Charging for free content: a conundrum

16 June  The article I refer to below has now been published: read it here.

15 June  Apologies in advance for revisiting such a well-worn topic among writers, but I'm just about to publish a free article and I've been thinking about if and how I should try to earn money from it.

The piece is a 1,400 word feature on Carcavelos, to be published on Shorthand Social. I spent two nights in Lisbon researching the region, tasting and taking photos and video. CVR Lisboa paid for the flights and hotel room, so it didn't cost me money, but I've spent approximately 30 hours in total to produce the article, and during that time I generated zero income.

So what are my options? I could have pitched the article to a magazine or website and perhaps earned around £500 (assuming somebody wanted it). However, I wanted to produce it in the specific format provided by Shorthand Social (here's a previous article I wrote), plus the style I've gone for doesn't naturally fit either a traditional trade or consumer audience.

Another option would be to sell advertising within the piece. I could charge a Carcavelos producer for a banner image, and link to a retailer or their website. Pay-per-click rates are variable, but this site suggests £1 per click is a premium rate. However, without the traffic of an existing media platform, the readership I'm likely to get for my article is never likely to result in many advert clickthroughs. Even more importantly, charging a Carcavelos producer to advertise would be completely hypocritical of the article's angle (in brief: they need all the help they can get).

A third method would to include a donate button, asking readers to pay a small sum (perhaps £1 again) if they enjoyed the piece. This is the model that feels most fair to me - but realistically, most readers are so accustomed to free online content that the sums this would generate would be negligible. 

I'm not complaining, incidentally - choosing to write this article without earning anything is entirely my prerogative. The advantage for me is to hopefully get good reader figures, perhaps drive some traffic to my blog and generally build up my reputation. But the bigger worry is how wine writers earn money in the longer term.

All of us do seminars, lectures, judging, consultation and so on (and I'm also hugely fortunate to have regular work through but unless wine writing itself figures out a revenue model that works for everyone (ie publisher, writer and reader) then it faces a future in which journalism gets supplanted by advertorial content and expertise becomes crowd-sourced. Not everyone thinks this is such a bad thing, incidentally - the Sediment blog recently wrote about the topic.

When I started writing about wine in 2008, the ultimate fantasy objective was to get a column in a national newspaper. Less than ten years later, that seems hugely naive - many of them have been axed, many only pay a pittance, and in today's reality it seems highly unlikely that the most prestigious columnists will be replaced by another wine writing specialist when they eventually retire or move on.

Well boo-hoo, poor us. I don't expect sympathy - but I do want to figure out if there's an alternative way to make wine writing pay.