Editorial: Can iTunes-Style Download Charges Really Work In Online Journalism?


If you’d pay 79p for an iTunes music download, a further few quid for a digital movie rental, then why wouldn’t you pay for the privilege of expanding your mind with access to “independent, in-depth reporting about science and technology”, the journalistic equivalent of one-off downloads. Currently raising start-up funds through funding platform Kickstarter, the San Francisco-based project has so far seen $121,000-odd pledged to what its creators are calling “the new home for the best journalism about the future”.

Eager to dispel the attitude towards reporting on the web as “fast and cheap”, MATTER is dedicated to making sure that the “web is the future of journalism” and “synonymous with fearless, investigative and enthralling writing” that seems to have been left by the way-side by the fervent rumour-mill, tacky gossip sites and ad-laden, company-backed mainstream news sites. As the project's description puts its, MATTER is “an experiment to see if independent journalism, done right, can fill the gap left by mainstream media.”

Devised by award-winning writer Jim Giles (who has contributed to the likes of The Economist and New Scientist) and Bobbie Johnson (European editor at GigaOM), the immense passion and overzealous enthusiasm the two show for MATTER is plain and clear for all to see. And yet, ever since we heard (or indeed read) of the project, there's more than a nagging sense of over-ambition about the whole idea; from conceptual stages right the way up to its audience base.

While we can of course respect the need for independent journalism free of outsider influence; with the same kind of consistent, quality editorial standard maintained throughout the world's most high-profile and well-known rags and online publications, it's difficult to see exactly how monetisation of content would be received by the wider audience who already have access to the plentiful sources of editorialMATTER is brought to us by Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson and promotes the web as “the future or journalism”. content on the Internet available for free. Sure, news sites and news aggregators might favour the 'easy read' articles lambasted by MATTER's own statement of intent (“no cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists”) but the truth of the matter is there are plentiful respectable sources on the web for the same in-depth, well-researched, compelling articles that MATTER is promising - it's often just a case for looking for them.

At the same time, if the MATTER team sees a trend forming as to the types of articles most frequented (and in which case, become most profitable), will that not see the writers falling into the same trap of pandering to its audience, much like gossip sites and mainstream news sources do to rack up the page views in order to accumulate advertising revenue? MATTER's owners will certainly try to convince us all otherwise, but the point is still valid. Looking to charge “around 99 cents” per story (the same as your standard iTunes download), the project is if nothing else an experiment well worth keeping an eye on for what it might do to the way we access online content. Our opinion aside, the fact the team reached its goal of $50,000 in pledged funds in just 38 hours and have racked up over $121,000 since ought to indicate the belief behind it.

Sound like a great idea? Fund MATTER's development through Kickstarter here.