The journalism project Contributoria has announced that it has published its last issue this month. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the site would close, but the pace of the closure did catch me off guard.
I’ve written for the site several times as I was interested in the mechanics of its crowdfunding model. Contributoria was both a crowdfunding platform and a web and print magazine. Articles were commissioned based on the distribution of ‘points’ by Contributoria members, and those members could engage with writers during the drafting of articles. These factors were supposed to generate an online community of writers and patrons. Writers were then paid in cold hard cash, by Guardian Media Group.
The closure was not surprising because as far as we writers could see the cost of our fees wasn’t offset by any of the site’s commercial activities. Certainly the readers weren’t paying (the site ran a freemium model, with some paid subscriptions available for a modest monthly fee) and the secondary market for the content we were writing only benefited us (we were encouraged to resell our work, but GMG didn’t want a cut). It did seem that there were some commercial partnerships which may have brought in income — a few issues were sponsored, but mostly by cause based organisations who wouldn’t be spending a huge amount (I guess). So it always felt that the site was on the chopping block.
When the axe fell, it fell fast. The usual cycle on Contributoria runs from the first to last of the month. In month 1 you have to get enough support for a pitch to be commissioned, in month 2 you have to write and deliver your copy which is then published on the first day of month 3. In every month pitches are being backed to be commissioned the month after, and articles are being written to be published the month after that. That’s how it all ran until the closure announcement.
Writers who got their work during the August backing window have been told they are getting a kill fee for their work. There will be know October 1st issue. Premium members are getting their subs back too.
It’s fair on the writers who worked hard to get their work backed, but it is a rather brutal way to go out.
We can only guess at what the abrupt closure means. My best guess is that the running costs that we members and writers couldn’t see, (for sub-editors, legal advisors, and the cost of the vanity press printed edition) were so high that when they decided enough was enough the cheapest way out was to just burn it all down. I might find out next week — Sarah Hartley, one of the key staff at Contributoria, is due to give a presentation on new ways of funding journalism at What Next for Community Media in Cardiff.
Contributoria has always had a rather breathless and excitable corporate voice when it comes to describing the project of crowdfunding new writing and so it’s not surprising to hear it construct its death as a transition into “an archive”. As I’m wary of web sunsets I’ll begin collecting the pieces I wrote and publishing them on here, along with some explanatory notes. I’m quite proud of some of the pieces that I produced and want to preserve them a while longer but also there are one or two pieces that have interesting stories to tell about the crowdfunding process and I’d like to share those so the lessons aren’t lost.