If Nautilus is so good, why is it doing so bad?

From UndarkAward-winning Nautilus enters rough waters

For all the good news and accolades, however, murmurings within the science writing community suggest that not all is well at Nautilus. Rumors of delayed or entirely absent payments to the magazine’s fleet of freelance contributors have reached a crescendo, as have complaints that editorial staff continue to solicit work knowing that the publication may not be able to make good on promised fees. One Nautilus freelancer, who asked to remain anonymous because thousands of dollars in fees are still pending, received a note a few months ago directly from the magazine’s publisher and editorial director, John Steele, offering assurances that the funds — which were for a feature that the magazine published last year — would be on their way by the end of January. That deadline came and went without payment, the freelancer said, and follow-up emails to Nautilus have not changed things.

How translatable are Nautilus‘s troubles to the theatre of Indian journalism? By itself, Nautilus is one of the best science magazines out there. While many have gushed about its awesome content, I like their pieces best when they stick to the science. When they wander into culture and philosophy, I find they lack the kind of depth common to writing published by 3 Quarks Daily, The Baffler and Jacobin. Its illustrations however are undeniably wonderful. Multiple reports have suggested that Nautilus’s online traffic is booming and that its print editions have been well-received. So what happened?

In some ways, Nautilus‘s origins are reminiscent of The Wire‘s. The former’s launch was enabled by a $5 million grant (over three years) from the Templeton foundation. The latter launched on its own steam –  with $10,000 (Rs 6 lakh) and bucketloads of goodwill – but a $600,000 grant (i.e. Rs 3.95 crore, over one year) from the Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF) in its second year has allowed it to scale up considerably.

While grants to media start-ups are definitely awesome, they are likely to be accompanied by expectations of growth that the grant alone won’t be able to ensure. In such cases, a majority of the grant can’t be used to fuel growth as much as to keep the company alive long enough for it to conceive and implement an alternate business model that will then fuel growth. If the Templeton foundation set such targets for Nautilus, then I suspect the magazine screwed up here somewhere.

Second: by Undark‘s own estimates, Nautilus has burned through over $10 million in three years. That’s a lot of money and it makes me wonder if it took on too much too soon. Again, I don’t know how far off the mark I am here because I don’t know what the agreement between Nautilus and Templeton was. But if it had anything to do with Nautilus being unable to sustain growth, I wouldn’t be surprised. While the magazine comes across as a great idea, some things are possible only beyond a certain scale. For example, it’s possible that Nautilus would be better off if it had 140,000 people paying it $15 a month to read the print editions; that’s $2.1 million a year. And the profits can be maximised – and reinvested to solicit more, better writing – if, for the first one or two years, they cut back on the illustrations. It’s always more important to pay for what you’ve used*. It helps build long-lasting relationships.

The cutting-down-on-illustrations bit wouldn’t be so bad because, as we’ve learnt from The Wire, if the writing is good and the reporting and analysis substantial, a publication will do well even without bells and whistles. But if the writing lacks depth, then no amount of tinkering with anything else on the site will help. I agree that Nautilus was going for something more than what most science writing outlets had to offer, but my sense is that the magazine wanted to offer more from day one when it might not have been possible.

Additionally, staying above water for long enough to have a sustainable, over-the-horizon business model of your liking has another important implication: independence.

I’m not privy to the grant agreement between Templeton and Nautilus. The one between The Wire and IPSMF does not contain any requirement, specification or clause that prevents The Wire from publishing anything that it deems appropriate. On the other hand, notwithstanding the terms of Nautilus‘s relationship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is apparently in talks to ‘absorb’ the magazine, the magazine has not found a way to become completely independent yet. To be sure, it’s not that Nautilus and AAAS won’t get along, or that Nautilus‘s content will become untrustworthy, but that nothing beats a journalistic publication being fully independent. To perfectly comprehend the benefits of this model, I recommend reading the story of De Correspondent.

This is also The Wire‘s aspiration: not paywalls as much as a reader-contributes model in which we produce what our readers allow us to and trust us to.

What De Correspondent‘s trajectory highlights is the development of a way to more efficiently translate emotional appreciation to material appreciation. Evidently, De Correspondent‘s model requires its readers to have a measure of trust in its production sense, ethics and values. If its readers paid $X, then $X worth of content will be produced (assuming overheads don’t increase as a consequence); if its readers paid $2X, then it will scale up accordingly. And it is this trust that Nautilus could have built if it had gone slower in the first few years and then bloomed. But with AAAS, or anyone else, acquiring Nautilus, and there being no word of the magazine planning to do things differently, it’s either going to be more of the same or it expects to secure a large funding boost.

And it is for all these reasons that I can connect with Paul Raeburn’s comment on the Undark article:

Nautilus has burned through … some $10 million in foundation grants in five years. But that’s just the foundation funding. Nautilus is also, in effect, being subsidized by writers and illustrators who work for it without pay. We can only guess, but it seems likely that the pay that never went to contributors amounts to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies for Nautilus. It’s time we recognized that many online publications – Undark not among them – are being subsidized by writers. And we should stop subsidizing them.

(Paul Raeburn and Charlie Petit founded the erstwhile Knight Science Journalism Tracker, now subsumed by Undark. Also, and of no relevance whatsoever, Petit once quoted my blog on the pages of KSJT.)

Such persistent subsidies will only postpone the finding of a good solution or the meeting of a tragic end, neither of which is good for anyone publishing stories worth reading. At the same time, writers should be understanding of the fact that independent media initiatives are in their infancy – on top of operating in a region with its own economic and professional troubles (I can’t emphasise this enough). This doesn’t mean they should be okay with not being paid; on the contrary. They should expect to be paid for all services provided but they should expect reasonable amounts. One freelancer I’d once sounded out for a story asked for $1 a word. This might be okay in the US and in the UK/Europe, but Rs 64 a word in India has no bearing to ground realities. Of course, I do laud the freelancer for having been able to secure such rates in the past (in other countries) as well as for valuing his own work so highly.

The Wire publishes about 300 original articles a month (excluding in-house content). The average length of each article is around 1,500 words. Some of our contributors write for us pro bono because they recognise the value of what we are trying to do and our constraints – and because the response they receive is gratifying. But assuming we had to pay for everything we ran, this means commissioning costs Rs 22.5 lakh a month if we pay Rs 5 a word and Rs 90 lakh a month if we pay Rs 20 a word. Excluding these numbers, The Wire needs X readers to pay Rs Y each a year to cover its running costs (with X estimated as conservatively and Y as liberally as possible). Including these numbers, The Wire will need 1.45X to 42X readers (for Rs 5 to Rs 20 a word) to pay Rs Y each a year. Now, IPSMF + donations from readers has allowed us to expand our audience to up to about 8.5X. But do you see how far afield we will have to go to be able to pay Rs 20 a word and break even (let alone turn a profit)?

In fact, not just us: this applies to all news publishers in India considering a reader-pays model, whether the start-up funds come from philanthropy or angel investors. This is the essential conflict that manifests itself in different garbs, forcing publishers to display crappy advertisements and/or publish ‘trending’ dumpsterfire. As the search for the holy grail of sustainable, high-quality journalism continues, the bottom line seems to be: Pay better, get better in return.

*Except when writers insist on waiving the fees because they can afford to.