is currently accepting applications from media organizations who wish to become “charter participants” in the new platform—expected to launch by the end of July. Applications are due before midnight on February 1, according to the Newspack website—which provides an extensive list of requirements for prospective news sites, including original content from either a distinct geographic region or subject area of coverage, as well as the ability to “articulate a clear editorial and business approach to the development and growth of their site.”
The pilot newsrooms will be granted access to “technology and support that lets news organizations build their businesses,” according to a statement from Automattic. In other words, newsrooms will be able to focus their efforts on the actual journalism, while Automattic provides operational and business support.
But it isn’t charity either—at least, not for long. Those accepted for the pilot program will be granted access to the Newspack platform at no monetary cost until January 2020. After that, newsrooms will be expected to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 per month for the service—presumably with the expectation that these news sites will be generating enough revenue to cover operating costs by the end of the six-month pilot.
Coolidge says he expects Newspack to become available to any and all news organizations once the beta project concludes and sees Civil’s partnership with the platform as a natural fit. “We share a commitment to helping independent publishers experiment with new approaches to sustainability and reader engagement at a time where something—anything—is desperately needed.”