Thursday, May 28, 2009

What if readers decide what to pay for news?

Want to turn the pay-for-content debate on its head?

Fine then; take a look at Doc Searls’ plan that envisions a world where creators do charge for content, but consumers determine what price to pay.

It’s easy to dismiss the notion as naive or inadequate, but consider please his observation that “Whatever readers decide to pay, the sum of it won’t be $0, which is what readers are paying [online] now.”

More importantly, this approach recognizes that we have no idea what a news story is worth, and never have. In the days of scarcity and monopoly, price was a function of how badly readers wanted any part of the package we sold. It came only in a one-size-fits-all unit with the cost of delivery built in. If they wanted sports, 50¢. If they wanted world news, 50¢. How about classified listings for a used car? 50¢.

In that world, we never had any idea what unbundled news content was worth; there was no way for readers to show us. It was a binary vote from them: I'll take it all at your price, or I won't take it at all.

In a today’s media economy of abundance and zero cost of copying, we need to find out what news is worth. Unlike many, I don’t believe the old revenue model – chiefly ad sales – is going away entirely, but it certainly will never be the same. Tomorrow’s business model will involve (among other things) less revenue from advertising but vastly lower cost of distribution. What would we charge for a news story if we didn’t have to print and deliver a paper?

What would we need to charge? In the days when I looked at McClatchy's numbers, newsrooms cost about $300 million a year and internet revenues were approaching $200 million. The newsrooms are obviously smaller now, and internet sales at McClatchy continue to climb.

Discussion about paying for professional newsgathering these days includes ideas about philanthropy, non-profit status, even financing like NPR. EmanciPay deserves to be part of the discussion.

Rather than describe what Searls has in mind, I'd ask you to read it, ponder it, and let me hear what you think.

Think of EmanciPay as a way to unburden sellers of the need to keep trying to control markets that are beyond their control anyway. Think of it as a way that “free market” can mean more than “your choice of captor.” Think of it as a way that “customer relationships” can be worthy of the label because both sides are carrying their ends of the relationship burden — rather than the sellers’ side carrying the whole thing (as CRM systems do today).


  1. Fundamentally, nothing changes in the market for intellectual work. Authors are still exchanging their writing for good money, and their readers are still exchanging their money for good writing. These two parties have always been willing to make a bargain, and they always will be.

    What may change however are the unnatural artifices that have been created to interfere with this market, e.g. reproduction monopolies and the corporations that have formed to amass and exploit them.

    Those interested in good journalism will be keen to pay good journalists to produce it.

    On the other hand, those who sell copies of the news may have to close shop, as the market for copies has ended.

    The market for intellectual work continues undaunted.

  2. Anonymous8:03 AM

    I question the notion that users pay $0. We pay dearly to read news on newspaper websites. We pay for suffering through blinking ads and shady pop-unders, we pay while we wait for multiple ads to load. We pay for having to wrap our eyes around that big ad placed smack-dab the middle of your public-service journalism.

    We pay by having our "behavior" tracked to ends we're never quite sure of and having to click through multple pages in order to read a whole story.

    And we pay this -- most of us willingly -- so that you can continue to provide the service you do.

    It may not be enough, but it's not $0.

    Sometimes I think it might be easier to just fork over some cash up front and just have a snapshot of the website delivered to my doorstep each morning.

  3. Howard: It's worth noting that several start-up companies also are on a similar track, and I think predate EmanciPay:

    I think there's something to this idea of turning the news business model on its head and putting the consumer in control. That's the way it is on the web, so why not approach the problem that way and profit from a position of acceptance rather than from fighting it.

    BTW, earlier today you tweeted: "Steve Outing: 'The way for newspapers to charge for content in not rocket science.' (P.S. Steve Outing is no rocket scientist either.)"

    I guess that was an insult. What brought that on?

  4. Anonymous5:40 PM

    I do not believe the pay-what-you want model is conducive to newspapers. You need to evaluate what people will pay for stories on a subscription basis with local news, local sports, and local entertainment. Then you pinpoint advertising to the specific subscriber. Also, what about charging non-subscribers if they would like to comment on a national story?