Let's pay for news like it's important

Some new ideas must be like atoms that suddenly re-form themselves in the atmosphere. You look up and suddenly you see them. But you’re not the only one to see the re-formations. Others spot them too. How does this happen?

When I went for a quick run this morning in Central Park I thought I had an “aha” moment: If we still believe  in the Jeffersonian notion that a free press is a cornerstone of our democracy, then we should charge for news as if it were a utility — like water or electricity.  Then I read this letter to the editor by David Denby, who was responding to pieces bemoaning that newspeople hadn’t found ways to adequately charge for their services.

Instead of paying individual news organizations a separate fee, why can’t the consumer pay a single special monthly fee to his Internet service provider (much like a monthly cable fee now) that would then make possible instant free access to however many news organizations join a group devoted to this project?

After the Internet service provider took its cut, the revenues would then be split among the news organizations according to how many hits they get.

via Letter – How Newspapers Can Survive in the Internet Age – NYTimes.com.

I would add that the distribution of money shouldn’t be based just on readership. A certain percentage should be set aside for start-ups. That way entrenched news organizations wouldn’t be able to squelch creativity.

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20 thoughts on “Let's pay for news like it's important

  1. Brian,
    You sound angry. But you want to read news and opinion. How would you suggest paying for it? Let’s put it this way: What if you had a basic fee for an ISP that included nothing but email — say $9.99/month. Then you had to pay to view each and every site you visit unless each site chose to be supported exclusively by some combination of advertising, subscriptions, or donations — which means you would have to pay more fees. So far, almost no websites can support themselves that way. The free model can’t go on indefinitely simply because those of us who supply the information can’t afford to do work that way. For some writing and reporting is a hobby and for others it’s a real job.

  2. Not angry, sorry if I came across that way, I do tend to be a tad curt by nature though. I just don’t like your model. I don’t want to pay to support news services who’s editorial policies I don’t agree with. Time Warner doesn’t force me to pay for Show Time if all I want is HBO, why should I be forced to pay for the WSJ when all I want is The Times. Also your model ignores how people use technology. Am I supposed to pay additional fees to read the Times on my blackberry or at my local internet cafe? How bout when I’m traveling, what if the hotel I’m staying doesn’t pay for your service?

    Also I’m not sure I agree with your premise that the demise of MSM is a threat to our democracy.

    • Brian,
      Cable is an interesting comparison. Most people get a basic bundle — most of which they don’t want to watch. It’s annoying, but most people accept that. Then you pay a premium for HBO or Showtime, if you choose. I think news organizations can learn a great deal from that model. I think you should be able to opt out of my proposal and buy a la carte. No problem.

      Your post has prompted other thoughts: If you pay for Showtime at home, should you be able to watch it someplace else that doesn’t subscribe? Should you have a unique i.d. to get you in whether you are home or sitting in a Starbucks with your handy-dandy all-things digital device? It’s interesting to think about. We are still on the cusp of figuring out the business model with the new technology.
      Here’s another thought: Say you subscribe the old-fashioned way to a newspaper. Someone delivers it to your door (btw what are all those delivery boys and girls doing these days??). Would it ever occur to you that you should be able to get a free copy at the newsstand if you happen to have left yours at home? You can do it digitally, why not in hard copy?

      Technology makes everything more available. Turn on the tap and there it is, the news! The big challenge is figuring out how to pay for it.

  3. Hold on a sec. When has anyone ever paid for news? I’ve paid for paper, and for cable subscriptions. I’ve paid for TV sets and radios. But I have never paid for news. News was something that was delivered through various media, intertwined with advertising, which is what really paid for news.

    Advertising paid for news. I never did, and never will.

    • James & Brian,
      I loved the 20th century. So did my Mom. She said, you know, I never paid for milk, just for someone to deliver it. Now when I go to the grocery store I need to pay for it. I say, Mom, you’re so 1950s!! Advertisers paid for “I Love Lucy” and Walter Conkrite and the Super Bowl.

      Advertising doesn’t support online news, and guess what: It doesn’t seem to be supporting news in print. Hasta la vista the Seattle Post; so long to the print daily version of the Detroit Press. And let’s see, who’s in bankruptcy now?

      And by the way, James, do you get CNN or ESPN? If so, you’re paying for news. Or you’re paying for the pipeline to receive the news. I think we should broaden that concept of paying the piper (so to speak) for more of the tunes that come out.

