Paying for the news

San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Lazarus and Dan Gillmor, founder of the Center for Citizen Media, have been going back and forth over a column Lazarus recently wrote on whether newspapers should start charging for their online editions. In brief, Lazarus: yes; Gillmor: no.

I’m not going to take on every argument each is making. Rather, I want to address the notion that newspapers are hurting because they’re giving their product away on the Web. Certainly Lazarus believes that, and he goes so far as to suggest that newspapers be given an antitrust exemption so they can get together and demand payment, both from readers and from aggregators such as Yahoo News and Google News.

Lazarus isn’t entirely wrong, but the real problem is that Web advertising simply isn’t as valuable as print advertising. Much of this is because lucrative classified ads have migrated to the likes of Craigslist and Monster. The Wall Street Journal has succeeded in charging for its Web edition, and the New York Times has been relatively successful with its much-maligned TimesSelect service.

But I don’t think most newspapers are ever going to be able to charge for their online editions — and I don’t believe it’s fair that they try, either. Here’s why:

  • Readers have purchased their own personal printing presses — their computers — at a cost of $1,000 to $2,000.
  • They’ve also bought their own distribution systems — Internet access — and are paying $30 to $50 a month.
  • The interconnectedness of the Web has greatly changed reading habits. People who regularly whip around 10 or 15 newspaper sites are not going to pay full-blown subscription fees to all of those papers.

So is there a way to get some money out of readers? I think so, and it goes back to the earliest days of the Web. About a dozen years ago, people were talking about digital cash — electronic money that you could spend online without your credit-card company being able to trace it back to you, just like the cash in your pocket. (It’s all in the math.) Here is a 1994 story from Wired that I remember reading when it first came out.

That type of digital cash never caught on. But the idea is that you might read 20 articles at a variety of Web sites during a given morning and pay a tenth of a cent apiece — or a penny apiece, or a nickel, or a dime. These microtransactions would be handled anonymously and automatically. Your privacy would not be compromised, and you wouldn’t have to slow down to enter usernames and passwords.

As newspaper executives try to figure out how to move into an all- or mostly online future, it may be time to take another look at microtransactions and digital cash.


Dueling wikis

The Associated Press reports on Citizendium, an attempt to create a user-written online encyclopedia that’s more reliable than Wikipedia. Citizendium’s founder, Larry Sanger, says he’s a co-founder of Wikipedia — a claim that’s vigorously disputed by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

As you’ll see if you follow the links, Citizendium and Wikipedia look much the same, and they’re based on the same idea. The difference is that Sanger says he’ll require real names and use a more rigorous system of expert verification.

There’s no doubt Wikipedia has had its problems, such as the editor who fooled the New Yorker — and everyone else — about his credentials. Like many college instructors, I tell my students not to cite it, though I also tell them it can be a great starting point.

Still, Wikipedia has achieved a certain critical mass. Citizendium will be worth watching, but I wonder whether it might be easier to fix Wikipedia than to start all over.

A night in New Haven

I can’t be sure, but I might have seen Gov. Deval Patrick’s late father perform. In Sally Jacobs’ riveting story (link now fixed) in today’s Boston Globe about the governor’s complicated relationship with his father, Pat Patrick, we learn that the elder Patrick played for a while with the band NRBQ.

I once saw NRBQ at a bar in New Haven in the late 1970s. Pat Patrick supposedly played with the band for a time in the early ’80s. So it doesn’t quite match up. But given the haziness of memory over events that took place a quarter-century ago, it’s possible that he was up on stage playing sax that night.

What I really would have liked to see was the Sun Ra Arkestra, Pat Patrick’s main musical outlet. Unfortunately for me, it never happened.

The permanent online campaign

If Gov. Deval Patrick wants to use the Web as a governing tool, as his supporters say, then shouldn’t he be doing it here? Why should we look at the soon-to-be-unveiled site as anything other than part of his permanent campaign?

By the way, if you go to right now, you’ll find that you can only do two things: (1) get onto his campaign’s e-mail list and (2) give money. Of course.

Update: The Outraged Liberal has a characteristically smart take about, which does, indeed, look promising. But O.L. and I will have to continue to differ on one thing: the appropriateness of Patrick’s using his privately funded campaign site as his primary outlet for online governance.

I still think this ought to be taking place on his gubernatorial site, and that there’s something vaguely wrong about making it an extension of his campaign. But, of course, he wouldn’t be able to solicit campaign donations on his official site — something that makes even O.L. a little queasy.

Update II: Media Nation’s views get some play in the Herald, in Casey Ross’ “Monday morning briefing.”

Mapping the vote

Check out’s interactive map of yesterday’s congressional vote on the Iraq war. You can do breakouts by urban, suburban and rural districts; affluent and poor districts; mostly white and mostly minority districts; and Kerry and Bush districts. Roll your cursor over a square and you get thumbnail information on each House member and how he or she voted. does something similar with its Votes Database. It’s not as graphically interesting, but it does let you break out the vote by, among other things, a House member’s astrological sign and by whether or not she or he is a Baby Boomer.

Don’t blame blogging

Did blogging lead Ben Smith down the road to error? Or did he err because he was trying to do real-time reporting on a rapidly unfolding story?

Smith, as you may already know, is the blogger for Politico who reported that John Edwards would suspend his campaign — “and may drop out completely” — because of Elizabeth Edwards’ recurrent cancer. Smith wrote a heartfelt mea culpa later in the day, and Howard Kurtz has the complete rundown this morning in the Washington Post.

Smith had what he says was a reliable anonymous source and a chance to make a splash. He made a mistake that anyone could make, and the attacks to which he’s been subjected are unwarranted. Still, I find it curious that he blames his error, at least in part, on blogging itself. Smith writes:

Though I’ve spent the last several years at major newspapers — the New York Observer and the New York Daily News most recently — I’ve done much of my reporting on blogs, and have developed an instinct to let my readers know whatever I know, as soon as I know it. The medium typically allows you to refine and update a story as it changes — including saying, “Well, my original source had it wrong.”

But the scale of this story was simply too big to report that way, to share information with high but imperfect confidence — and without making that level of confidence crystal clear. I should have waited for a second source, or hedged the item much more fully. Or simply waited for the news conference like everybody else.

Smith also quotes his editor, John Harris, as telling him: “I believe a blog item is different than a story — not in standards of accuracy or fairness — but in the ability to report and reveal a breaking story in real time: You write what you know when you know it. BUT, and here’s where you went wrong and we let you go wrong, you can not write more than you know.”

Well, now. It strikes me that what Smith did was not qualitatively different from what radio and, especially, television journalists have been doing for years: Reporting live from the scene, offering something no newspaper can match, but sometimes getting it wrong because the story is still unfolding.

To screw up as a blogger is to link to a bit of news that has already been proven wrong (see this and this), or to a site that you should know lacks credibility.

Once you pick up the phone and start calling people, though, you’re acting not as a blogger, but as a reporter who has a blog. And the normal standards of verification apply.

McNamara departs

I’m playing catch-up — if you’re looking for any intelligent comment from me, it will have to wait. But I can’t let the day end without noting that Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara is taking the buyout and leaving the paper.

McNamara, who won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, brings an unusually keen social conscience to her post, and her voice will be deeply missed. She was also a fine news reporter for many years prior to being named a columnist.

And here is Globe editor Marty Baron’s memo on his accepting buyout applications from 24 staff members.