It’s tough being a freelance journalist. Commissions can be few and far between, rates are dropping across the industry, and even when you do secure a paying client, some news organisations are notorious for taking yonks to pay up. Editors hope the piece they’ve commissioned will strike enough of a chord with readers to justify the cost, but if the piece goes viral, the freelancer doesn’t get paid more. In exchange for the freedom to choose their own assignments, freelancers bear most of the risk in the transaction, with little of the reward.

Beacon offers a novel new way to pay the bills — and for all the reasons above, it’s particularly attractive to freelancers. The platform, which launched in August last year, allows individuals to pay $5 a month to support the work of a particular journalist, who’ll then post exclusive articles to Beacon. Supporters also get access to articles written by all the other journalists who use Beacon to fund and spread their work. Most (70%) funds go to the particular journalist the subscriber wants to support; the rest go into a shared pool, to be distributed to journalists on Beacon whose articles are the most read for that month.

Theoretically, this could free up freelancers from relying on publications to propagate their work, as they can go directly to readers interested in their pet subjects.

Former AAP and Eureka Report journalist Rachel Williamson, now a freelancer, is giving the site a go. She wants 60 subscribers to commit to recurring funding of $5 a month to fund her living costs and security in Somaliland, where she wants to investigate how the region’s new-found oil wealth is affecting its independence movement.

Speaking to Crikey from her current base in Egypt’s capital, where she moved with her partner several months ago, she says she’s not going to rely only on Beacon for her wage.

“I’m a freelancer, so everything I do relies on getting a payoff afterwards whenever my clients decide to pay,” she said. “I work in business news, so my clients tend to be prompt. But it’s always after the fact. By doing it through Beacon, I get a lump sum from subscribers to them go and produce stories for them. It makes it much easier to go places. I can go there and write interesting vignettes and stories about what’s going on for Beacon. I can then also produce targeted stories for my regular clients.”

But Beacon also poses new challenges for journalists. Williamson has never worked in sales; hustling for subscriptions isn’t something she’s done before. Ingeniously, perhaps, Beacon‘s three founders have outsourced the responsibility for both content and subscriptions to the journalists. It gives them a far more direct stake in their own success than has ever been the case, but the model also asks them to take a more holistic view of their reporting.

“I don’t enjoy the sales side so much, but on the other hand, this gives me a really personal relationship with my readers,” Williamson said.

She says the site attracts like-minded freelancers. “Most of the people doing the projects are young journalists,” she said. “Most have, like me, only ever worked in digital and online. So they’re people who’ve never had the luxury of concentrating just on their stories while leaving the marketing and commercial side entirely to others.”

This is a cheaper way to produce journalism, and Beacon doesn’t employ editors or proof-readers. A journalist’s success is, in every way, his or her own. With such low overheads, Beacon‘s reporters don’t need a huge number of subscribers to find the platform financially attractive.

Will it work?

Like Netflix or Spotify, Beacon relies on an all-you-can-eat model, where subscribers gain access not just to their favourite journalists, but all journalists on the site, of which there were about 70 last month. The more journalists using the platform, the better for subscribers. The site has secured some high-profile adherents, including award-winning American journalist Shaun Bauer, who was imprisoned for in Iran for two years. He wants $75,000 a year to write about America’s prison system from the eyes of a former prisoner.

But Beacon is young and far from alone in its attempts to create a market for reader-pays journalism. In America, Patreon allows users to set a fee they’ll pay a content creator for every piece of content released. Gittip has a different model, but a similar goal — allowing people who appreciate content creators (whether they be bloggers, musicians, journalists or cartoonists) to pledge a monthly amount to support that artist’s work. And in Australia, the Public Interest Journalism Foundation in 2011 tried YouCommNews, which allowed people to pay to commission a work of journalism. That model didn’t work, and the foundation is now looking at working more closely with established publishers, with a similar concept (letting users commission content), to ensure a broader audience.

As the foundation’s vice-president Bronwen Clune told Crikey: “We still believe there’s a lot to explore when it comes to crowdfunding journalism and that there is a model in there somewhere.”

Williamson is hopeful Beacon has hit upon that model. “I think it’ll work simply because the people who write for it are relying on personal connections to get subscribers, or on tapping people who are really interested in subject,” she said.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey