The Future Of Enthusiasm
On 20 January 2012, The Enthusiast celebrated its third birthday, and it seems kind of incredible to us that we’ve managed to keep this site going for so long on our own resources.
We want to recognise and thank all the people who’ve helped us along the way. Chiefly: Our launch web developer Danny Bos and design studio Meanwhile; our relaunch developer Toby Pattullo of Tobstar; our advertising, marketing and SEO shaman Remi Carette of Populace Media; Mick James and Donna Morabito at Triple R, who fatefully let us have a summer radio show; Davis Clayton, who’s operated our panel with a dry, cool wit; and all our wonderful, patient contributors, the most prolific of whom have been Allison Browning, Melanie Sheridan, Tim Howard and Andrew Doyle.
We’re proud of the archive we’ve accumulated over the last three years, and we want to keep adding to it. But we simply aren’t in a position to continue running the site in its current form, with our current resources. So, where to take The Enthusiast from here?
While there seems to be a broad consensus that independent media outlets are valuable, we don’t think it’s helpful to try to ‘save’ our current format by making idealistic appeals to ‘quality journalism’ or tut-tutting about ‘tabloidisation’.
University of Canberra journalism academic Glen Fuller recently blogged about a fascinating journal article called ‘Goodbye to the News’, in which the University of Southern California’s Nikki Usher analyses the ‘goodbye’ texts produced by freshly out-of-work journalists.
As these journos describe the news values they hold dear and survey the turbulent industry they leave behind, Usher argues they’re being nostalgic, romanticising a past in which “traditional print journalism contributed to democratic discourse and public service – masking the reality, perhaps, that their work may have helped sustain and perpetuate power structures.”
They also believe those noble values are being threatened or eroded by short-sighted, profit-chasing management strategies. But Usher argues that journalists’ nostalgic attachment to legacy models means they struggle to envisage a future for themselves in a changing industry. Instead, they create what Usher calls an ‘interpretive community’ who bond over sharing their memories and fretting what will become of them.
As New York Times media reporter David Carr shrewdly noted in last year’s documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times of delegates at a journalism conference, “They’re sitting around the campfire saying, ‘We’re okay’.”
What we learned from our Reader Survey
Last October, we instituted a Reader Survey to help us plan our future more clearly. Our questions were geared towards understanding more about our readers, asking what they liked and disliked about The Enthusiast, and getting feedback on how we could evolve.
Our respondents mostly accessed our site through our e-newsletters, Twitter and Facebook. Your favourite categories were Ephemera, Television and The Media, and your favourite regular columns were The Biscuiteer (where debate continues to rage over the constitution of Iced VoVos), The Stupid Question and the Subeditorial Antics Appreciation Society.
When we asked what we could be doing differently, many kind souls said we were already doing fine. One respondent commented: “I love you guys. I really enjoy getting the weekly email as it reminds me to visit the site every week and check out what’s new. Keep up the good work!”
Another respondent added, “I love the mix of articles and great, funny writing. Much better than the usual email newsletters that simply link to other sites.”
However, a common theme for potential change was ‘more’:
- “More regular articles”
- “More focus on quirky media stories”
- “More contemporary (visual) art please. Be critical, be fun, be serious.”
- “Less reviews, more features”
- “…maybe a few more live (non-music) review/features about what’s on?”
- “Nothing, just more updates!!”
Then we went on to ask the big question: if we were to change our publishing format, which model would make our readers most likely to interact with us?
Just over half of you – 56.9 per cent – would prefer a free website that publishes fewer, more in-depth articles, while around a quarter – 25.5 per cent – preferred a ‘freemium’ model, with some content free and some requiring subscription. A podcast was the third most popular model, followed by a subscription-only e-newsletter.
Fairly unpopular options were a subscription-only website, a website that publishes crowdfunded articles and a partnership with another website.
Some respondents had additional suggestions and comments:
- “A ‘freemium’ model with a pay-what-you-like for subbed articles.”
- “I am way poor.”
- “Not more in-depth articles – already there are some tl;dr ones”
- “Couldn’t select two options but podcasts would be good too”
- “As much as I think you deserve to be paid for it, I’m so overwhelmed by content on the internet that it’s hard to justify paying for it. I’d possibly participate in cross-promotion things (i.e. Buy something from X website, $Y will be paid to the site.) Also maybe some snappy merch?”
(On that last matter, over the years we have received quite a few enquiries about our Enthusiast logo coffee mugs, which Andrew had made as launch presents to ourselves.)
Then came our biggest reality check. Our final question asked respondents to put a dollar figure on the maximum amount of money they would consider paying, per year, for an Enthusiast subscription.
The most popular answer was $30. The next most popular answer was nothing.
We made a particular effort in phrasing this question to emphasise how an Enthusiast subscription might fit into someone’s daily expenses. For example, we equated a $10 subscription to the cost of a large pizza; $20 to a movie ticket; $30 to a paperback book and $50 to the cost of buying one coffee a month for a year.
It was disheartening at first to see in black and white just how reticent people are to pay for stuff they enjoy on the internet.
But, hey, we don’t want to be David Carr’s journalists, muttering into the campfire. This is simply the way the industry is moving. Popular culture is now overwhelmingly available for free through streams, torrents, downloads and other technologies, and audiences actively collude to circumvent paywalls and geoblocking.
A recent KPMG Consumers and Convergence report showed that a staggering 91 per cent of Australians said they wouldn’t be willing to pay for online content, compared to 73 per cent of audiences in 30 other countries.
Criticism has also become less valued as blogs and social networks have turned everyone into critics, while the stories people want to share with their peers are not necessarily the most insightful or best written, but rather the ones that most provoke fleeting snickers of schadenfreude and ripples of outrage. As Julian Morrow acutely observed back in 2009, this has become the true currency of media. Why else would there be a new award for “integrity and wit in literary journalism” called Hatchet Job of the Year?
Another way to look at The Enthusiast is the way people in the arts industry often do – as a ‘project’. Here, I’m not talking about the big, lumbering, grants-dependent arts organisations, but the energetic, innovative, independent end of the industry where things are done out of love. That is, participants believe strongly in the intrinsic cultural value of a project and donate their time to it rather than getting paid.
But we disagree strongly with the sentiment that’s rife in the arts industry: that if you love doing something, you should be happy doing it for free. Of course we love The Enthusiast, but since our readers have told us that they’re not willing to pay us for what we’re currently doing or to follow us to a more commercially attractive publishing model, we need to do something else.
So, how will the site change?
We’ve really been enjoying doing the Radio Hour and offering it to you as podcasts, and podcasting was a popular alternative publishing model in our Reader Survey. So, what we envisage doing in 2012 is publishing a weekly podcast, quite similar in tone to the Radio Hour. We’ll be taking a well-earned break and then starting the new podcast around June.
But we’ll keep publishing other stuff. We’ll publish news stories too timely to make each week’s podcast, plus selected in-depth reviews and features, since that was the most popular model in our Reader Survey. But we don’t anticipate producing a constant stream of articles; they’ll now be bonuses over and above our podcast.
Since our Reader Survey also revealed that we could simplify our e-newsletter, the other thing we plan to do in 2012 is to discontinue our Friday grab-bag of links, The Red Pill. We still think it’s fun to read, but it’s simply too time-intensive to produce, especially considering it’s only a peripheral part of what we do. Instead we’re putting our Tuesday e-newsletter, The E-Reader, in a wind tunnel. It’ll emerge sleeker and more streamlined when it next hits your inboxes.
We want to stay Enthusiastic, and with these changes, we hope to stay a part of the independent publishing scene for three more years… and beyond!
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