By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The trouble with micropayments for news

I said pretty much all that I have to say about paying for online news last month, when I criticized David Carr’s suggestion of “an iTunes for news.” But the notion of micropayments — click and, say, a penny or a nickel or a dime is automatically deducted from your bank account — has suddenly gotten a boost. Unfortunately, the idea is a non-starter.

Walter Isaacson, the former editor of Time magazine, and Alan Mutter, a respected news-industry blogger, have both come out in favor of micropayments. Isaacson even made it on to “The Daily Show” last night, trading quips with Jon Stewart. All this comes amid an ongoing meltdown in the newspaper business. It’s gotten so serious that a number of publishers have started a rah-rah PR campaign called the Newspaper Project, the purpose of which is to — well, it’s hard to say.

So rather than repeat what I said a month ago, I’ll simply call your attention to a splendid op-ed in today’s New York Times by Michael Kinsley, the founding editor of Slate, who points out that the news in newspapers has always been free:

Newspaper readers have never paid for the content (words and photos). What they have paid for is the paper that content is printed on. A week of The Washington Post weighs about eight pounds and costs $1.81 for new subscribers, home-delivered. With newsprint (that’s the paper, not the ink) costing around $750 a metric ton, or 34 cents a pound, Post subscribers are getting almost a dollar’s worth of paper free every week — not to mention the ink, the delivery, etc.

And by the way, I once owned one of the Slate umbrellas to which Kinsley refers. If it hadn’t fallen apart at the first gust of wind, I might have it still.

I’m as concerned about how to pay for the news as anyone, but I think it’s pretty clear what doesn’t work.

Photo (cc) by Bill Ballantyne and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Ani

    I don’t follow this argument. It seems to me that its logical extension would be that I would pay for unprinted paper to be delivered to my house. My turn to be stupid, I guess.

  2. James O'Brien

    I don’t think newspaper consumers differentiate between the paper and the meaning of the ink on it. Humans buy newspapers for the content. The newspaper may be priced and sold by the business according to a cost-of-materials equation, but is there any evidence that humans at the news stand draw that connection?That being said, pay-per-story is not very elegant. Newspapers could certainly improve on that online model. I’ve thought recently that news Web sites should work more like and, fused with the low-impact price point of iTunes.By capturing a ZIP and remembering what a particular account-holder looks at, the front page of the Globe, or the NYT, or any online publication, could then cater geographically appropriate local coverage to readers living in that town or neighborhood — in addition to whatever across-the-board regional, national, or international pieces online editors think all readers should see. Such a system would require free account registration on the first visit after the pay-for switch is thrown. A debit or credit card number would be required. Then, like peering into the news box, an account holder gets 2-3 free minutes to scan the front page per first visit every day. After that, the account is automatically charged a flat rate ($.50 to $1, perhaps) for unlimited access until, say, 4 a.m. the following day. Shoulder period (say, 12 midnight to 4 a.m., when the content is shifting) could be free, so one doesn’t feel robbed during a short access window.I’d never notice $.50 to $1 per day for access, just like I don’t notice a $1 per song in iTunes.

  3. Tom

    Somehow it’s routinely overlooked that millions of people will pay to be in relationship with trusted sources of online information:• Consumer Reports — 3.3 million online subscribers in addition to 4.6 million print readers (includes many who subscribe both in print and online); both print and online subscriptions grew by 300,000 in 2008.• The Wall Street Journal — 1 million online in addition to 2 million print readers (includes many who subscribe both in print and online)• While Angie’s List is far from being a newspaper website, it is essentially a stand-alone consumer-advice service feature; more than 750,000 members pay $6.95 a month or $53 a year to subscribe to it.• Cook’s Illustrated — 260,000 online subscribers get access to recipes and other cooking guidance (another stand-alone consumer feature) for $35 a year; the bimonthly Cook’s Illustrated magazine has 1 million bimonthly subscribers. Cook’s accepts no advertising.• Before The New York Times eliminated its Times Select service, which offered online access to a selection of its content including its columnists, it had more than 200,000 paid subscribers.Somewhere in this phenomenon lie clues that will enable a new model for publishing quality journalism that can thrive in the digital future. That’s the aim of the Stites

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Tom: Sounds interesting, and thanks for checking in.

  5. ron-newman

    But how many TimesSelect customer were there just for the crosswords? (Those are still today behind a paywall)

  6. LFNeilson

    I don’t think it’s so much a matter of whether people will pay. If there’s consistently reliable content, I believe they will. But that depends on what they can get for nothing.I believe that some of the future will be controlled by niche marketing. If a web site has news addressing a particular locality or interest group, it will probably draw consistent readership.As nice as it is to have a screen on my desk with all this info, I’ll still miss every shred of newsprint, right down to the smell of the ink. The trees were sacrificed for a noble purpose.

  7. Mike F

    People might pay for packaging, but they won’t pay for the content. In other words, if a publication could find a way to replicate the experience of reading the physical document, or even better, creating a new, unique way of experiencing their information, people might pay. For papers, that have always been largely reliant on the words and not the packaging (unlike magazines), this is a particularly difficult undertaking. But it’s just not going to be possible to lock down information and ideas. The flow of information is going to get faster and easier.Presentation needs to be a big focus, and that means being ahead of technology, not behind it. You can’t win a war against technology.Though I suppose if the goal is to eek out just a little more time and money out of the industry before it’s dead, well maybe this could get a last gasp from the remaining, faithful readers. Meanwhile, new readers will be driven away to find the same or similar news elsewhere, hassle and cost free.

  8. Robert David Sullivan

    How many of your readers would pay anything to read that New York Times op-ed by Kinsley after you so helpfully gave us the best paragraph?BTW, I save a lot of money by reading reviews rather than going to the movies. I can still follow conversations at parties about “Benjamin Button,” etc., but I don’t spend a dime.

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