My Journalism Stimulus Package

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By Kirk Varner

(Crossposted with permission from Kirk Varner at Out of the Newsroom)

A brief preamble: The following is an idea. It’s not necessarily a great idea, though some might think it is. Others will think that it is stupid and completely unworkable. Fair enough. But these days, maybe another stupid idea is just the next great idea slightly disguised with a little naive thinking. So with that, let me press on.

You see I’ve spent the past twenty four hours or so, pondering the future of journalism. My impetus for doing so was an article on Time.com by the magazine’s former Managing Editor, Walter Isaacson titled “How to save your newspaper” that I linked to on my Facebook page. (In full disclosure here, I briefly worked on the same floor of the Time-Life building in New York City as Mr. Isaacson at an earlier point in my career and while it’s highly likely that he doesn’t remember me, you only had to spend about five minutes around this guy to get that he’s one of those scary smart kind of people.)

I mention that our orbits collided briefly, because at the time, Isaacson was the Editor in charge of Time magazine’s nascent online portal called “Pathfinder”. Long before that word became somewhat tarnished by the AOLs, Yahoos and countless other online sites that wanted to be all things to all people, Pathfinder was Time-Life’s groundbreaking effort to put a lot of what we now like to call “content” under one roof, on what we were then still calling the “World Wide Web”. In another branch of the Time Warner empire, the cable division was launching something code named “Excalibur” in the sleepy corner of New York state known as the Southern Tier, centered in Elmira. That project was the then audacious idea of delivering a broad bandwidth internet connection over the Cable TV system, because dialing into the internet over a 56K modem on your phone line just didn’t deliver a “rich media experience.”

You would know that latter idea now as “Broadband”. Obviously, that idea caught on a little more than Pathfinder did. Isaacson has done OK for himself, going on to be President of CNN and he is now the head of a “think tank” called The Aspen Institute. He’s also written a few significant books on historical figures like Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger.

In the Time magazine article, Isaacson proposes that the way to save America’s newspapers, and perhaps American journalism itself (assuming you believe that the only decent journalism being done in this country is in newspapers) is to figure out a way to have readers pay for content. He goes on to propose how this might work through “micro-payments”, by having those who consume on-line content pay a few pennies for each article they want to read. Perhaps in an iTunes store or Amazon Kindle type way.

I think Walter is on to something here, but I fear that his idea suffers from the competing notions that paying for content is something that online consumers won’t readily do, because you can get content for free all over the internet (that’s wrong, at least in a few cases, just ask the Wall Street Journal.) Or that even if you price content reasonably (as does Apple’s iTunes for music and video) people will still just take it for free because no one really values news reporting enough (online at least) to pay even pennies for it. Particularly the younger users of the internet.

I don’t buy it. I think people are willing to support good journalism, but in the case of the internet they think they already do.

So here’s my twist on the idea. Much like my cable TV subscription, why not bundle in an amount for the cost of the programming into what I pay each month for my internet service. Then, that money would in turn be paid out to content providers based on how much I visit individual websites. Surprised that this isn’t already how it works? You’re not alone.

Now before you say you’re already paying too much for internet service, or that you are already paying for content on the internet–hold on one second. True enough, broadband internet service runs most people between $25 and 50 bucks a month. Not cheap in the least, particularly these days. But none of that money goes to the people who create the stuff you want to read on your browser. Your Internet Service Provider just gets you from your house (or anyplace if you’re hooked up wirelessly) onto the internet. You pay that pretty much without complaint.

So what if part of your internet tab went to paying the places you visit the most a little something for your patronage. You wouldn’t have write a separate check or subscribe to anything with your credit card, it would be automatically calculated by each click you made past a site’s initial home page to read more.

Too complicated to do, you say? Whether or not you are aware of it, this kind of tracking of your online behavior is already pretty much standard procedure from a number of sources. Google Analytics, anyone?

If your favorite online radio station or music service has to pay for each copyrighted song you listen to, shouldn’t your Internet Service Provider have to cough up a few pennies if you visit the New York Times website more than any other news source? If you go there everyday, they’d get more than a site you rarely visit–even if it’s your home town paper. After all, if there wasn’t any news or information on the internet–would you pay as much to get there?

I can already hear those who will inevitably ask “Why pay for the cow if I can get the milk for free?”. Well if no one pays for milk, no one will raise cows because they aren’t cheap. No cows means no milk. There really is no free lunch, folks. If no one can make a go of it selling milk, eventually there won’t be milk around to have–no matter how much government subsidizes the milk.

My idea is to make the whole payment system as invisible as the Google ads system. In case you don’t know that when you clicked on those ads (hosted by Google) on the side of your favorite web page, you are triggering a payment of a fraction of a cent to the owner of the webpage that was hosting the Google ad in the first place. Advertisers pay “per click” but they also shell out more for the privilege of getting those clicks more easily from the biggest web sites.

Now Google’s stock, like almost every publicly traded stock is down from its 52-week high of nearly 600 dollars a share, to just over $375 a share. But now you know why its still just over $375 a share, even in these very tough economic times.

Even if its just a few pennies a month, when you multiply that by the many people who might surf to any given webpage at any given moment, you’re potentially talking some decent numbers for a sizable audience. The free market still works, the best content would draw the biggest audiences, and in turn the biggest payments to the creators of the best content. You’re also talking about people paying for content without them conscientiously comprehending that they are “subscribing” to anything. There would be no cards to send in, no subscriptions to renew. Just a part of the price you already pay for high-speed or mobile internet access.

Sort of like the three dollars a month that each cable or satellite subscriber reportedly forks over (as part of their monthly subscription fee, mind you) for subscribing to ESPN. Now don’t get me wrong, I like sports and ESPN well enough, but I’m betting that if the rate were based on actual usage in my house, that same three bucks would be much more likely headed to CNN or AMC, thank you very much. But that doesn’t matter because cable TV programming isn’t available in an “a la carte” fashion.

Plus, this payment to content creators would happen only when you clicked off of a news site’s home page to a longer article carried on the insert with more photographs or even some video. The incentive to make a website attractive enough to get you to stay past the opening course would be strong.

I for one, would be happy to do this, if it meant that I could keep the NYTimes columnists, the Technology bloggers, and all those other authors who make up most of the rest of the stuff I regularly read, from going the way of the major American car makers or the biggest banks.

Besides, can you imagine how much debate there would be in Congress over a bailout for American journalism?

Kirk Varner is the VP & Director of News for WTNH and WCTX television, locally known as News Channel 8 and MyTV9, the ABC and MyNetwork affiliates for Connecticut, based in New Haven. His work blog is Notes from the Newsroom and his personal blog is Out of the Newsroom.

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