Why micropayments won’t corrupt journalism

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

Clay Shirky says:

The threat from micropayments isn’t that they’ll come to pass. The threat is the fact that talking about them will waste our time, and today is not the time for you to be wasting time. The internet is indeed a revolution for that media ecology, and also the changes it’s forcing on existing models are large. What matters at newspapers and magazines isn’t publishing, it’s reporting. We should be referring to new models for employing reporters instead of resuscitating old models for employing publishers; the greater time we waste fantasizing about magic solutions for that latter problem, the a shorter period we have to determine real methods to the former one.

He doesn’t mince his words there. What I find infuriating about Shirky may be the constant assertion is the fact that information ought to be free due to the fact it’s a part of a conversation. Well here’s a game title: try starting your local WHSmiths and demanding a totally free copy of Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody. Good luck.

Jeff Jarvis hops in:

Greg Horowitz raises a problem with micropayments that I haven’t seen discussed, one I’d think the heavy-duty journalists could be fretting about: If readers can purchase individual articles, then won’t their writers be judged around the revenue they generate and won’t their editors be motivated to assign much more of what sells. Now I believe journalism needs market pressures to become responsive to its market. But each time anyone discusses giving the general public what they want, some purist will respond worrying concerning the corruption of this: the Paris Hilton factor.

The Paris Hilton effect, hmm? I see his point. What I have noticed, though, is the fact that Jarvis has pulled his go out of his free-for-everyone backside and began to acknowledge that some type of payment has to become forthcoming. This is merely a good thing — people pay attention to Jarvis.

Shirky, around 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 could it be, Clay? Is it the type of writing a magazine and then touring the conference circuit like some kind of pastor? I sure hope not — that could be stupid.

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

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

What exactly do these folks think that newspaper execs is going to do with data showing just how profitable each and every article is? Just take a seat on that information? Or can they use it to create business decisions about which departments, kinds of articles and individual journalists are delivering probably the most ROI? “Sorry, Woodward, we all know you won the Pulitzer this past year, however your articles only generated $97.85 in revenue, so we’re going to have to allow you to go.” Of course, it wouldn’t just influence the executives. Journalists themselves would start shading their stories as to the sells, and also the most successful could be the ones who have been the best salespeople (or who knew probably the most tricks). Get ready for much less zoning-board recaps and much more “Top 10 Sexual Positions.”

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

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

Now you can believe that there is really a worrying quantity of people who are content to simply read about trashy celebs. I find out about trashy celebs daily — you can’t avoid it should you work in London. The Lite and thelondonpaper are thrust to your hands. It’s filled with the stuff.

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

Look at the idea of ‘valuable extras’. These can apply in celebrity stories too — you just have to become clever about this. If we go ahead and take news of Peter Andre and Katie Price’s split, a micropayment-savvy web editor wouldn’t have placed the storyline behind a micropayment wall. Instead, he’d allow it to be freely available, gathering all of the Google/Twitter/Reddit hits imaginable, while instructing his journalists to construct his valuable extras: An interactive timeline with famous clips of the relationship. Audio with friends and family. Reaction from celeb friends. All valuable, unique additions that individuals — originally attracted to the page by traditional Google juice — may then splash several pennies and revel in.

It’s too simple to not work.

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