The (New) Cost of Longform Journalism at Esquire

Would you pay $1.99 just to read one story?

That’s the question Esquire magazine is posing to readers as of late, testing out a “micropayment” model for writer Luke Dittrich’s 10,000-word piece “The Prophet,” based on Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who claims to have visited heaven.

Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger penned the following note for prospective buyers on the magazine’s site:

“This is the first time we’ve asked online readers to pay for a story, but for good reason: Because stories like Dittrich’s matter and they don’t come along often. Because great journalism—and the months that go into creating it—isn’t free. So, besides providing the story to readers of our print and digital-tablet versions of the August issue, we are offering it to online readers as a stand-alone purchase. Thank you. —DG”

Esquire’s parent company, Hearst, has seen some leadership changes this year, particularly on the digital front, and has shown some experimentation in the realm of online pay models and long-term digital revenue plans.

Yesterday it was announced that Mike Smith of Forbes (where he was chief digital officer) is moving to Hearst Magazines Digital Media to pioneer an all-new job, vice president of revenue platforms and operations.

“The Prophet” will serve as Esquire’s guinea pig, and from there, the Hearst title will either implement a more exclusive reader experience online or ditch the paywall idea, at least for now. So far, they say three to four percent of readers are purchasing the story. (I’ll probably do it, too, because I love long reads on my iPad, and because Alexander has generated a lot of notoriety hype).

Digiday’s Josh Sternberg says paywalls that only allow access to one piece, rather than a subscription, lose readers fast. Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel mulled the $2 purchase initially but said it was worth every penny, calling the piece an “entertaining, deeply reported story.”

With Esquire charging for individual stories now, what other Hearst titles will follow suit?

And, just for fun, what are the best longform pieces you’ve ever read? They have to be so well-reported and written you would pay at least $1.99 just to read. As a native Texan and former intern of her employer I may be biased, but mine is Pam Colloff’s 28,000 word, two-part story “The Innocent Man,” which narrates the story of Michael Morton, a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife. Colloff’s National Magazine Award-winning story is the longest item Texas Monthly has published in its 40-year run, and the magazine offered it completely free online. I’d say that given the acclaim it received nationwide, it really paid off for TM to give the piece away for free digitally.

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