Paying for the news: A link-a-thon

by Mathew on February 10, 2009 · 24 comments

If you’re not interested in the debate over micropayments and whether that will help save the newspaper industry, you’re probably not going to be interested in this post. If you are interested — as I am — you can find plenty of food for discussion in the links that follow. As more than one person has pointed out (including Clay Shirky), this isn’t really a new debate, but it has taken on an increasing urgency. My own view is that micropayments are not the solution, and that newspapers have to try harder to create value around their content, rather than trying to get people to pay for the news. But I am trying my best to keep an open mind (Note: newer links are at the bottom).

– Stephen Brill’s plan to save the New York Times with micropayments:

– Walter Isaacson writes in Time about a payment scheme for news,8599,1877191,00.html

– David Carr of the NYT proposes (or wishes for) an “iTunes for news”

– a response to the “iTunes for news” idea:

– Clay Shirky on why micropayment schemes don’t work

– a more recent, and better, update from Shirky:

– a counterpoint that says micropayments will work:

– Henry Blodget recommends the NYT go back to a pay wall:

– Felix Salmon of Portfolio magazine responds to Blodget:

– another argument for the TimesSelect model:

– Salon founder Scott Rosenberg on why micropayments won’t work:

– A response to Isaacson: “news has to stand on its own two feet”

– Chris “Long Tail” Anderson on free vs. paid:

– some thoughts from Jeff Jarvis:

– Rex Sorgatz, formerly of MSNBC, imagines a micro-payment system:

– Alan Mutter: The future is micro-payments, and a cartel:

– Michael Kinsley: “You can’t sell news by the slice”

– Journalism teacher Mark Hamilton on micro-payments:

– Nick Carr on supply and demand in the news business:

– Steve Outing thinks Kachingle payment scheme is the answer:

– How the NYT can make money w/o charging for news:

– Jane Stevens of ReJurno on how charging won’t work:

  • Bob Tarantino

    In reading all of the various arguments, it seems that people are misconstruing what they are actually arguing *about* – or, perhaps the comment is better rendered as “what they *should* be arguing about”. Kinsley comes close to articulating it, but Shirky is right on when he says in an aside that “if small payment systems won’t save existing publishers in their current form, there might not be a way to save existing publishers in their current form” – unfortunately, he doesn't really follow the point up.

    Despite their protestations, one side of the discussion is not arguing in favour of saving “the news”, they are arguing in favour of saving “the existing mechanisms by which the news is delivered”. Those are two entirely separate arguments. There *might* be a cogent argument which shows that the “existing mechanisms for delivery” are the *only* way to provide “the news”, but I haven't seen that – instead it's just an unquestioned (if latent) assumption.

    As Matthew Gertner plaintively asks, “Can you imagine a world without the well-crafted prose of the Economist or New York Times, without the type of informed journalism that depends on the deployment of trained professionals across the globe? I certainly can’t.” Which perfectly illustrates the mindset I'm talking about: why is it that “informed journalism” necessarily requires the Economist or New York Times, with their respective massive cash-eating organizations and physical footprints? If the “news” industry *really* can't imagine a world without them and, to take an example, a giant Times Square headquarters, then it will expire not just because of a creaking infrastructure, but because of a failure of imagination.

  • Tim Burden

    Excellent link journalism, Mathew. Thanks for this. You should charge. I'll give you a dime when I see you at Podcamp.

    Bob, that's right. Nobody wants to see newspapers go tits up, but certainly we don't want to artificially prop them up either, especially if that affects the ability of journalists to do journalism.

    What this is about is the kind of web we want to live with, as well as the delivery mechanism for journalism. I want the web to be more and more useful, not a partitioned, Balkanized, uncooperative thing. I want search engines to work. I want them to have more access to content, not less. I long for the semantic web, a step forward, not the step backwards that paywalls represent.

    I am not so naive as to think that because that's the way I want it, then that's the way it should be. But I also happen to believe quite strongly that paywalls are a stupid business model for the web. And I think the arguments against them are undeniably clear.

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  • mathewi

    That's a great point, Bob — it seems to be more about “how do we save newspapers?” rather than “how do we improve journalism?” If all we are doing is protecting the existing structure of the newspaper industry, that's not quite the same thing as saving journalism.

  • mathewi

    Thanks, Tim. I'm considering implementing a form of micro-payments :-)

  • Zac Echola

    Here's another good piece on the subject for your list:

  • mathewi

    Thanks, Zac — meant to add that one. Good suggestion.

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  • Daniel Gibbons

    To *some* extent the structure and the journalism are inseparable. I say *some* because like virtually every other late-stage industry there's a lot of bloat and self-preserving flab in there alongside the very necessary things that allow journalists to research and write stories. Investigative journalism takes time, patience, intelligence, and hard graft that can't reliably be accomplished by unpaid or barely paid amateurs. And on the flip side, many journalists I'm sure burn through large expense accounts without producing anything that can really be construed as news.

    But it's the triumphant anti-intellectualism that I find most disturbing in some parts of this debate. As if, somehow, institutions like the NYT exist to belittle everyone else with long words and longer lunches. It's all a bit like Sarah Palin screaming that the media are elitist snobs because they want her to answer tough questions. Or, closer to home, like Harper's government's hatred and fear of anything that is even peripherally connected to the word “culture”.

    I'm very much with Nick Carr, that the conditions we see today are the beginnings of the market correcting conditions of over-supply. Part of that is also about accepting that institutions like the NYT and the Economist weren't foisted upon us poor yokels by cruel lords of the manor, but rather grew on the basis of a market that, in its own flawed way, values quality. In turn that means that those sounding alarm bells about the dangers of the “ignorant amateurs” taking over generally shouldn't be heeded, since the market isn't completely hopeless at allowing quality to win through.

    All of which is a long way of saying what I've said before: that the truth is somewhere in the middle, between newspapers and traditional journalism being all bad and all good!

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  • Scott

    This can be looked at more from a whole media level rather than just newspapers. Classically, the money from media comes from advertising. When a marketing or advertising firm buys media, we do it in the hopes that the right people see the ad, and act on it so our clients make money.

    The newspaper is just a medium for text and pictures. The 'net can do the same deal faster (although it's not as nice to read). As a marketer, what I hear is “web advertising doesn't work” but I think it's our fault; we're doing it wrong.

    So maybe this is really the problem of advertising, because those of us involved have ve not figured out a way to handle web advertising in a way that everyone wins?

  • mathewi

    I think that's a great point, Scott. I think just as there needs to be a conceptual shift in the journalism world, the advertising world needs a little of the same — too many assume that banner ads or search are the only tools, but there are lots of other options.

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  • Gordon Whiting

    In the Internet Age we do not need hundreds upon hundreds of newspaper sites. But we DO need as many good news sources as possible, and they need revenue to thrive. Facebook, Digg, Newsvine, and any other good social site can be organized to “retail” the news, and the value add of user-selected, user-commented/mediated news stories is worth paying for. And you won't have to cajole or beg anyone to believe it, it will just feel natural. Of course, you can't have bad design– micropayments have to be ultra-low friction and no hassle. The wholesale / retail model of news (NY Times=wholesale, Facebook=retail) is the next step.

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