      If you object to a standard fee on your ISP account, that’s fine but I think economically inelegant. Many newspeople are working on different models to fund their operations — a combination of advertising, donations, and subscriptions. The membership model for news is one that many admire. Think NPR. There’s ProPublica, which gets donations to fund investigative journalism, which is expensive, but not nearly as expensive as maintaining a printing press.
      Subscriptions are tough. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times do it. But not many can. Part of the problem stems from Wall Street itself. Places like Dow Jones and Bloomberg gave away the news; subscribers were really paying for analytics and data. If someone came up with an analytical box that is superior to Bloomberg, then the Bloomberg news operation would wither away because DJ, Bloomberg, Reuters, etal, trained their subscribers to expect news as part of a high-priced package. Guess that’s boomeranged.

  4. Is it too late to repackage information as some kind of exotic convertible security? If the laid-off Bear Stearns people and the laid off Rocky Mountain News people just put their heads together…

  5. Also when you consider the performance of the fourth estate in regard to both the lead up to the Iraq War, and the current finical crisis had we been paying for news I’d say we’d all be entitled to a mighty big refund about now.

    • Actually, for refunds I would go to where the real money (such as it is) — the government or banks. Oops. That may be one in the same. 🙂

      But, seriously, that’s an interesting question — how do you un-subscribe, so to speak, if you’re not happy? The answer IMHO: stop reading the news that doesn’t satisfy. Fewer readers would translate into fewer revenues for the site. My exception: a special fund for start-ups. New ideas are the lifeblood of any industry.

      • Sounds like you’re looking for a bailout for print journalism. I wonder how much of your feelings on this issue is driven by what I sense is a mourning on your part for print journalism as we know it. I think part of what rubbed me wrong about your piece in the first place was a sense that somehow we who have moved on to the new media are somehow obligated to support a medium that has grown obsolete. Kind of like expecting the owners of Model Ts to be supporting carriage makers. And besides I thought all you Wall St. peeps were great believers in the free market?

        🙂

  6. I’m not grasping why the ISP should have anything to do with this. It’s like paying a fee to Comcast to be able to download songs from iTunes. I may pay extra to my cable company to be able to get HBO, but the internet doesn’t work like that. If they were implementing this plan, the news orgs should all get together and do it themselves, without any ISP involvement. The ISP has no right to restrict its consumers’ access to certain websites without paying. That’s up to the individual sites.

    But all this is moot, because this would never work anyways. You can’t take something that’s free now and start charging money for it. Sure a handful of people may sign up for this “news bundle,” or whatever you want to call it, but the vast majority will find workarounds to get the content for free, or simply turn to other news sources who aren’t as pompus to believe that *their* news is better than other news. Such a move would completely destroy these bastions of old journalism, dispersing their readers to a wide array of smaller start-up news sites and blogs. Hey, like us!

    Subscription based internet access works for eHarmony and porn. It won’t work for journalism.

    • Paul, It’s interesting that you should suggest a news consortium of some sort to bundle news. A group of news execs have just banded together to form news online: http://www.journalismonline.com/news/index.html
      I think it’s worth trying but I am frankly skeptical at how it will work. Readers don’t want to pay for one site — why would they want to pay for a menu of news sites?
      The Comcast example is interesting. I would say you would pay Comcast only; Comcast would keep a few pennies and pass it along to iTunes. I’m opposed to walled gardens — the Internet won’t tolerate that. But we need good business models to finance news, commentary and data. Advertising alone, at least at the current rates (even absent the recession), won’t do it. Do you have any thoughts on what might work?

  7. I like the idea of aggregators such as Google paying a fee to news organizations. Google profits from providing links to news, but doesn’t share that profit with those who actually create the news (I believe there is a deal with The Associated Press, but not newspapers). The current model assumes newspapers will profit from the number of hits generated by Google. But that model is failing. Ultimately, the model that has been so successful in making Google profitable will cost Google in the end if it contributes to the demise of so many media outlets.

    • Viv don’t you have it a little backwards, except for AP stories all google news does it provide a link to the story source. It seems to me so much of this thread is about “cyber socialism”, expecting those who have figured how to turn a buck on the net to support those who haven’t.

  8. Today? None. Tomorrow? We’ll see. I expect a fight, with the future of newspapers and news gathering organizations hanging in the balance.

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