Why micropayments won’t corrupt journalism

May 13th, 2009 by Dave Leave a reply »
Small change guvnor?

Small change guv'nor?

I’m quite bemused at the reaction to the micropayments idea from many big names.

Clay Shirky says:

The threat from micropayments isn’t that they will come to pass. The threat is that talking about them will waste our time, and now is not the time to be wasting time. The internet really is a revolution for the media ecology, and the changes it is forcing on existing models are large. What matters at newspapers and magazines isn’t publishing, it’s reporting. We should be talking about new models for employing reporters rather than resuscitating old models for employing publishers; the more time we waste fantasizing about magic solutions for the latter problem, the less time we have to figure out real solutions to the former one.

He doesn’t mince his words there. What I find infuriating about Shirky is the constant assertion is that information should be free simply because it’s part of a conversation. Well here’s a game: try going into your local WHSmiths and demanding a free copy of Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody. Good luck.

Jeff Jarvis hops in:

Greg Horowitz raises an issue with micropayments that I haven’t seen discussed, one I’d think the heavy-duty journalists would be fretting about: If readers can buy individual articles, then won’t their writers be judged on the revenue they bring in and won’t their editors be motivated to assign more of what sells. Now I believe journalism needs market pressures to be responsive to its market. But every time anyone talks about giving the public what they want, some purist will respond worrying about the corruption of that: the Paris Hilton factor.

The Paris Hilton effect, hmm? I see his point. What I have noticed, though, is that Jarvis seems to have pulled his head out of his free-for-everyone backside and started to acknowledge that some form of payment has to be forthcoming. This is only a good thing — people listen to Jarvis.

Shirky, on the other hand, spends all his time telling us how things won’t work. We need a new model for hiring reporters, he’ll insist, but it’ not micropayments, or subscription. What model is it, Clay? Is it the model of writing a book and then touring the conference circuit like some sort of pastor? I sure hope not — that would be stupid.

Now, back to the topic. The issue Jarvis refers to in the quote above is a valid one. Would micropayments hasten the demise of ’serious’ journalism? Would editors shy from less sexy stories in favour of quick bucks?

There’s no denying it’s something we need to look at. From Greg Horowitz:

What exactly do these people think that newspaper execs will do with data showing exactly how profitable every single article is? Just sit on that information? Or will they use it to make business decisions about which departments, types of articles and individual journalists are delivering the most ROI? “Sorry, Woodward, we know you won the Pulitzer last year, but your articles only generated $97.85 in revenue, so we’re going to have to let you go.” Of course, it wouldn’t just influence the executives. Journalists themselves would start shading their stories to what sells, and the most successful would be the ones who were the best salespeople (or who knew the most tricks). Get ready for a lot less zoning-board recaps and a lot more “Top 10 Sexual Positions.”

But what I say to Greg Horowitz is that when he goes out to buy a newspaper, the front pages he’ll see already display the sort of corruption he worries about. In the UK, any front cover with Princess Diana is proof Horowitz’s fears are real — and there’s nothing we can do about it.

But here’s the crucial thing: There’ll always be Top 10 Sexual Positions articles. I love reading them — it’s fun. But pay for them? Nah. No way. Pay for expert analysis on MPs expenses, however, and I’ll get my wallet out.

Now you could believe that there is a worrying amount of people who are content to just read about trashy celebs. I read about trashy celebs daily — you can’t avoid it if you work in London. The Lite and thelondonpaper are thrust into your hands. It’s full of the stuff.

But online it’s different. More people choose to read ’serious’ newspapers online. The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph all fair better online than their tabloid cousins (with the exception, very recently, of The Sun). What this tells us is that when given a choice, people will look to the intellectual, the important, the interesting. Micropayments won’t dissuade that.

In my last post I looked at the concept of ‘valuable extras’. These can apply in celebrity stories too — you just have to be clever about it. If we take the news of Peter Andre and Katie Price’s split, a micropayment-savvy web editor wouldn’t have placed the story behind a micropayment wall. Instead, he’d make it freely available, gathering all the Google/Twitter/Digg hits imaginable, while instructing his journalists to put together his valuable extras: An interactive timeline with famous clips of their relationship. Audio with family and friends. Reaction from celeb friends. All valuable, unique additions that people — originally drawn to the page by traditional Google juice — can then splash a few pennies and enjoy.

It’s too simple not to work.

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  1. Hm, I’m not sure “more people choose to read ’serious’ newspapers online” so much as they gravitate toward familiarity. Talking Points Memo, for example, is a phenomenal news source, but it hasn’t been around for 150 years—it isn’t ingrained in the consciousness of society—so although it’s “serious,” it doesn’t draw New York Times-level traffic.

    I agree with your idea of “valuable extras;” the only problem is that in order for that to work, you have to be offering something that everyone wants and no one else has (that’s the only way anyone will pay for anything)—or you have to offer something that people can make money off of (i.e. tips on stocks or gambling).

    Fortunately, Rupert Murdoch has blessed us with the promise of a real-world experiment. I’m anxious to see the fallout.

  2. Clay Shirky says:

    I’m not arguing that information _should_ be free — in fact, I almost never use the word ’should’ in thinking about digital media, because social norms form around technological possibility, not vice-versa.

    Nor is an argument that micropayments are doomed an argument against fees generally; the subscription model works just fine for many online publications, such as Consumer Reports and Cooks Illustrated.

    What I am arguing is that anyone who adopts micropayments puts themselves at a competitive disadvantage against anyone offering a similar product or service who doesn’t adopt micropayments. As a result, the orderly working of the market in sorting out consumer preferences drives micropayments from competitive environments.

    This is what happened with webzine micropayments in the late 90s, the p2p micropayments ca. 2001, the web comics model in 2007, and again today with other forms of media.

  3. Urte says:

    Do you have any subjects on “The media are corrupt”?

    THANK YOU!!!

  4. Nick Mermiges says:

    Clay Shirky knows what he’s talking about.
    Talking about micro payments seems like a terrible waste of time.

  5. I have a small clip from the Paris Hilton movie on my website. To bad it got relased onto the net for everyone to view. She did not want it to be released as it was her ex Rick Salomon that created it.

  6. hello, i adore miss hilton. she is funny and i can’t wait to see what she does next! x

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