I always enjoy hearing what Sam Whitmore has to say. Few people I’ve met in this business seem to have such a concise and insightful perspective on the shifting sands of PR, journalism and publishing. So when Sam visited our offices in Boston yesterday, I was all ears. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for his talk was matched with some disappointment this time. It’s not that Sam said anything wrong, per se, just….maybe disheartening is the right word. Let me explain.
A few weeks back, a post by our own Juliana Allen on paywalls and the future of online journalism got me thinking. Paywalls in online journalism are nothing new. And more big-name media brands are planning to start charging for access to their stories to supplement revenues from ailing (failing?) advertising models.
But what if, one day, all the big media brands and magazines you love went behind a paywall, and you now have to pay $10/month (which might end up being cheap – rumors abound that NY Times’ forthcoming paywall might be as much as $60/month) to access each site? If you read 10 sites in a month, that’s $100/month in online subscriptions – at a minimum. That’s not chump change. And, if you’re like me, you really only read 1 or 2 sections out of maybe a possible 10-12 in the whole outlet, and certainly not every story from all those sections. If an online outlet publishes, say, 1000 unique pieces of content each month, I would struggle to read 30-40 of them in full, especially considering that I read other sections at other outlets, as well.
The music industry faced the same problem in the age of CDs. $20 for a full album, from which you only wanted 3 songs. This is why Napster, Limewire and other illegal file sharing applications blossomed: people felt cheated that they had to pay for stuff they didn’t want, just to get the few little things they did. So they stole it instead.
Then came iTunes. And why, I thought, couldn’t the iTunes model work for journalism? Media brands can build trust by charging more incrementally and showing their content is worth it each time. People begin to see the value in good journalism, which helps preserve the institution. In the long run, the best journalists and writers earn respect, and publishing companies can streamline costs by seeing which journalists are earning their keep. They can also figure out which columns or sections are worth charging higher ad-rates for by seeing which articles are bought most.
So I did some more research. I knew I couldn’t be the only person to have this idea (you never are, right?). I wasn’t. The idea, I learned, is essentially called micropayments for journalism, and it is hotly contested as to whether it works with a form of content like writing and journalism. I still argue that it can. But I did learn that no one had figured out how to make it work yet.
Brilliant! I told my idea to friends and family, all of whom liked the idea, saw its worth, and thought I should make it happen. I would be the first, I thought – right up until Sam told us yesterday about Next Issue Media. Essentially, it is a consortium of 5 of the largest global publishing brands (Conde Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp & Time Inc) coming together to create a platform where consumers can choose to access content from across all the companies’ combined brands via any digital device of their choice – the perfect platform to make micropayments work.
I still thoroughly enjoyed hearing what Sam had to say about how Next Issue Media is getting ever closer to making this new platform a reality, and how it is really kind of exhibit a for how publishing is becoming more about ‘content’ and less about ‘words’ as the iPad and other devices change the game. But I must admit it did burst my bubble slightly when he said Rupert Murdoch was helming it (realistically, that’s tough to compete with, especially with all publishing houses already involved). So no, I’m not disheartened that this might be the next wave for publishing, because I think it makes huge sense for preserving the quality and importance of good journalism. I only wish I’d thought of it sooner!
But what about all of you out there? Surely you read the online versions of your favorite publications, so what would you say to iJournalism?