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The latest digital trend? Paying for free content

One of the adages of the news business is that doing journalism is like making sausages: a messy process involving sometimes dubious ingredients and plenty of blood, and it's probably best if the customer has no idea what they're actually eating.

But lately some of us have been making salads.

Let me explain. Earlier this week, The Globe's media reporter Steve Ladurantaye spent some of his vacation time to cost out the ingredients of a ready-made store-bought salad. As he wrote on his blog – spoiler alert – he found that hungry people are spending a lot of money for the luxury of not having to chop all of that lettuce for themselves.

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Which brings us to a discovery that some small online-only publishers have made recently: Yes, the Internet is an all-you-can-read buffet with no price tag on most of the stuff, but it turns out that people will happily pay for a nicely curated package of otherwise free stuff, especially if it looks nice and is easy to carry around. And as it becomes harder to support a business only by display advertising, with its ever-dropping value, publishers are urgently looking for other revenue streams.

So, now, fans of, the smart New York-based blog about pop culture and science who may not have time to keep up with the dozen or so posts on the site every day can buy The Weekend Companion. Published each Friday for $1.99, it brings together five great long-form pieces from the week in a slick ad-free digital magazine made for Apple devices. Annual subscriptions are available for $39.99.

"We know from the stats that people tend to use tablets and phones more on weekends, and also that people don't have a chance necessarily to indulge in long pieces of reading during the work week," said Choire Sicha, a co-founder of The Awl who, years ago, was the top editor at

Also, "there's a substantial minority of users we've talked to who dislike advertising, and actually would do anything to pay the publications they really like, to have an ad-free environment. Serving that constituency is super-important."

Since its launch earlier this year, more than 10,000 people have bought at least one issue of The Weekend Companion.

The web magazine, which covers Israel and Palestine, does something similar, issuing a $1.99 weekly collection of pieces that have already been published.

Both use the services of 29th Street Publishing, a Silicon Alley startup that a growing number of small publishers are raving about. Founded by David Jacobs, who previously founded the blogging technology firm Apperceptive (which was acquired by Six Apart), 29th Street is a lean operation of half a dozen editors and engineers – including the co-founder and chief technology officer Natalie Podrazik – operating in an old brick-and-beam building just off Broadway. With 29th Street's software, publishers can throw together an issue in about five minutes and upload it to the iTunes store. Apple takes its usual 30 per cent cut, 29th Street takes 15 per cent, and the publisher gets 55 per cent.

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Some publications are using the platform simply to offer a different experience, without asking for money. ProPublica, the not-for-profit investigative newsroom, puts out a monthly themed collection of its work: articles, data-driven pieces, and interactive graphs that are best consumed when readers have time to appreciate them, rather than in the short bursts that typify reading on the web.

And individual writers are using the software to reinvent a corner of publishing, echoing the early days of blogging. Maura Johnston, an editor and critic who helped found Gawker Media's music blog Idolator, and later served as The Village Voice's music editor, now publishes the weekly Maura Magazine, a quirky take on pop culture which retails for $1.99 an issue.

Mr. Jacobs says that a venture capitalist recently asked him why, after the success of his previous ventures, he chose to go into – of all possible things – the beleaguered publishing industry. He explained that he founded Apperceptive in 2006, when "the spirit of blogging was ascendant and we were sort of inventing this product that was going to take over the world. We felt we were working on things we loved, and we were making media the way we wanted it." But over the next few years, "the blog world became so ad-focused."

"We were just like, this isn't fun anymore," he said. "What really got us excited was working with writers."

29th Street Publishing, he said, is an attempt to get back to that. "We had this nostalgia for the early days of bloggers. Maura and Choire – it's sort of no coincidence that those guys are from that time."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More


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