Friday, February 6, 2009

A penny for your hit?

Newspaper executives everywhere are rethinking their business models, trying to come up with fresh ideas to resurrect what the analysts, critics and new-world information disseminators are calling a "dying industry."

The future of news, all agree, is on the Web. The Web provides instant access to the 24-hour news cycle, while a daily newspaper lands on your doorstep once a day with yesterday's news. The Web allows a jam of news, information, documents, audio, video and the opportunity for immediate reader response.

So newspapers have rushed to the Web, providing no end of news, photos, comments, blogs, audio and visuals and an assortment of oddball things their brain trusts can conjure.

Using the old print model, they expect to sell lots of advertising around those postings to make up for their print losses. It hasn't happened yet.

(Incidentally, I am very aware that most traditional newspaper readers still love their newspapers. They tell me, every day, that they want to "hold" their newspaper and that they abhor the stampede to the Web. I am grateful for those readers, but I'm also aware that they are a dying breed.)

During the past week, a number of experts who think hard about the future of newspapers have debated the possibility of requiring Web readers to pay for the content they view. Some argue that newspapers simply shouldn't give away the stuff they've worked so hard to gather and produce.

The debate emerged after Walter Isaacson, a former editor of Time, suggested that newspapers ought to embrace the iTunes model: offer a listing of news and content, and charge viewers a penny, a nickel or a dime for each "hit" on the Web.

"The key to attracting online revenue, I think, is to come up with an iTunes-easy method of micropayment," Isaacson said. "We need something like digital coins or an E-ZPass digital wallet — a one-click system with a really simple interface that will permit impulse purchases of a newspaper, magazine, article, blog or video . . . "

Assuming this is a great idea, which I'm not, the immediate problem is in the practical realities. Micropayment companies have failed miserably, probably because so many of us don't care to jump through hoops to get nickeled and dimed for Web content we can likely find elsewhere for free.

On the other hand, the news content that viewers now get for free would all but disappear if newspapers fade away. For the most part, the likes of Drudge, Huffington, Google News and Yahoo! News scavenge the free stuff that newspapers provide.

The Herald appreciates the added Web traffic it gets when we're linked to the big-time aggregators. As journalists, we are mostly interested in spreading news. But, as a business, maybe we should instead place value on our hard work.

While the jury is still out on this issue, at least with me, I'm interested in what readers think.


  1. The problem with charging for web content is that there are SO MANY websites that users could go broke being nickel-and-dimed to death everywhere they surfed. That's why pay news sites have failed.

    I, for one, don't like being tied to a desk to read the news. I still prefer to spread the paper out on my breakfast table where I can spill food on it and not damage expensive electronics.

    What is needed is an inexpensive, lightweight and portable newspaper reading device that you can plug into the internet and have all your newspaper subscriptions download for reading at the breakfast table, on the bus, at the park, etc. Sort of an iPod for news. It would save printing and delivery costs, allow us to read wherever we want, and enable you to justify a charge for subscribing.

    Why haven't the technogeeks who gave us the Internet and iPods comem up with something like this yet? Why aren't newspaper publishers clamoring for the technogeeks to invent one?

  2. Electronic reading devices (e-readers) will save the newspaper industry.

    In the next few years, e-readers will be developed that are light, portable, easy to use, and have the look and feel of paper.

    At first, they will be expensive and used for business purposes. As they become more affordable, people will use them in their homes. A subscription to the Monterey Herald will enable readers to download the latest edition while they sleep and then they'll read it just like the paper version -- curled up on the sofa, during the morning commute, etc.

    I imagine that a subscription to a newspaper could even include a free e-reader.

    Newspaper publishers need to begin investing in this technology right now.