News outlets make news. But to make money, they wrap that news in advertising.

Anybody else see a disconnect?

As we all know, advertising revenues are down as advertisers shift their dollars to more attractive media channels. And not every newspaper, least of all the NY Times, will be saved by the influx in erotic advertising that is resulting from Craig’s List’s ban described in this article on Adotas.

So I have a suggestion. Newspapers should climb out onto the leading edge of the micro-payments industry in this country and charge us for the news we so desperately need the same way they used to pay their reporters:  by the word.

I wonder what would happen if the NY Times wrote an open letter to all its readers in all formats (print, online, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) explaining that the old advertising model no longer supports the costs of news gathering, and asking us to opt-in to a micro-payments structure that has users pay for content by the word or article.

After all, we pay for our music by the song or album at iTunes and Amazon. Users pay for their apps, too, at the iPhone store.

Maybe our news will cost us 100th of a penny per word — I don’t pretend to know — but there’s a number that would be worth paying to get accurate, valuable journalism, fed into our brains by whatever method we choose.

Faced with the alternative — disappearing like The Rocky Mountain News, turning into an online blog like The Tucson Citizen, or going Chapter 11 like the Chicago Tribune — would the stakeholders of the Times keep the “Old Gray Lady” afloat?

Advertisers could play along too. They could buy prepaid content credits that they would give to their target consumers  — as premiums, promotions, free-downloads, usage credits, rewards points, membership discounts or rewards. When a reader used credits, if they were sponsored, they would see their sponsor’s message.

From a reader’s perspective, it would look like this: Whenever I logged onto the Times website (or followed a Twitter link (A Twink?) etc.) I’d get a screen with that day’s advertisers’ offers. I’d pick a sponsor, they’d pay, I’d get my news, and they’d get my eyeballs. Maybe by the article, maybe by the day, maybe by bandwidth, whatever. (Hey, if Bank of America brought me my NY Times content for free, I’d gladly sit through their pre-rolls.)

These prepaid blocks would represent reliable chunks of income that could be sold through a digital auction model or on an upfront basis, or a combination of both (digital auction for the any inventory left over after the up front sales). A major advertiser could work out a promotion with Amazon that every large format Kindle would come with a sponsored year-long subscription to the Times.

Forwards to a friend could represent extra eyeballs for the advertiser, or extra charges, depending on the media buy.

It is frequently said that people don’t value what they get for free. While that may not always be true, it is true that the Internet has changed people’s cost/value perceptions as it pertains to news.

I am a news junkie. I stopped reading printed newspapers long ago, mostly because they’re outdated the minute they’re printed. And I’m ingesting more of my news online or on my phone rather than be continuously disappointed by cable and network news (which I am watching less frequently). Online, I can get better news faster. And much of that news comes from the NY Times. But I usually only notice the publisher after I’ve read the article, if at all. I frequently don’t even notice whose article it is I’m reading on Google News. Or Digg. Or a tweet.

So, in my desperate search for news, would I be willing to pay for that NY Times article? I would if, like E-ZPass, it was effortless to do. Would I sometimes choose an article from the competition if it were cheaper? Depends on the organization. (After all, I have always had the option to buy a Post or Daily News rather than a Times, and yet rarely did so.) More importantly, would I sit through ads for the sponsored version if it were free? I would.

Format-wise, news gathering and dissemination is wonderfully adaptable to large-format Kindles, Twitter, Facebook, SMS, and more.

But what will happen to the dead trees, and all the personnel associated with their destruction, rebirth, and delivery as newsprint?

Since we’re attempting to reinsert value into the equation, let’s look at it in those terms. Would people find enough value in the printed version to pay more for it? Might the printed version of the Times became such a status symbol that some people would happily pay more to make a conspicuously consumptive statement?

Where is the tipping point? Could the Times sustain a print edition at $10 per copy? Remember, under this model they’re already paying for news-gathering and editing with micro-payments. The printed version just needs to carry its own weight. And if it can’t, then I’m sorry for all those workers along the non-value chain, but it’s time for retraining.

So what do you think? Am I crazy, or could this work? And if so, can someone please explain to me why the NY Times isn’t already doing it?

Comments
  1. Faithful Reader says:

    While I think the fee idea sounds creative, (didn’t the NYT already try and reject something like this?)I think it would go over like the proverbial lead balloon — witness the lack of response to some of the above-mentioned posts I checked out. Isn’t that a sign of how they’d feel?

    I haven’t a clue to the solution but I salute you for at least making an effort.

    F.R.

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks for the comment, FR. I don’t know that the times has ever tried micro-payments, since that’s a relatively new concept here in the states (though bigger in Europe and Asia). I do know that various organizations tried pay-for-content models in the early days of the Internet last century, and most abandoned those models under the mantra, “The Internet is Free.” But how long can that last? While websites like Google News disseminate other people’s news for free, news organizations are becoming economically unfeasible, and that means they’ll disappear. They are businesses after all, and it’s not like somebody will come and bail them out like the government or something.

  2. […] applied to online news that don’t involve the reader paying for their content. I proposed a few here in my blog back in June. From crowdfunding (read this great piece in the Columbia Journalism  […]

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