Lessons from journalism startup Matter: Paywalls make growing readership difficult

When journalism startup Matter launched a year ago, it was one of the most highly-funded media projects on Kickstarter, having pulled in more than $140,000 in donations — almost three times what it initially set out to raise. As a result, there has been a lot of attention focused on the startup (which was co-founded by former Gigaom writer Bobbie Johnson), and in a recent update the company talked about some of what it has learned.

The number one lesson? Paywalls don’t work very well for a brand-new venture like Matter, which was focused on longform science-and-technology journalism published on a monthly basis. As Johnson described it in his post on Medium (which acquired Matter in April) “people have a low tolerance for barriers of any sort.” Matter recently removed its paywall and said it will also boost the frequency of the pieces it publishes and is working on a membership scheme.

Bobbie Johnson tweet

When it began, Matter had what most would describe as a “hard” paywall — in other words, you had to be a subscriber in order to read an article. Although it subsequently added features that allowed paying users to share articles with non-subscribers, this didn’t have much effect, Johnson says:

“We started out with a pretty straightforward pitch: there are lots of big, tough stories out there that need to be covered. That resonated with a significant number of people, but in the end, our efforts to build a readership were severely hampered by the paywall. Even when we introduced pretty radical sharing options… we saw surprisingly low pickup.”

Out of step with the rhythms of the web

Matter is the second new-media startup to be acquired and subsequently drop its paywall: NSFW Corp., which was founded by former TechCrunch writer Paul Carr and focused on longform investigative journalism, was just acquired by Pando Daily — a site founded by another former TechCrunch writer, Sarah Lacy — and its paywall has also disappeared.

Carr told me in an interview that the site got over 6,000 paying subscribers, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to sustain the business. Pando will keep the monthly print magazine that NSFW Corp. launched, however, which will be enlarged and become a quarterly.

Johnson said the paywall also reduced Matter’s visibility on the web, and hence its ability to attract new readers, because few places wanted to link to or syndicate content that was going to be behind a hard paywall. As he described it: “It turns out that other outlets — from major news outlets to solo expert bloggers, and everywhere in between — are pretty reticent to write about, syndicate, or even link to, paywalled material.”

On Twitter, Johnson also noted that the paywall reduced Matter’s ability to be part of the conversation — or made it “out of step with the rhythms of the web,” as he put it in his Medium post.

Bobbie Johnson tweet1

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni